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Originally published March 22, 2012 at 12:03 AM | Page modified March 23, 2012 at 6:44 PM

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Movie review

'The Hunger Games': Jennifer Lawrence is right on target

A review of the film version of Suzanne Collins' mega-best-selling novel, "The Hunger Games." With Jennifer Lawrence as the steely 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen, this is a smart, tense adaptation.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Hunger Games,' with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley. Directed by Gary Ross, from a screenplay by Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, based on the novel by Collins. 142 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens. Several theaters.

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MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

In "The Hunger Games," Jennifer Lawrence as 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen goes for long stretches of the film without speaking; she's all watchfulness and wordless reaction, nearly feral yet neither predator nor prey. You quickly believe that this slight young woman has a core of steel; that she's always thinking; that nothing escapes her deceptively cool gaze. For those of us weary from four "Twilight" movies featuring the blankly slack-jawed Bella Swan, this kind of young heroine — who's caught in her own love triangle, yet isn't defined by it — is cause for celebration.

But this smart, tense movie, meticulously adapted from Suzanne Collins' mega-best-seller (Collins co-wrote the screenplay), doesn't dwell in joy; indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find a grimmer story in theaters. "The Hunger Games," as every teenage reader (and many grown-up fans) knows, takes place in a horrific vision of the future.

The Hunger Games are a nationally televised tournament/reality show in which teenagers — two chosen from each of the nation's 12 districts — must fight to the death until a lone survivor is declared the winner. It's a tradition in its 74th year, imposed by the government as punishment for a long-ago uprising in the districts (or, as phrased in a chilling PSA played before the contestants are selected, "This is how we remember our past / This is how we safeguard our future").

Katniss, a hardscrabble survivor who helps feed her impoverished family by hunting, volunteers for the Games in the place of her 12-year-old sister, Primrose — and is quickly transported to the Capitol, where lavish riches and mysteriously garbed grown-ups await: "escort"/PR lady Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), television announcer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Games-survivor-turned-drunken-mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). And, once in the vast arena, she must fight for her life — and, unexpectedly, her heart. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is the handsome boy back home; Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) the fellow competitor who reveals unexpected feelings.

Directed by Gary Ross, "The Hunger Games" works almost better as a movie than a book; its pacing is slightly and effectively altered (the movie's a little more than half over by the time the Games actually start), its visuals striking, its close-in filming style parallels the intimacy of the first-person book. And it carefully walks a difficult line: How do you tell an essentially violent story without glorifying that violence?

Ross doesn't sugarcoat things, or back away from the utterly chilling central idea of the Games (which may well upset sensitive young viewers, particularly those not already familiar with the book), but he shows the killings quickly — knowing that the very idea of children murdering each other is gore enough. Many we don't see at all, as the movie is from Katniss' point of view and she doesn't witness all of the Games' deaths.

Despite its darkness, there are numerous pleasures to be had in "The Hunger Games" — the first of a reported four movies based on Collins' trilogy: Effie's rainbow-explosion costumes (designed by Judianna Makovsky), Tucci's smarmily note-perfect TV host, Kravitz's warm presence (at a time in the movie when you're desperate for something hopeful) and most of all Lawrence. Playing a character not unlike her Oscar-nominated role in "Winter's Bone," she's tough, resourceful and knows more than she should.

"No matter what you feel," she tells her ineffectual mother — injecting the final word with oceans of disdainful pain — "you have to take care of [Primrose]". Still a child, Katniss has willed herself not to feel; only to endure.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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