The battle royale has finally arrived in the form of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games full movie 2012: Directed by Gary Ross and adapted from the first in a trilogy of best-selling books, the movie features Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as teens living in a dystopian future in which young people are forced to fight to survive on live television.

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The arrow strikes an outer circle of the target in The Hunger Games, an truly faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ famous young-adult best-seller that could have used a higher body count in more ways than one. As she did in her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence nails this futuristic and politicized elaboration of The Most Deadly Game with major gravity and presence, while director Gary Ross gets enough of what matters in the novel up on the film to satisfy its legions of fans nationwide.

This Lions gate release is being positioned as the hottest property for the teen audience since Twilight, and there’s no reason to believe that box office results won’t land roughly in that vaunted vicinity.

The Hunger Games novel, published in 2008, marked the beginning of a trilogy, completed with by Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which has in toto sold more than 26 million copies, with many more to come now that the movie has arrived. A massive opening weekend starting March 23, which is all but guaranteed, will definitely trigger a green light for the second big-screen movie in the series, for which the three lead actors are already set.

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A speculative fiction piece about a 16-year-old expert hunter who becomes one of 24 teenagers to compete in an annual televised combat spectacle from which only one will emerge alive, Collins’ story runs along on the page with unceasing momentum while generating legitimate suspense and a strong cheering interest in its resourceful heroine. So visually vivid are the book’s episodes that you can practically picture a film version while reading it, meaning that it would have been foolish for any filmmaking team to veer far from the source.

With Collins in the role of both a co-screenwriter and executive producer, there was slim chance of that, so it’s more a matter of emphasis and cinematic elan. Ross, Collins and third writer Billy Rayhave emphasized the fascistic political side of the tale, hinting at the micromanaged manipulations of the public and the games themselves while also implying that contemporary reality shows and televised competitions differ from this epic event only in their lower mortality rate.

As for visual spectacle, there’s enough, but along with it, a feeling of being slightly shortchanged; the long shots of gigantic cityscapes, of a fast train gliding silkily through the country, of massive crowds gathered to see this year’s gladiators before they set off to kill one another, of the decorative flames emanating from the leads’ costumes as the pair is presented to the public for the first time — all are cut a bit short, as if further exposure would reveal them as one notch below first-rate. On the other hand, the costumes and makeup are a riot of imagination designed to evoke a level of topped-out decadence comparable to that of Nero’s Rome or Louis XVI’s Paris.

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Most noticeable of all, however, is the film’s lack of hunting instinct. The book delivered a strong sense of blood-scent, of Katniss Everdeen’s lifetime of illegal hunting paying off in survival skills that, from the outset, make her the most favorite to win the 74th edition of The Hunger Games. While present, this critical element is made redundant onscreen, cutting off a sense of the heroine’s mental calculations as well as the intensity of her physical challenges and threats. One senses that the filmmakers wanted to avoid showing much hunting onscreen, for fear of offending certain sensibilities; stylistically, one longs for the visceral expressiveness of, say, Walter Hill in his prime. It’s also evident that the need for a PG-13 rating dictated moderation; a movie precisely depicting the events of the novel would no doubt carry an R.

That said, The Hunger Games has such a strong narrative structure, built-in forward movement and compelling central character that it can’t go far wrong. From the outset, it’s easy to take into consideration a future North America, once decimated by war and now known as Panem, divided into 12 districts kept under strict control by an all-powerful central government in the beautifully modernistic Capitol.

Katniss, embraced by Jennifer Lawrence just as one might imagine her from the book, resides in far-flung District 12, a poor mining region that can only have been Appalachia in earlier times (indeed, the movie was set in North Carolina). Like all other young ones, she’s annually entered in the Reaping, in which a boy and girl from each district are chosen by lottery to take part in a deadly contest designed both for its political symbolism and public intoxication value.

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The moment her beloved younger sister’s name is shockingly called, Katniss, a dead shot with bow and arrow, volunteers to take her place as a district Tribute, together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a timid, seemingly sweet boy with goo-goo eyes for Katniss. Her male idol-like soulmate Gale (the charming Liam Hemsworth) gets left behind.

The remainder of the first hour depicts the participants’ preparation for the games. It involves cleaning, buffing and accoutering (rather like what happens to the visitors upon arrival in The Wizard of Oz), battle training next to fellow combatants, abundant eating, tactical advice from oft-inebriated ancient District 12 winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a public interview conducted by flashy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci ), a one-man panic so used to playing his guests that he gets Peeta to confess his feeling for the unsuspecting Katniss. Decked out with a balloon of backswept blue hair completed with a gigantic bun, Tucci has a blast with this fun character, who serves to frame the brutality to come as entertainment by stressing its personal melodramas.

The moment thrown into “the arena,” a topographically vast stretch of wilderness, the Tributes do whatever it takes to keep themselves alive. Quite a few are butchered at the outset in the mad dash for weapons and supplies. As for herself, Katniss hightails it for the interior, where she sleeps quietly in trees before the “gamemaker,” Seneca (played by Wes Bentley), has her flushed out by wildfire. The Hunger Games film goes further than the book in illustrating how omnipotent studio controllers can manipulate the action as they wish, in ways they think will create better television and, in the bargain, please their all-powerful president (Donald Sutherland), who will countenance no sign of resistance or rebellion.

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And, yet, that is what happens when the games’ youngest and sweetest contestant, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), after bonding with Katniss, is abruptly killed. Everything that takes place out in the field is shot by countless hidden cameras (Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern shift between beautiful, steady camerawork for “objective” coverage and a jittery, hand-held style for direct verite footage), and Rue’s death flames unrest in her working-class district. But this rises as a mere prelude to what Katniss pulls off in the brilliant climax, which troubles the already suspicious president and perfectly sets the stage for the political chaos of the sequels.

A crucial area in which The Hunger Games film falls far short of the book is the charade aspect, as Katniss experiences it, of her “romance” with Peeta. Without her interior narration and sophisticated play-acting once she teams up with her fellow District 12 cohort, the gradations of her ambivalence and acceptance are smoothed over to the point of boredom. The survival story retains its vitality, but what lies underneath is stunted.

At the center of things most of the time, Lawrence remains compelling all the way. During Winter’s Bone, she’s on-screen alone, or almost so, a big deal, and she holds one’s attention unselfconsciously, without asking for attention or even doing much but for the task at hand. Lawrence is one of those performers the camera loves; her appearance alters in different scenes and shots — lingering baby fat shows here, she resembles a Cleopatra there — and she can convey a lot by doing little. An ideal screen actress.

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The young men on hand can’t measure up to her standards and, while Harrelson has his moments, the combustible Haymitch has been rather cleaned up from the book. Making a decided impression in The Hunger Games movie is Lenny Kravitz, who will perhaps field more acting offers after his turn as Katniss’ charming stylist Cinna (quite a few characters are named after Romans).

Production values are ample if not lavish. The Hunger Games soundtrack, a joint venture between composer James Newton Howard and executive music producer T Bone Burnett, offers an intriguing combination of regional and atmospheric flavors (the end-title tune from Taylor Swift captures audiences on a first listen), even though more musical propulsion would have helped spiced things up in the late going.

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The battle royale has finally arrived in the form of The Hunger Games
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