March 23, 2012 at 8:57 AM ET
REVIEW: Fans of "The Hunger Games" books had to be nervous about how Hollywood would handle moving Suzanne Collins' beloved trilogy to the big screen. When you've already sketched out a book's universe in your head, it can be devastating to see a studio mess with your vision.
Thankfully, "Hunger Games" does its inspiration proud, thanks to star Jennifer Lawrence, some smart casting and a plot that gets up to speed immediately and never stops. The film is nearly two and a half hours long, but you won't be looking at your watch.
The success of the film rests solidly on Lawrence's shoulders, and she shines as heroic Katniss Everdeen, who will stop at nothing to protect her family. It's no surprise, really -- Katniss is very much like Ree Dolly, the Appalachian teen Lawrence played in 2010's "Winter's Bone." She's learned to survive in the woods of her poverty-stricken district, and when she volunteers to replace her young sister in the country's creepy Kid Tournament of Death, you'd be a fool to bet against her.
If you haven't read the books, you'll still be able to follow along, as Katniss leaves best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) behind and must strike up a for-the-camera-or-is-it? romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to save her life in the televised tournament.
If you have read them, you'll note that many elements have been left out for time reasons, but the edits were smartly made and the main entourage of characters are well represented. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, eternally drunk in the books, is the star of the minor characters, and he develops quickly from a haunted man to one Katniss and Peeta are glad to have in their corner. Lenny Kravitz's Cinna and Elizabeth Banks' Effie have smaller roles in the film, but fans of the books know we'll be seeing them again.
The violence is toned down to a PG-13 rating, but this is still a movie about teenagers fighting to the death. Plenty of children are seen dying, though cameras don't linger on the methods and the blood -- for the most part. Parents will have to decide for themselves if the film's topic is right for younger viewers, but if the kids are familiar with the books, good luck keeping them away.
Blood and guts aside, there's something satisfying for those who devoured the books in witnessing Collins' words leap to life. The "Games" were based on our obsession with reality shows and with war, and seeing it onscreen, it becomes obvious just how similiar the tournament is to shows such as "Survivor" or "American Idol," with Stanley Tucci's Caesar as a Ryan Seacrest-like host.
The imagery is sharp and richly detailed, be it the Dorothea Lange-style bleakness of Katniss' coal-mining District 12, the garish pastels and decadence of the Capitol, or the small details, such as Cinna's gold eyeliner or the physical manifestation of the Cornucopia in the fighting arena. Only Katniss' fire dress is a little disappointing, but perhaps some things are just tough to bring to life. At least there's nothing as embarrassing as Jacob's wolf pack "talking" to each other in the latest "Twilight" film. Now fans just have to wait till Nov. 22, 2013, for sequel "Catching Fire."