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'The Hunger Games' review: Hype, consider yourself mostly justified

*** (out of four)

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

9:42 AM CDT, March 20, 2012

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I read Suzanne Collins' addictive, massively popular novel "The Hunger Games" so compulsively that the pages feared my fingers. Any filmmaker would be challenged to similarly create scene after scene that sparks craving for the next.

In other words, director/co-writer Gary Ross' big-screen adaptation doesn't quite live up to the movie that played in your head while you read the book. Yet "The Hunger Games" serves as an often riveting, occasionally underwhelming chronicle of a competition forcing teenagers to kill each other, and the brave resilience of the world's best big sister.

That's 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone"), who volunteers for the 74th annual Hunger Games to spare her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), whose name is called in just her first year of eligibility. The games, for the three of you who haven't read about them, consist of 24 randomly selected kids (a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts, aged 12-18 and dubbed "Tributes") battling until only one remains, with fewer upsets and far more swords than the NCAA tournament. The rich leaders of Panem created the deadly competition to remind the poor, starving masses of their inferiority by broadcasting this governmentally organized bloodbath every year. No one except the ornately dressed 1 percent in the Capitol enjoys this mandatory reality show, despite an apparent total absence of programming when the Hunger Games aren't on.

While recalling dystopian tales from "The Running Man" to "The Truman Show," "Games" also incorporates a minor but well-acted love triangle, as opposed to the accidental "Twilight" laughs of Team Dreary vs. Team Wooden. Katniss feels a connection to her friend and hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it's her fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who makes her find strength and trust in a boy society expects to hunt and kill her. Though, grumble grumble, the book more fully captures the complications of their relationship, every look Katniss and Peeta exchange bests all of the Edward/Bella staring contests combined. (Not saying much, but worth recognizing.)

Once the games begin, Ross ("Pleasantville") reveals his inexperience with action. The film's few set pieces suffer from repetitive chaos--numerous death scenes, including an attack of genetically engineered wasps, look ordinary compared with a breathless minute leading up to the games' beginning. As Katniss waits to defend her life, Lawrence, wonderfully strategizing and emoting without words, certainly makes her heroine personify the phrase, "This is really happening."

While Katniss' opponents possess little of the personality and menace that makes them so deliciously terrifying on the page, several actors squeeze the most out of small roles: Elizabeth Banks, an unsettlingly cheery burst of powder and pink as the woman who runs the selection lottery; Lenny Kravitz as compassionate stylist Cinna; and Woody Harrelson, less bumbling than imagined as boozing former Games winner Haymitch, who instructs the Tributes, "Embrace the probability of your imminent death."

In an alternate universe that doesn't require blockbuster teen movies to court a PG-13 rating, there's a spectacular R-rated, David Fincher or Ridley Scott-helmed version of "The Hunger Games" that creates a truly nightmarish vision of unimaginable cruelty and uplifting courage. Ross' alternately shocking and serene world, however limited in imagination, maintains the political and survivalist power of a story about leaders who haven't experienced life on the bottom and a young girl fiercely determined to remain the head of her family.

Unlike most violent movies, "The Hunger Games" derives no pleasure from its casualties and, thankfully, features none of the acts on the soundtrack. If anything would have soured this effectively serious sci-fi/action/drama/romance, it's teenage murders followed by Taylor Swift crooning something like, "Do you know how it feels to hurt?"

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais