Jennifer Lawrence is truly the girl on fire in The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is truly the girl on fire in The Hunger Games

There’s a brief anxious sequence in the new movie The Hunger Games  when its 16-year-old main girl, Katniss Everdeen (played by none other than Jennifer Lawrence), races through a deep, starry forest; falls down a hill; and rolls and rolls, only to rise up and thrust herself again into the unknown.

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Katniss, the deadly tough linchpin from Suzanne Collins’s trilogy and now a rather less imposing movie lead girl, is a teenage survivalist in a post-apocalyptic take on a familiar American myth. When she flees that forest, and even when she falls, there’s something of the American frontiersman in her, as if she were the resexed incarnation Natty Bumppo.

For as long as this short sequence lasts, it appears possible that Gary Ross, the unlikely and at times upsettingly ill-matched director for this ruthless, unnerving story, has caught the heart-wrenching pulse of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” if not that movie’s ravishing technique and propulsive energy.

Alas, Mr. Ross, the director of the genial entertainments “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” and whose script credits include “Big,” has a way of smoothing even modestly irregular edges. Katniss, who has bagged game to keep her family from starving for year, was born for drudgery stuff — for beating the odds and the state, for hunting squirrel and people both — far tougher than Mr. Ross often appears comfortable with, probably due to disposition, inclination or some BTS executive mandate.

It may be that Mr. Ross is too nice a guy for a hard case like Katniss. A wise, perhaps historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, equipped with Diana’s bow and a strong will — Katniss is a new female warrior, and she keeps you watching even while you’re longing for something better the next time around. (Mr. Ross joins the crew to direct the follow-up, Catching Fire.)

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For some fans of the The Hunger Games novel trilogy, the movie version will no doubt be disappointing, especially for those keeping inventory of the details, characters, dark thoughts and cynicism that have been made redundant. For others, the image of a girl like Katniss taking up so much screen space with so few smiles may be enough to keep faith.

The screenplay by Mr. Ross, Ms. Collins and Billy Ray hews rightfully close to its source material, at least in large strokes. Katniss is a resident in District 12 of Panem — as in panem et circenses, Latin for bread and circuses — a totalitarian state that has risen from the postwar ashes of North America.

Every year a boy and a girl from 12 to 18 years old are chosen from each Panem district to take part in the gladiatorial games of the title, a battle that owes something to that ancient Roman blood sport and something else to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, the half man, half bull that devoured Athenian youths given in tribute. The Minotaur is ultimately slain, but that’s getting ahead of Katniss Everdeen.

The Hunger Games movie begins at the selection ceremony, or reaping, a nationally televised event together with armed soldiers and a bubbly bubblehead M.C. (played by Elizabeth Banks), in which Katniss’s younger sister, Primrose (played by Willow Shields), is chosen. Katniss quickly volunteers to take place for Prim, becoming, with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), District 12’s tributes.

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The two are sent to the Capitol on a train, where they’re plucked and primped by a group of gaudily hued stylists (overseen by a gilt-lidded Lenny Kravitz playing Cinna), a potentially razor-sharp scene that should emphasize the Capitol’s decadence but here comes across as a variant on Dorothy’s joyous wash- and brush-up when she steps into the Emerald City. Katniss may not be in Kansas, but neither does she appear in palpable threat.

That changes once Katniss and Peeta are transported to the wide outdoor arena where, with wisdoms and weapons, they fight the other tributes and assorted perils generated by the game makers (featuring a dandified Wes Bentley), who dole out death through computer touch screen.

There, in a swift cut massacre that pits boy against girl and sees youngsters slaying and falling and dying in a chaotic, fragmented blur, Mr. Ross and his editors, the Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling duo, set the stage and dark theme. For her part Katniss, even though frozenly frightened, follows the advice of her and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch (an overly charming Woody Harrelson), and runs in the opposite direction.

It’s a strong, visceral scene that quickens the pace and pulse, and distills the story’s horror — suffer the little children to enter the arena — in blunt visual terms.

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Nothing else in the battle field comes close to that first battle round in its sheer primal impact. Working alongside Tom Stern, Clint Eastwood’s trusty cinematographer, Mr. Ross attempts to find mystery in the forest, in its canopy of trees and thick undergrowth, but never finds a deeper dread, in spite of the CGI fireballs and hounds, and especially the other tributes.

Part of what makes the Hunger Games novels so captivating is that they literalize the familiar drama of adolescence, translating the emotional assaults, friends pressure, cliques and the tortured rest into warfare. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did the same on TV, except there the bad ones were supernatural demons. In The Hunger Games  the real enemies here are the grown-ups, including, for certain, the parents catching the show on TV.

Fans of the Japanese cult movie “Battle Royale” might feel some overlap with its allegory about students sent to an island to fight to the death, and the rest may be reminded of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game,” about children trained to fight an alien species. If you’ve witnessed the young assassins in the recent action movies like “Kick-Ass” and “Hanna,” which feature prepubescent girls who lock, load and shoot without batting a lash, you may think you’ve also seen it before.

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You haven’t, not really. Although the girls in those movies are vaguely sexualized, their age exempts them from the narrative burdens of heterosexual romance. They don’t have to bat those lashes at the boys, and they definitely don’t need to be rescued by them either, as in the “Twilight” saga.

What invests Katniss with such intriguing promise and keeps you rapt even when the movie proves less than equally grapping is that she also doesn’t need to be saved, even if she’s at an age when, most The Hunger Games films still insist, women go soft at the knees and whimper and weep while waiting to be rescued. Again and again Katniss rescues herself with resourcefulness, guts and true aim, a combination that makes her insistently watchable, despite Mr. Ross’s soft touch and Ms. Lawrence’s bland performance.

One look at District 12, which Mr. Ross conceives as a picturesque ancient town — complete with withered Dorothea Lange sorts in what was once Appalachia — and it’s evident that someone here was enthralled with the actress’s breakout turn in “Winter’s Bone” as a fearless, resilient child of the Ozarks.

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A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission. The tougher problem is a disengaged performance that barely suggests the frights Katniss faces, including the fatalism that initially hangs on her like a shroud.

What finally saves the character and The Hunger Games film both is the image of her on the run, moving relentlessly forward. Different from those American Adams who have long embraced the national character with their reserves of hope, innocence and optimism, Katniss rises from someplace else, a place where an American Eve, injured, bruised and deeply understanding, scrambles through a garden not of her making on her way to a new world.

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Jennifer Lawrence is truly the girl on fire in The Hunger Games
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