What if they held a Hunger Games pageant and nobody watched? That's the question posed by Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), a young man who stands a strong chance of being recruited for the annual ritual held in the futuristic republic of Panem. His friend, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), laughs at the thought of people tuning out on the Hunger Games because if you're a citizen of Panem, you're expected to be glued to your TV.
"You root for your favorites, you cry when they get killed -- it's sick," Gale insists. Some critics have leveled the same charge against Suzanne Collins' extraordinarily successful trilogy of "Hunger Games" books, claiming that the post-apocalyptic stories in which young adults must literally fight for their lives are too grim and too violent for teen readers.
But if you look at what's on reality television these days, Collins' best sellers barely qualify as science-fiction. Night after night, you can see desperate characters risking humiliation and sometimes serious injuries to stay in front of those all-powerful cameras for one more episode and bathe in the limelight just a little while longer. And what about those people at the CNN debate last September who literally cheered the idea of letting uninsured people die?
Sadly, we may not be as far away from Panem as we'd like to think.
In "The Hunger Games," Gale manages to avoid being selected in the dreaded Reaping, the random name-drawing that decides which 24 unlucky kids will be sent to the flashy-trashy Capitol to try their luck in the arena as Tributes. Katniss is also spared, but she ends up in the Games anyhow when she volunteers to take the place of her terrified younger sister Primrose. Having spent much of her life stalking prey in the woods with a bow and arrow, Katniss hopes the survival skills she's picked up will be her salvation in the Hunger Games.
Fans of the books -- and there are millions of them -- will be pleased to learn that Lawrence is a marvelous choice for Katniss, a huntress who becomes the hunted once the Games kick into high gear and she becomes the target of a team of bloodthirsty bad guys, led by the sneering Cato (Alexander Ludwig). Lawrence, who earned a best actress Oscar nomination last year for her electrifying work in "Winter's Bone," brings a fragile sort of ferocity to Katniss. She's tough and wonderfully resourceful, but in her doll-like face and astonishingly expressive eyes you can see she's always barely a heartbeat away from sheer terror. She also connects convincingly with her fellow Tribute, Peeta (an appealingly low-key Josh Hutcherson), who looks innocent enough but has few surprising tricks of his own.
The movie, directed by Gary Ross of "Seabiscuit" and "Pleasantville" fame, does a thoroughly solid job of condensing the plot and distilling the themes of Collins' novel into a thought-provoking, sometimes hair-raising drama. Although much of the brutality occurs off-screen or in blurry quick cuts, Ross doesn't let us forget that Katniss, Peeta and their fellow Tributes are engaged in a battle to the death, and if they can't slay each other quickly enough to satisfy the viewers, then "game maker" Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, decoratively man-scaped to a fare-thee-well) and his team of engineers will happily terminate them with their arsenal of high-tech horrors. The screen version makes it more explicitly clear that the fate of Katniss, Peeta, Cato and the rest depends as much on the whims and prejudices of the puppet masters as it does on luck and strength.
The luxurious decadence of the Capitol -- and the gladiator-style spectacle that the residents can't stop watching -- brings to mind ancient Rome, and production designer Phillip Messina and costumer designer Judianna Makovsky cleverly play up that idea by filling the streets with an eye-popping assortment of freakish fashions that give you some idea of what "Amadeus" might have looked like if Federico Fellini had directed it. Everyone, from Stanley Tucci's teal-haired, ever-smiling master of ceremonies to Elizabeth Banks' abrasively chipper cheerleader Effie Trinket, is dressed in revved-up colors not seen since a 1984 prom.
Ross and his designers strikingly contrast this glitzy extravaganza with the sun-bleached houses and drab work-clothes of District 12, the home of Gale, Katniss and Peeta. It looks startlingly like Appalachia, with its gravel streets, rickety barns and a slow-moving parade of coal miners heading underground. District 12 is Katniss' Kansas; thus, the Capitol emerges as her ominous Oz.
There's an admirable attention to detail throughout the movie that makes it much more substantial than your standard action thriller. While some readers will nit-pick certain alterations or omissions, the screenplay by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray devotes an impressive (some may say excessive) amount of time to establishing the characters of Katniss and Peeta, as well as their booze-soaked would-be mentor Haymitch, nicely fleshed out by Woody Harrelson, and Katniss' sympathetic stylist Cinna, played with quiet charm and exotic charisma by Lenny Kravitz. Donald Sutherland only needs a few scenes to establish the all-powerful President Snow as a sort of sadistic Santa Claus, complete with frosted beard and icy vocal inflections.
Once Katniss and Peeta begin fighting their way through the perilous forest that serves as their arena, however, the movie's adrenalin kicks in and the terrifying tournament rushes along swiftly. The decision to switch to a pulse-pounding pace is understandable, but the film might have benefited from a few more scenes that would have further defined the uneasy relationship between Peeta and Katniss, a bond that becomes increasingly important in the sequels, "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay." Katniss' sisterly protectiveness with the diminutive, soft-spoken Rue (Amandla Stenberg), an important plot point, doesn't register as strongly on the screen as it did on the page, and Team Gale supporters might gripe about how little he has to do (he becomes increasingly prominent in the later installments).
But Ross knows how to build tension and sustain suspense. He also nails several of the book's key scenes, such as Peeta and Katniss' triumphant entrance into the Capitol and an attack by a swarm of mutant wasps known as "tracker jackers" whose stings bring on disorienting hallucinations and, for some unlucky victims, painful deaths. Much of "The Hunger Games" is dark and disturbing, but don't be surprised if you find yourself caught up in the action and unable to turn away, just like the poor people of Panem. Sorry, Gale: This is destined to be a crowd-pleaser.