Gary Ross, screenwriter and director of Pleasantville, returns to greatness with his masterful adaptation of The Hunger Games. Based on the best-selling novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is the spellbinding tale of Katniss Evergreen (Jennifer Lawrence). Set in a dystopian future of oppression and class warfare, America has been reformed after an apocalypse into Panem. There are twelve districts in Panem, ruled from afar by an elize citizenry in The Capitol. Every year, a male and female teenager from each district is randomly chosen to represent their district in The Hunger Games; a barbaric fight to the last alive. The games are televised and bet upon as sport. Horrifying to the poor and starving people in the districts. Great fun and entertainment to the patricians of The Capitol.

Katniss volunteers at The Reaping after her sister is chosen by the made-up and elaborately costumed, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they are whisked off to The Capitol, where they are trussed up and paraded like show dogs. Only their drunken mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a previous winner from their district, is honest about their fate. His initial nonchalance towards the pair changes as he recognizes the skill of Katniss. Beautiful, strong, and courageous, her tremendous ability with a bow leads him to believe that she will win. He teaches her how to manipulate the crowd and win favors during the competition. Katniss and Peeta will need every bit of help to survive the brutality of The Hunger Games.

I was absolutely riveted by this film. Lionsgate has done a banner job marketing, so I did have a high expectation. I was very surprised by the depth, drama, and philosophical layers in The Hunger Games. It is a serious, complex film that adroitly addresses multiple issues - poverty, oppression, exploitation, violence, and relationships, to name a few. It does this without a heavy hand. The canvas Gary Ross uses to portray Panem is deceptively sublime. He leaves it all on screen and in the tremendous performances to bring life to this tale. While the source material is intriguing, we have seen this story before with the likes of 1984 and Animal Farm. What makes The Hunger Games different is how effectively youth is the driver of the story. Children killing each other while an aristocracy cackles is disturbing to the core. Couple that with the societal opression of the games to surpress any kind of hope in the populace is equally as appalling.

Jennifer Lawrence is ethereal in her portrayal of Katniss. She's been great before, notching an Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, and her stellar debut as a girl growing up in a brothel in The Poker House. These previous performances aptly prepared her Katniss, a literary heroine for the 21st century. There are so many scenes of quiet, where she's by herself and only the angst, emotion of her facial expressions reveal the character's plight. The audience buys her as an expert woodsman and hunter; as well as the shy beauty, glamorous in her radiant dresses. It's quite difficult to be believable as both the ruffian and the princess. Lawrence is simply fantastic here. I've read that the role of Katniss came down to Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld, who was amazing in the Coen Brothers True Grit. Ross and Collins chose wisely with Jennifer. She's older and more mature as an actress for such a subtle, but physically dynamic role.

Audiences are really going to love this film. I've read various pop culture mavens crow about The Hunger Games being the new Twilight. That's a poor comparison. The Twilight series sucks. Those are abysmall melodramas with poor acting, directing, and writing. The Hunger Games is vastly superior in every possible way. It succeeds as gripping entertainment, while staying true to its observations of a sinister world. Pertinent to the times, the year's first blockbuster is a grand, beautiful film. I cannot wait to see The Hunger Games again.

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