This year’s female “tribute” from District 12 — one of Panem’s most destitute regions, a coal-mining center located in the former Appalachia — is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a flinty 16-year-old who volunteers for the slaughter so that her beloved fragile younger sister, whose name has just been called, will be spared. Two years ago, Lawrence played a similar character in the present-day, Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone: the unyielding survivalist roasting squirrels over a spit, forced at too young an age to become a caretaker and fighting off many who would like to see her dead. The earlier association enhances Lawrence’s role here; the actress, more solidly built than her wispy contemporaries, has a particular gift for exuding iron determination and dead-eyed exhaustion — like a junior version of one of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mothers.
Other cultural referents don’t work as well. When Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), travel from their hardscrabble region to the gleaming, Oz-like Capitol, the city’s opulence and depravity are conveyed via male citizens who look like members of the Lollipop Guild as styled by SNL’s Stefon. Decadence is coded as unmistakably gay among the men in Capitol crowd scenes and the primpers who prepare Katniss for her pre-Hunger Games, American Idol-style interviews; these nellie Day-Glo steampunkers suggest that we can blame Project Runway for the end of civilization. (Katniss’ chief stylist, Cinna, played by an excellent Lenny Kravitz, is more ambiguously metrosexual.) Other significant set pieces from Collins’ novel look laughably pitiful when realized on-screen: The Cornucopia, the horn-shaped warehouse to which the tributes race at the beginning of the Games to pick up supplies, eliminating many competitors in the process, resembles a Frank Gehry-designed titanium turd.