The film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins's three "Hunger Games" novels arrives with the most sure-shot appeal of any nonsequel since "Twilight" (2008). Both target the same demographic: ages, roughly 10 to 18; gender, female; social media choice, all of them.
Unless the movie disappoints them – and it won't – they'll spread the good word via Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Pinterest or whatever it is that, unbeknownst to an older demographic, may have already supplanted them.
"The Hunger Games" takes place in a postapocalyptic America. All that remains of the United States is Panem, a 12-district federation headed by cagey President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Capitol, Panem's central city, is home to a wealthy, decadent elite, whose comforts and high-tech toys are supported by the labor of an impoverished majority. It's a social structure with echoes of "The Time Machine," "Metropolis," and John Boorman's whacked-out "Zardoz."
Having crushed a broad rebellion some 74 years ago, the government reasserts its authority over the population by staging the annual Hunger Games, a sort of gladiatorial competition-cum-reality TV show: 24 teen-agers – one boy and one girl from each district – are abandoned in a wilderness from which only one will be allowed to emerge alive.
Among this year's contestants is tough, resourceful Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from the poorest region of all: District 12, a coal-mining area that looks a whole lot like 1930s Appalachia. Will Katniss survive? Will she be able to avoid killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the other District 12 entrant, for whom she may be developing romantic feelings? Will the sun rise tomorrow?
It's tempting – though probably foolhardy – to look for cultural/political connections to explain the emergence and immense popularity of Collins's vision. But first you'd have to trace the social and political origins behind the rise of reality TV in the '90s – which is the obvious inspiration for a number of similar films, including "The Truman Show" (1998), "Series 7" (2001), and "The Condemned" (2007). What sets Collins's books apart from these is the idea of the warriors being average teenagers; but even that twist has already been used in director Kinji Fukasaku's great "Battle Royale" (2000), to which "Hunger Games" has many similarities.
The real mystery is how the greatgranddaddy (and possibly best) of the genre – Elio Petri's 1965 "The 10th Victim," starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress – somehow managed to predict and satirize reality TV as we know it 25 or 30 years before it existed.
Director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") and screenwriter Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") – who share the screenplay credit with Collins – have wisely cleaved very closely to the tightly written novel. (One or two bits of exposition may be briefly confusing to those who haven't read the book.) Ross manages to keep the pacing remarkably swift, given that the games themselves don't start until halfway through the 144-minute running time.
Ross also got the casting dead right: Woody Harrelson as the alcoholic former champion who coaches Katniss and Peeta; Stanley Tucci as the broadcast's preening host; and Lenny Kravitz as the only city dweller Katniss might be able to trust. Casting Lawrence in the lead was a no-brainer, given the role's similarities to her character in "Winter's Bone," which earned her an Oscar nomination. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images involving teens.)