Director Gary Ross, sharing writing credit with Collins and Billy Ray ("State of Play"), takes a good hour establishing Collins' bleak setting: the totalitarian North American nation of Panem, where people in the outlying districts live in poverty while residents in The Capitol luxuriate in wealth and really awful hairstyles. Because of a long-ago rebellion, the government forces each district to annually send two randomly selected kids, age 12 to 18, to be "tributes" who battle in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death.
In the mining region, District 12, Lawrence's character Katniss is a tough survivor, hunting with bow and arrow to sustain her mom (Paula Malcomson) and her 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). On the day of "The Reaping," when the two tributes from District 12 are chosen, Primrose's name is drawn and Katniss volunteers to take her place. The other tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son whom Katniss has encountered before.
Katniss and Peeta are whisked to The Capitol for training, receiving survival tips from a drunken ex-champion, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and some TV-friendly sartorial flair by the designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Then the 24 tributes enter the Arena to begin the bloody Games.
What follows is a combination of "Spartacus" and "The Truman Show," as the teen warriors spill each other's blood and, for a PG-13 movie, there's a lot of it as the all-seeing TV director, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), manipulates the action for the political machinations of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the amusement of The Capitol's idle rich. (It's no accident that many of The Capitol's denizens including Seneca, Cinna and Stanley Tucci's emcee Caesar Flickerman bear Roman names.)
It's only in the Arena that "The Hunger Games" really moves, and not just because of Tom Brown's shaky hand-held cinematography. Katniss faces down bloody rivals (some banded together in "Survivor"-style alliances) as well as starvation, killer wasps and the divided feelings she has for Peeta. (The movie tries to construct a love triangle of sorts involving Katniss, Peeta and her hometown hunk Gale, played by Liam Hemsworth but it comes off as a pale copy of "Twilight's" Team Edward/Team Jacob dynamic.)
Lawrence is outstanding, capturing Katniss' coltish drive and her grim determination to survive the Arena while also showing (especially in the early scenes in District 12, which look like outtakes from her performance in "Winter's Bone") the teen's softer side. If there's a reason for no-readers of Collins' trilogy to come back for a "Hunger Games" sequel, it's Lawrence.
'The Hunger Games'
Jennifer Lawrence is a great Katniss, but the movie seems aimed at setting up sequels rather than telling a compelling story.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 23.
Rating • PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.
Running time • 142 minutes.