Death is a lottery - literally - in Gary Ross’s nail-biting survival thriller based on the first chapter of Suzanne Collins’s post-apocalyptic trilogy.
Set in a dystopian future where plucky teenagers compete in a gladiatorial death match, The Hunger Games was always going to struggle to meet the dizzying expectations of the book’s ardent fans.
Of course, the same fate befell the first instalments of the Harry Potter and Twilight series - modern cinema’s technical wizardry simply cannot compete with the boundless invention of a reader’s imagination.
However, the film is suspenseful, exhilarating and genuinely moving, galvanised by strong performances and breathlessly orchestrated action sequences.
Screenwriters Ross, Collins and Billy Ray remain faithful to the source novel including chilling scenes of adolescent protagonists slaying each other to survive and impress the viewing public.
It’s no wonder UK censors recommended cuts and alterations to the intense scenes of carnage to achieve a 12A certificate.
Gore is plentiful though never excessive. Parents of small children should exercise caution.
North America lies in ruins and in its place stands the deeply divided autocratic nation of Panem, comprising the wealthy Capitol and 12 surrounding, poorer districts controlled by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Every year, one boy and one girl from each district are selected by lottery to take part in The Hunger Games: a televised contest designed by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley).
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), joining baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as the tributes from District 12.
The teenagers are escorted to the Capitol by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and alcohol-sodden mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose first advice is to “embrace the probability of your imminent death”.
Katniss and Peeta are prepared for the tournament by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), while television coverage hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) creates an atmosphere of feverish excitement.
Eventually, the pair from District 12 must face their rivals including sadistic Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and weakling Rue (Amandla Stenberg).
Only one can survive.
The Hunger Games is a terrifically entertaining opening salvo that whets our appetite for the romance and rebellion to follow.
Oscar nominee Lawrence beautifully captures the steeliness and despair of a resourceful daughter, who would die for the people she loves.
Hutcherson is equally compelling and the menage a trios with Liam Hemsworth’s rugged best friend is swiftly established.
Ross employs handheld cameras to sprint alongside competitors, giving a palpable sense of their disorientation and mounting dread as whooping rivals close in for the kill.
“There are lots of underdogs. I think if you could see them, you wouldn’t root for them,” President Snow sneers at one point.
Katniss is a classic underdog and we’re rooting for her every blood-stained step of the way.
By Damon Smith
:: NO SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7.5/10
Released: March 23 (UK & Ireland), 142 min