Let The Hunger Games begin

Suzanne Collins' YA dystopian sci-fi series gets thrilling big-screen adaptation

It's no surprise that adolescent girls love the Twilight series, with its moony romantic triangle and updated Gothic imagery. The Hunger Games' huge teen and tween female fan base resists such a simple explanation. Who would expect that high school girls would gravitate to Suzanne Collins' YA dystopian sci-fi series in which young people murder each other with arrows, blades, and other pointy weapons?

The quality of The Hunger Games' engrossing big-screen adaptation helps explain the trilogy's following, and is sure to redouble it. Gary Ross, directing a script co-written by Collins, brings The Hunger Games' intriguing vision to life without losing sight of its human story or overdosing on gore or special effects.

With a premise that can speak to the Occupy movement, The Hunger Games takes place in North America in a dismal future, long after a failed rebellion against the tyrannical Capitol by the nation's 12 Districts. Each year, the Capitol requires the districts to send a pair of teens to fight in a televised death match called "The Hunger Games," which suggests "Survivor" as designed for Roman gladiators. The Games serve to keep the populace distracted and demoralized.

One of the film's strongest scenes comes early on, when garishly dressed Capitol representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) descends on District 12 to choose randomly the latest competitors from the impoverished mining community. The sequence evokes the starkness of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" as the drably dressed folk wait in horrified silence for the names to come up.

When Trinket calls 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss has supported her mother and sister for years by illegally hunting wild game, and just might be able to handle herself in the arena. A Best Actress Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone, Lawrence gives Katniss both gravity and tenderness.

Like small-town contestants on today's reality shows, Katniss and the baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel to the big city for interviews, elaborate makeovers, and direction in self-presentation: Winning on-screen sympathy can be nearly as helpful as knowing how to throw a knife. The Capitol's predatory citizens wear grotesque haircuts and outfits reminiscent of the rich dowagers with shoes on their heads in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Ross emphasizes Katniss's feelings of alienation over social satire, so the Capitol scenes can feel excessively quiet and stiff. Stanley Tucci best sells the Capitol's soullessness as the Games' Regis Philbin-like TV host, at once intense, unctuous, and insincere.

The film's second half depicts the game itself and frequently features little dialogue as Katniss navigates a sprawling woodland arena to assess her 23 competitors. The Capitol can use technology to manipulate the gameplay: When Katniss flees the heavy fighting, the control room technicians cause a forest fire to herd her toward her most bloodthirsty rivals. Ross, who previously helmed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, isn't a groundbreaking action director, but effectively conveys Katniss's high emotions and ability to think through life-or-death problems.

The Hunger Games hints at a Twilight-style love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and tough loner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) back home. Compared to other YA protagonists, Katniss proves more active than mopey Bella Swan and more relatable than the magical Harry Potter. She might be an Olympic-caliber archer, but she still comes across as a credible young woman under impossible trials. The Hunger Games shows a protagonist who doesn't just outplay, outwit, and outlast her adversaries, but competes with such honor, she makes a great role model.