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Grade A-: 'Hunger Games' delivers

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

First, if you loved the book, you will probably love the movie.

Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville") does a rock solid job staying true to Suzanne Collins' smash hit young-adult novel. Jennifer Lawrence (in many ways playing a variation on her wonderful character in "Winter's Bone") brings the bold and resourceful Katniss Everdeen, one of the best heroines in contemporary fiction, to life.

Of course, it doesn't match the books' world-building depth, but, thanks to an efficient script co-written by Collins, the two-and-half-hour movie both flies by and delivers the blow-by-blow goods. No wonder it's already a pre-sale blockbuster.

Second, you have to hand it to this thing for timeliness. Is there a better image for election year 2012 than an unfathomably wealthy person, arrayed in the fashion season's finest, looking at a sea of poor people she has never met and saying, "May the odds be ever in your favor?" Ouch.

It is hundreds of years in the future. After an unnamed apocalypse, the remains of North America, now called Panem, have been divided into 12 districts that are kept in various levels of poverty by the controlling Capitol.

As a reminder to rebel never again, the Capitol every year picks one boy and one girl ("tributes") from each district to fight to the death in the brutal Hunger Games, a reality show broadcast around the country. The survivor becomes a wealthy celebrity.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss lives with her widowed mother and younger sister in the coal-mining District 12 (Appalachia, obviously).

She and her near-perfect archery support them through illegal hunting, often with her best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, not seen in much of this movie).

Katniss is brave and tough, and Lawrence, with a tomboy gravitas and an almost feral power, hits her note-perfectly, and these are the movie's strongest scenes.

When Katniss' sister, Prim, is chosen, a panicked Katniss volunteers as tribute. It's hard to not to see something Holocaust-ish in the citizens of District 12 — grimy, in simple cotton dresses and shirts — being lined up by spotless soldiers and randomly selected for life and death. (Not for nothing does the gleaming, CGI Capitol recall shots from "Triumph of the Will.")

Speaking of influence, some might dismiss "The Hunger Games" as a rip-off of the Japanese "Battle Royale," which also pits teenagers against each other in a televised death match.

This is a bit like dismissing "Star Wars" as just a Kurasowa tribute. These "Games" have roots everywhere, from Roman gladiators (the name Panem comes from the Latin "Panem et Circensus," or "Bread and Circuses") to John Christopher's seminal, post-apocalyptic young adult novels "The White Mountains" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to footage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to "Survivor."

In short order, Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who may or may not have feelings for her, are whisked off to their likely deaths. The scene on the mag-lev train to the Capitol is stomach-turning as the two witness the opulence (gorgeous cake, fresh fruit, plenty of meat) that they have been denied.

Their support team consists of an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as PR agent Effie Trinket (who drew the names) and a revelatory Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss' damaged mentor and the last person from District 12 to win a games.

Harrelson might be playing a drunk, but he is subtler than he first seems, portraying a man who never completely learned to live with his guilt, but who recognizes in Katniss a fire that should be stoked. Soon, Katniss and Peeta are training with kids who want to kill them. Then comes the arena, where the poor are manipulated from above by the rich, the circus that keeps the people in line.

Everyone hits his marks: Lenny Kravitz does no damage as the clothing designer Cinna; Stanley Tucci, who can do unctuous with the best of them, shines talk show host Caesar Flickerman; and Wes Bentley (welcome back, man!) plays Game designer Seneca Crane, with his strangely groomed beard.

Decently shot by Clint Eastwood's regular cinematographer Tom Stern, "Hunger Games" falters only when the effects do and roars to life in more natural environments. A key scene involving flame looks so green-screened you're yanked clean out of what is otherwise an emotionally engaging story, but, wisely, everything in District 12 and the forest of the savage Games is tangible.

And it should be noted that some of the gore has been toned down to receive a PG-13 rating (it is possible the combat was edited to be choppy and indistinct for the same reason), reminding you that nothing on screen will ever match the movie a novel can put in your head.

Then again, if there's one thing that "The Hunger Games" hammers home, it's that you can only push people so far before they push back, and the revolution will absolutely be televised.

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926

Rating: PG-13 for violence. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes. Theaters: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Stone Hill, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, City Lights, Flix Brewhouse, Gateway, Highland, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Westgate.