I have not (will not) read the books the movie was adapted from, so the following is my uninformed opinion and commentary.
I was expecting the film to be an updated version of The Running Man; in fact, I was so appalled that my wife and her friends had read this trilogy without prior knowledge of The Running Man that I forced them to screen the Netflix-sent Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle several months back. They lost interest a third of the way through and read magazines to pass the time until the credits -- your loss, ladies! Perhaps it lost their attention because it was silly, but it was also simple: In a dystopic American future, the government is corrupt, hands set-up prisoners over to the ratings-obsessed media, and the unwilling participants are forced to fight for their lives. Say what you will about the campiness of The Running Man, but I believe that film made more sense; it was easier to follow the motivations of the heroes and the villains, aside from the sexual orientation of Dynamo.
In The Hunger Games, I could tell that the director struggled to fit an entire novel into one movie. The main problem this created was my general confusion about this dystopic American future. There are 12 districts that are kept poor (and hungry!) and suppressed by a dictator, who lives in the only metropolitan area? A privileged upper class also lives in the only city? And the districts are kept in line through military force, because there was once an uprising, and as a punishment for that uprising there is a lottery every year -- “The Reaping” selects a boy and girl, ages 12-18, from each district to send to a televised deathmatch set inside The Truman Show’s production bubble.
I sort of understand the government, but not the economy. It seems most if not all of the districts are poor, but they all watch the game on television. How did they buy those televisions? Is television a private enterprise, supported by ad revenue? If so, who is buying ad space? Is there capitalism? Because it seems the only significant commerce taking place is within the only city in the nation. If the government controls the media, do they only show propaganda films during the rest of the year that the game is not taking place? Is that why the poor people have TV’s? Because the government wants everyone to watch their stuff? I’m left to guess, and my best guess is there is only one channel, and the evil government runs it.
If that’s the case, I am further confounded by how the game is created and controlled. The chosen children are giving a day or two to learn survival and weapon skills, rated by scouts for some reason, then inserted into an artificial wilderness, controlled by government/network henchmen like Ed Harris in The Truman Show. When one kid moves too far away from the others, they push them towards each other by creating a forest fire. When no one has died for a while, they insert huge attack dogs to hasten deaths.
What’s up with that? What’s the deal with this game? Do the overlords want a long, drawn-out, Survivor-like season of players fighting the elements and each other, or do they want a short, bloody battle? I can’t imagine them wanting to quickly burn off this ratings bonanza so they can get back to showing dystopic episodes of Law & Order or whatever. Plus the size of the area -- it’s no cage match, after all -- leads me to think they want a good, long game. Choosing tiny kids to compete against big kids, placing them all at the same starting point, and then constantly inserting deadly Deus Ex Machina obstacles is counterintuitive.
In addition to the confusion caused by compressing the novel into 2.5 hours of film, the distillation made it difficult to care about the young characters. I know I’m automatically supposed to be concerned when a child is slaughtered, but it turns out I am not. Almost all of the children placed in the game had a tiny amount of screen time, and died well before I could become properly attached to them. It didn’t help that the director edited the battle with shaky-camera, Paul- Greengrass-doing-Bourne-style jump cuts. C’mon, man! Let me get up close and personal with them kids, then watch them die slowly and clearly!
My final complaint is that Lenny Kravitz pops up out of nowhere in this thing, and that surprised me so much I nearly laughed out loud. Overall, I’d say the movie was fine, but could have had better exposition. I don’t know why the producers felt the need to cram so much into one quite long film, rather than divide up what is clearly a cash cow over several installments, a la Kill Bill or the final Harry Potter book/movies.