03/20/2012 AT 6:00 AM ET
Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s) life was difficult enough before she was forced to try to kill 23 other children on national television.
Fatherless and starving in District 12, the mining center of dystopian future world Panem, she takes her little sister Prim’s (Willow Shields’s) place as a tribute, fighting to the death in an elaborate spectacle broadcast as a reality show.
To add poison to the sting, Katniss is expected to kill her own teammate, Peeta (The Kids Are All Right’s charming Josh Hutcherson), a sweet boy who has a crush on her.
Yes, The Hunger Games is feral, but its unwillingness to coddle its young audience is what made author Suzanne Collins’s trilogy such a hit. The movie sticks close to the first book, with detail-perfect renderings of the districts, the Capitol, the arena – and certainly of Katniss.
Lawrence, an Oscar nominee last year for Winter’s Bone, is a fan’s dream. With her soulful eyes and innate grit, she gives skilled hunter Katniss equal doses of complexity and appeal. Forget Twilight’s insipid Bella Swan. This is a literary heroine girls can cherish.
Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz have marvelous supporting roles, but the film isn’t always as strong as its stars. Its subtleties may get lost on viewers new to the story. Still, it’s so fiendishly engaging the even darker, scarier sequels can’t come fast enough.