In Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (1948), regarded as one of the most famous short stories in American literature, someone in a small rural town is selected by lottery to engage in the center of a yearly ritual which will cleanse the town of its sins. "The Hunger Games" presents a similar compelling premise. In the world of Panem, there is one Capitol and 12 districts. Before the events of the story, there were 13 districts which eventually rose up in rebellion, led by District 13. The Capitol was able to put down the rebellion, and District 13 was razed to the ground. However, the rebellion was not the end of the story, and the current dictator of Panem upholds a yearly tradition to remind the remaining districts of their violent past, called "the Dark Days".
As punishment for the rebellion and as a reminder of who's "in charge", the Capitol hosts a violent pageant every year. Twenty-four young people of pre-college age are chosen by lottery to participate in the pageant; one boy and one girl from each district. The plot is a dark take on reality television contests: the pageant, called "The Hunger Games", requires the 24 tributes (they're not called contestants) engage in a fight-to-the-death contest in a wilderness-like arena controlled by unseen technicians in a war room of sorts. Only one tribute can be declared the winner at the end of the games, essentially requiring the other 23 tributes to perish. The games are broadcast on large screens so members of each district can watch the fates of their representatives. The event is hosted by a television game-show host/MC, Claudius Templesmith (Stanley Tucci), who makes Richard Dawson (of Family Feud fame) seem like a high-cultured gentleman. "And may the odds be ever in your favor!" is the motto of the Games.
Of the 12 remaining districts, District 12 is the poorest, made up of primarily miners and other blood-and-sweat workers. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teen girl who has self-taught herself to use the bow to hunt for game and sell in the town. On Tribute Day, all the youth from age 12 to 18 are brought to the town square where Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a resident of the Capitol who, like many of her colleagues, enjoys wearing garish and flamboyant outfits, hosts the lottery ceremony. She picks Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), Katniss' sister to participate. Katniss, stunned, offers to volunteer for the Games in her sister's stead. Since this is the first time someone has ever volunteered, the proposition is accepted by the State. The other tribute from District 9 is Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson).
Katniss and Peeta are chaperoned by Effie Trinket to the Capitol on a bullet train. There they meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a winner of the Hunger Games many years previously. He is there to help train and instruct Katniss and Peeta, but his highest priority seems to be drinking and snoozing. Eventually, Katniss and Peeta with interesting finesse convince Abernathy that they are worth helping.
Once at the Capitol, they are paraded in front of the elite residents who cheer and decide which tributes they wish to root for. The tributes are then brought to a training facility, being told not to "hurt" any of the other tributes. They say there will be plenty of time for violent engagement relatively soon! They are treated like celebrities about to embark on a fashion pageant, being given beautiful outfits to wear during interviews. Of course, everyone knows the outcome of the pageant means 23 of the 24 tributes will not survive. Eventually, on the fateful day, the 24 tributes are transported to the arena-wilderness area where food and weapons are strewn about which can be used to better someone's chances. We also learn that the game is also "rigged". The control room doesn't just monitor the tributes but has power to influence situations. There are also "sponsors", Capitol residents, who can aid tributes they like. This story has become more relevant with the rise of "fake news" and distrust of television journalism with distorted media.
Overall, a well-done and impassioned view of a bleak future which rings of Orwell's "1984" and the 1970's cult classic "Roller Ball". In "Roller Ball" two teams donning skates battle each other on a rink. In the final game, players can only leave the game if they're killed, which is essentially the same idea as "The Hunger Games". The film finds a good balance between the heartlessness of the competition (if competition it can be called) and the emotions of the characters. At one point, Katniss befriends a young African-American girl, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), who is obviously too young to be part of the games. They become allies to help each other defend against another "gang" who desires to kill them. One of the most touching and poignant moments of the film is their friendship and Rue's fate.