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Few narratives are more appealing than mandated fights to the death. They neatly distill conflict and tension, so dire stakes cultivate powerful symbols. The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular young adult novel, uses such a premise to explore the similarities between totalitarian oppression and adolescence. Under the direction of Gary Ross, this is satisfying science fiction, although the acting eclipses the action.

After the destruction of North America, the quasi-nation Panem is what’s left. The Capitol annually organizes a televised battle where one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts are randomly chosen to serve as “tributes.” The twenty-four tributes meet in a controlled-environment where they compete in the games, and there is only one victor. From the Appalachia-like District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute after Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the capitol representative, calls out the name of her little sister. The male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is merely unlucky. Ross then follows Katniss and Peeta as they prepare for the games and fight for their lives.

In what must be a relief to fans, Ross and his co-screenwriters rarely deviate from the original text. Many of the tweaks are minor and are meant to streamline the plot. Also, the book focuses on the physical ordeal of the games in a way the movie does not, but that’s another necessary concession to keep the action moving. The most significant change is how the movie handles the “game makers,” or those who manipulate what happens to the tributes. There is an important new scene where the game maker (Wes Bentley) and Panem’s president (Donald Sutherland) talk about how the games pacify the districts. Clearly, it was a smart move to have Collins adapt her novel along with Ross and Billy Ray. With her as a contributor, the screenplay preserves the sour irony whenever the rules of the game change, since the disruption is equally exciting for Panem and us, the knowing audience.

The novel is entirely from Katniss’ perspective, and since she’s a complex protagonist, it’s up to Jennifer Lawrence to anchor the film. Thanks to Winter’s Bone, we already know she does precocious determination well. Lawrence deserves comparisons to Sigourney Weaver‘s performance in Aliens, another memorable science fiction heroine. She combines fierce competence with convincing vulnerability, particularly when Katniss experiences pain or heartbreak. In scenes with Peeta, Katniss is a trickier character than Ripley. By appeasing Panem’s desire for a love story, she keeps both herself and Peeta alive; Lawrence wordlessly captures the contradictory feelings of sentiment and cynicism. It’s a terrific, star-making performance.

With a running-time that approaches two and a half hours, Ross’ pacing is remarkable, although the lead-up is more compelling than the games themselves. The Capitol, complete with futuristic architecture and a gauchely-dressed population, is downright eye-popping. Similarly, the adult actors all have more fun. As mentor to Katniss and Peeta, Woody Harrelson is in full-on “crazy like a fox” mode, stealing every scene he’s in. Lenny Kravitz is perfectly cast as Cinna, District 12’s understated costume designer. Character actors Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones exude sleazy charm as the hosts/announcers of the big event. But once the tributes grab their weapons and are out for blood, the games do not match the middle act’s inventiveness.

Collins and Ross know teen-on-teen murder must be harrowing, though most of it happens off-camera.  The problem with the depiction of the games is its muddling tone.  Frenetic editing obscures the action, especially during a climatic chase sequence, and what’s worse is how Ross’ camera shies away from on-screen brutality. At one point, a powerful tribute clobbers another to death. It should be a blood-chilling moment, yet the camera cuts away like it’s apologizing for its universe. The movie acknowledges the uneasiness between bloodshed and entertainment in scenes where the game makers succumb to storytelling pressures, but the violence needn’t be handled so delicately. In terms of graphic content, many PG-13 action movies are a lot more grisly.

The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy, and based on the success of this movie, I’m certain new fans will also be clamoring for more. It’s no surprise Ross and his screenwriters carefully lay the groundwork for a sequel. But compared to the subtle menace of the last shot, the knowing glances that help establish a love triangle are much clumsier. The Hunger Games works primarily because the actors, Lawrence in particular, never condescend to the audience. They approach tough characters with skill and honesty, even if the filmmakers sometimes lack the nerve to explore the bleak implications of their premise.