Recently, I made the mistake of joking on Twitter about the possibility of a Team Peeta vs. Team Gale dynamic, referring to the two young men who hold special places in the heart of Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine of "The Hunger Games."
Some people played along but many were appalled at the very idea of something as cliched and flimsy as a love triangle defining the young woman they've come to admire so fiercely from Suzanne Collins' best-selling trio of novels, the first adaptation of which makes its way to the screen this weekend amid great fervor and expectation.
I learned very quickly: These people do not mess around when it comes to Katniss.
Those same fans should be thoroughly satisfied with the faithfulness of Gary Ross' film, with its propulsive nature and vivid imagery: a mix of decadent costumes and architecture and harsh, unforgiving exteriors. At its center is Jennifer Lawrence, an ideal choice to play this strong, independent young woman. Those who saw her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010's "Winter's Bone" already were aware of her startling screen presence - her natural beauty, instincts and maturity beyond her years. And yet there's a youthful energy and even a vulnerability that make her relatable to the core, target audience of female fans. Lawrence is endlessly watchable, and she better be, since she's in nearly every single shot of Ross' film.
And speaking of Ross, he may seem an unlikely choice to direct a movie about a futuristic, fascist world in which teenagers must fight each other to the death in an exploitative display of national loyalty and pride. He is, after all, the man behind such clever, charming and uplifting films as "Dave," "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit." But those movies, while based on high-concept premises, ultimately had pointed things to say about politics and society. The methodology of "The Hunger Games" may be more complicated but its darkly satirical message is unmistakable.
The script adheres rather closely to Collins' novel - no surprise there since she co-wrote it with Ross and Billy Ray - although it does truncate some of the subplots that give the book its greatest emotional heft as well as soften the brutal violence of the games themselves, ostensibly in the name of securing a PG-13 rating. Still, the makers of "The Hunger Games" have managed the difficult feat of crafting a film that feels both epic and intimate at once.
A post-apocalyptic version of North America has been divided into 12 districts. Every year, a teenage boy and girl from each are selected randomly at the "Reaping" and sent to the opulent, art deco Capitol, where they're made over, trained and primed to fight each other until one is left standing in the sprawling arena. Gamesmakers manipulate their surroundings, "Truman Show"-style; Wes Bentley, sporting fiendish facial hair, functions as a sadistic version of Christof in a control room on high.
Every minute of competition is breathlessly broadcast to the nation, with viewers rooting for and betting on their favorites; having a sympathetic back story is crucial, and similarities to reality shows like "Survivor" or even "American Idol" are clearly intended. Even the program's host (Stanley Tucci in an upswept blue `do) has a huge personality but isn't so outlandish that you couldn't image him as the face of some top-rated primetime game show.
Katniss lives with her widowed mother and beloved younger sister, Prim, in the distant District 12, known for its poverty and mining - a place visually reminiscent of the Ozarks of "Winter's Bone." An expert hunter with a bow and arrow, she spends her days seeking food for her family in the forest with her best friend, the hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Some of the strongest moments in "The Hunger Games" are not the big action sequences, where the effects tend to look a bit cheesy, but rather the quieter exchanges like the ones Lawrence and Hemsworth effortlessly share.
But when Prim's name is called at the Reaping, Katniss springs into action to volunteer instead. This is one of those scenes in which you don't need to have read the book to feel emotionally engaged; the drama and the tears feel real, and they're not overplayed. Katniss' male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's sweet but bland son. Together they're to receive mentoring from the frequently inebriated Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the last winner from District 12; the character's rough edges have been buffed significantly and it's not an improvement. Elizabeth Banks is nearly unrecognizable as Effie, their garish, perky escort. They also undergo mandated makeovers from their stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz in an inspired bit of casting - he and Lawrence have a lovely rapport together).
There's never any question as to whether Katniss will win - there are two more books waiting to be made into movies after this one - so the challenge comes from maintaining a sense of tension and immersion in this dystopian world as competitors drop off one by one, which Ross and Co. achieve. "The Hunger Games" runs nearly two and a half hours in length but is the rare film that never drags and doesn't overstay its welcome. It could keep running as long as Katniss does, and we'd want to be right there every heart-pounding step of the way.
"The Hunger Games," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens. Running time: 142 minutes. Three stars out of four.