The Hunger Games

Directed by Gary Ross

Opens March 23

Now that the

Harry Potter

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series

has wrapped up and the

Twilight

saga lurches toward its final installment,

The Hunger Games

has swooped in as a sort of allegorical palate-cleanser, a post-apocalyptic showcase for a much-needed breath of fresh air in the form of Katniss Everdeen, a YA hero who’s actually a young adult. Everdeen, to our great relief, doesn’t make decisions based on old-world vampire orders or the advice of ghosts, goblins, and archaic wizards. By nature of the titular Games—a

Survivor

-meets-Super Bowl death match in which 24 “tributes” ages 12 to 18 from around the country are let loose in a woodsy arena and forced to kill one another for sport and amusement—the characters of

The Hunger Games

have no choice but to rely on their all-too-human instincts.

Especially for someone who hasn’t read the Suzanne Collins trilogy, that relative simplicity is a gift, and it’s what propels Gary Ross’ film (co-written by Ross, Billy Ray, and Collins herself) from the stark Appalachian opener, in which we meet Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of

Winter's Bone

), a 16-year-old hunter/gatherer forced to provide for her family after the death of her father, to the heart-pounding start of the deadly game, or “bloodbath” as it’s referred to by Everdeen’s impromptu trainer, former Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (an excellent Woody Harrelson).

A bit of back-story tells us that the Games were originally conceived as punishment for a class war against wealthy fascists, but has settled into an anticipated tradition. One boy and one girl from each of the 12 “districts” of the nation of Panem (what used to be North America) are chosen at random—though your name is put in the hat more than once (much more) if you’ve requested government assistance. (Don’t anybody let Rick Santorum read these books.)

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Everdeen volunteers in her younger sister’s place, and she’s sent to the Capitol along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy she knows but seems hostile toward.

The Hunger Games

comes most alive during the long yet briskly paced lead-up to the start of the match. It’s a nationally televised pageant, and we go backstage as Everdeen, Mellark, and a couple-dozen other kids of sometimes shocking youth (yes, 12-year-olds are like the weak gazelle in this Serengeti) and even more shocking skill (some districts train volunteers from an early age) are primped, styled, and thrust out onstage.

Before you know it, the countdown begins and this band of doomed participants is told to kill each other—and that they do.

The Hunger Games

expertly toes the PG-13 line, suggesting more than showing, but not shying away from brutality as an integral part of the film’s (and novel’s) grim message. Although the run time is close to two and a half hours, Everdeen and her world never overstay their welcome, and even better, Ross doesn’t use the last 10 minutes to set up next year’s sequel,

Catching Fire

. Having seen

The Hunger Games

, I still remain clueless as to what’s in store—yet another way this film bucks the YA trend. Whatever Katniss has planned, I’ll be lined up for it.

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