Leaner than Harry Potter's adventures, meaner than the Twilight saga, The Hunger Games lives up to its source if not entirely the hype. The bullet points (or rather arrowheads) of Suzanne Collins' book seem to be here, streamlined as movies do yet enticing enough to make newbies yearn for what's missing, which movies often don't.
The Hunger Games is an arresting allegory of teenage independence, authoritarianism and the culture of manufactured reality for entertainment. This isn't a capricious fantasy of wizards, or puppy love with a supernatural gimmick. Set in future dystopian bleakness, the story speaks to now, as good sci-fi will. It's kill or be killed, at the will of a dictator, for the amusement of TV viewers. And it's children doing the killing.
A few are trained from birth to be tributes, representing their districts in the annual bloodbath, a 74-year punishment of the masses for rebelling against the government. Most tributes are conscripted by lottery, but one this year is a volunteer: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who steps up to save her chosen little sister. Katniss is a pro with a bow and arrow, as several competitors will learn.
But not until the second half of Gary Ross' movie that, to be honest, loses a bit of steam when the games are on. He's intent on preserving a PG-13 rating and its box office potential, taming violence that Collins described graphically, hiding the carnage with confusion-cam closeups and bashful editing.
Even at 142 minutes, a longer, more explicit version — say, an HBO miniseries — might be preferred, fleshing out characters, themes and cruelty that Ross doesn't have time or gumption to cover. Readers of any adapted book possess a kind of cognitive closure, an awareness of what is there on the pages when it isn't on the screen. Collins' readers can connect dots and envision brutality the movie doesn't always make clear.
On the other hand, the first half of The Hunger Games is a small marvel of exposition and character introduction. Much of that is due to Lawrence's casting, in a performance coincidentally taking off from nearly the point where her Winter's Bone role ended (and nearly as superb). Katniss and that film's Ree Dolly are cut from the same sack cloth, both backwoods survivors forced to grow up too soon.
Meanwhile, the structure and reason for the Hunger Games is stealthily revealed, by an assortment of oddballs who must have more to do in Collins' book. I want to know more about Katniss' mentor Haymitch Abernathy — an alcoholic Hunger Games winner played to the cynical hilt by Woody Harrelson — or the games' creepy-flashy host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and chief manipulator Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley rocking cool facial manscaping).
Perhaps that'll be in a version of Collins' sequel Catching Fire that is absolutely certain to come after the box office tsunami this one's stirring up. I might even read her trilogy, which is the best compliment I can offer The Hunger Games. That's the point of movie adaptations, or should be, not to replace books but to encourage them.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.