Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger GamesAs you're probably aware, director Gary Ross' The Hunger Games is the movie version of the first in a trio of wildly popular young-adult novels by author Suzanne Collins. And perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the film, among the many compliments it deserves, is that unlike with the Harry Potter and Twilight screen adaptations, at no point are viewers such as myself punished for being too blasé or lazy to have read the book.

I swear I didn't intend to be in this position again. After completely missing the pop-culture boat on J.K. Rowling's and Stephenie Meyer's literary offerings, and not wanting to be inevitably underwhelmed by yet another YA series on the cover of every other issue of Entertainment Weekly, I was determined to sit my ass down and acquaint myself with Collins' futuristic adventure prior to the film's release. Needless to say, though, it didn't happen, and I entered The Hunger Games with that familiar feeling of being out of the loop - and, as an audience member, borderline irrelevant - before the movie even started.

Yet the supreme pleasure of Ross' achievement is that it doesn't appear to have been designed solely for the devoted; at its best, it even delivers the cinematic equivalent of that page-turning thrill you get from a really juicy fiction. Information is dispensed gradually, with your understanding of character and event subtly expanding with each chapter, and as with the most addictive serials, you're not quite ready for the experience to be over; you want to re-read (or re-watch) it immediately to revel in what you enjoyed, and catch amusing and telling details you might've missed the first time around. Ross' take on Collins' trilogy-opener is thematically, and sometimes visually, wrenching. But it's also consistently engaging, frequently exciting, and occasionally even exhilarating, an inspiring example of what can happen when dedicated filmmakers don't concentrate on making a satisfying adaptation so much as a satisfying movie.

A dystopian amalgam of The Most Dangerous Game, The Truman Show, The Lottery, and numerous other literary and big-screen influences, The Hunger Games boasts a simple, horrific premise, one that finds two dozen youths drafted for an annual televised competition in which they're forced to survive in the wild, and fight to the death, until only one remains. Yet within the movie's first minutes, the "why"s and "how"s behind this obscene public spectacle begin to trickle in through a series of fascinating narrative tidbits: the bloody civil war that erupted after America was divided into 12 separate districts; the competition's origins as a government-sanctioned punishment for the uprising, and a warning against future revolutions; the specifics behind how the unfortunate 24 are chosen for participation. By necessity, there's an awful lot of exposition in the film. In a welcome surprise, however, none of it feels like exposition; co-screenwriters Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray deliver the tale's backstory with (I'm guessing) fidelity, but also with such unforced elegance that its meditations on the past feel as vital, as dramatically necessary, as the scenes set in the film's present.

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger GamesAnd with Jennifer Lawrence cast as accidental 16-year-old warrior Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games proves tremendously vital. With her combination of stillness, toughness, and deep empathy as rewarding here as it was in her Winter's Bone breakout, Lawrence is again able to convey enormous feeling while, on the surface, actually doing very little; she allows you to read deep reservoirs of emotion in her tiniest shifts in timbre and bearing. Ross guides several supporting actors here toward rich, enjoyably outsize caricatures (Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, that whirligig of comic fearlessness Elizabeth Banks), and several others toward lovely, understated turns. (Lenny Kravitz, as Katniss' personal groomer Cinna, is especially fine, and Josh Hutcherson proves to be the rare nice-guy heartthrob who doesn't come off as a simp.) But Ross has a real powerhouse in his Katniss Everdeen and seems to know it; whether grieving over a deceased ally or readying her bow and arrow with feverish, unbroken concentration, Lawrence emerges as a complex, exceptionally appealing heroine, and her director gives his star all the breathing room she appears to require.

It's easy to gripe about the mostly lackluster visual effects and a few sketchy characterizations (for the moment, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, and an overly effete Donald Sutherland aren't bringing much to this serialized party), and naturally, I left with more questions than the book's faithful likely did. (Why are alliances formed when the competitors know that even their closest allies are out to kill them? Why plant mines around a stockpile of food when an explosion will subsequently destroy the food?) Yet there are so many extraordinary elements in The Hunger Games - not least being the gloriously garish, fuschia-and-magenta palette in the Capitol sequences and the competition's fast, grisly, artfully edited opener - that I was never actively bothered by its flaws, and left the screening intensely thankful to Ross and company for turning a literary phenomenon into an accessible, thrilling work that both fans and newbies can enjoy with equal fervor. How novel.

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