hunger games

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in the making of a PG-13 movie about children fighting to the death. Cast a lot of Pretty Young Things, and we’ll never believe they could survive a knife fight. Ramp up the teenage love connections, and it veers into gooey Twilight territory. Too little gore, and you lose the adult audience—aka the 25-year-old female fanbase that read all three Hunger Games books in a week. Too much gore, and…well, you look like a sadist.

Lots of decisions for director Gary Ross, who was handed what could be the biggest film franchise since Harry Potter. And though he’s better known for his heartwarmers Dave, Big, and Seabiscuit than his dystopian dramas, at the end of the day, they’re all underdog stories. Turns out he’s well suited to make a winning nail-biter that should satisfy fans, and not confuse the hell out of newcomers to the trilogy. He’s found the key to success: a fierce Katniss Everdeen in actress Jennifer Lawrence, as the teenage heroine who risks her life by taking her 12-year-old sister’s place in this deranged version of Survivor. Taking a page from Oscar-nominated days in the bleak indie drama Winter’s Bone, another film where she gets beat up regularly, Lawrence plays the strong, silent type whose scowl has range: fear, indignation, hunger.

Oh right, hunger. That’s the weird thing about this movie. They never really cover why everyone’s hungry. The opening reel explains that, every year, 12 districts are punished for rebelling against the Capitol by sending two children between the ages of 12 and 18 into the Hunger Games, where they Fight to the Death until a victor remains. (Note the capitalization—for emphasis!) But no mention of this being a postapocalyptic America, where food is rationed. There are few, if any, wide-angle establishing shots. Who needs backstory? Instead, this is a shaky-camera film about the here and now, with plenty of bizarre close-ups of nostrils and eyeballs to make everyone feel disoriented. Ross says we’re supposed to enter this world through "Katniss’s serpentine tunnel vision." Her tunnel vision made me a little queasy.

But it works, in a way. Nerves are meant to be high. The Hunger Games play out like a twisted Olympics, with over-the-top opening day celebrations broadcast nationwide and people placing bets on which child will live. In the arena itself, an ogre of a teenage boy grabs an oversized sword and preys on the young, whooping like he’s a stand-in from Lord of the Flies. Blood splatters, but the filmmakers refrain from showing us the worst of it. And just when another little girl screams and you have to remind yourself to breathe again, something breaks the tension. Like when Woody Harrelson, channeling Kurt Cobain as the slacker mentor Haymitch, reminds Katniss for the umpteenth time that she’ll probably die soon, Elizabeth Banks (as taskmaster Effie) steps in with a cheery "Who wants a chocolate-covered strawberry?" It seems The Hunger Games is also a dark comedy. One thing it’s not, though, is a love story. The much-hyped love triangle between Katniss, her childhood friend Gale, and fellow competitor Peeta is downplayed, to the point where even ardent fans might question whether it was ever more than part of the game.

The Hunger Games is in theaters nationwide on March 23.