Game On

Drafting behind "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," "The Hunger Games" has captured the imaginations of tween and teen readers who first made the trilogy a publishing sensation and now have embraced the first film (two will follow) with unrestrained and unabashed enthusiasm. As it turns out, it's a rich and compelling production.

Briefly, the narrative is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. The country is called Panem, once known as America. For somewhat obscure, historical reasons, the leaders of Panem hold a yearly lottery wherein 24 young people, ages 12 to 18, are selected from 12 Districts. These Tributes, as they're called, must then participate in a gladiatorial contest, a fight to the death, called "The Hunger Games."

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), 16, lives in District 12, an impoverished area of coal miners, where, in order to survive and feed her family, she has learned to hunt in the woods with her friend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hensworth). When Katniss' younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), is selected in the lottery, she volunteers to take her place. And so she is abruptly swept away to the Capitol, along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the other Tribute from her District.

For Katniss, the Capitol is surreal, the contrasts to District 12 overwhelming. The denizens are affluent to the point of decadence and boredom. And out of what seems a desperate need to be entertained, they eagerly await the annual and ubiquitously televised "Hunger Games." It is reality television taken to a horrifying level. The audience will watch as their sons and daughters struggle to survive. It's akin to television's "Survivor," only with a finality that clearly appeals to the Panem audience's taste for voyeuristic spectacle and mayhem.

The film is replete with exceptional actors, led by Lawrence, who is perfectly cast as Katniss. Lawrence is an Oscar-nominated actor for her astonishingly fine performance in the exceptional "Winter's Bone." Its a surprisingly similar story wherein she is a strong, resilient and courageous young woman who carries the weight of her young siblings and emotionally wounded mother as they face a grinding poverty in a rural and seemingly abandoned section of Appalachia.

Lawrence's character Katniss joins Bella Swan of "Twilight" and Lisbeth Salander of "Dragon Tattoo," all young women powerfully rendered. And all heroic and appealing in their own way with a serious fan base.

Lawrence/Katniss will return in 2013 and 2014. This first installment of "The Hunger Games" is merely act one of three acts. There's more story to tell and the fans, if the first weekend gross is any indication (an historic $155 million), impatiently await the next installments: "Catching Fire" followed by "Mockingjay." Let the games continue.

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