Lean, breathlessly paced and gritty in a YA way, the first of Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy of novels arrives on the screen in an adaptation that lacks the charm and humor of the Harry Potter series, but is far less groan-inducing than those hormonally driven vampires. The Hunger Games is designed to take over from the boy wizard and Twilight as the latest crowd-mongering savior of Hollywood, and as such director Gary Ross seems overly keen on pleasing the books' legions of fans.
At times this comes off more like a dutiful parade of incidents meant to cram in everyone's favorite moments than a cinematic reimagination of the story. Though powerfully portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the star turn promised by Winter's Bone, Katniss Everdeen is too often saved not by her resourcefulness, but by transparent plotting and luck. For the unfamiliar, The Hunger Games is like Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale as rewritten by the Occupy movement: In a future dystopia, poverty-stricken districts are annually punished for a failed rebellion by being forced to sacrifice children in a fight-to-the-death competition televised for the benefit of the Capitol's 1-percenters (garishly dressed like extras from the "Rock Me Amadeus" video).
The early scenes, divided between Katniss' monochrome coal-mining hometown and the dissolute, vibrantly colored pseudo-Rome where she's guided into the Games by drunken mentor Woody Harrelson and an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, are the film's most effective, lent urgency by Ross's restless, hand-held camera. The Game itself actually slows the pace after its chaotic, brutal opening moments, with the stakes never seeming high enough and interesting avenues never adequately explored. Still, Lawrence crafts a compelling character, one who's welcome amidst the usual summer noise.