Back in January, before I moved to NYC, I finally got around to reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. My sister had gotten the entire trilogy for Christmas from our dad, and after she had devoured the book and couldn’t stop yammering about it like nearly every single other young person I knew, I figured it was time for me to explore this current facet of popular culture that had completely captured the public imagination. While I was less than impressed with Suzanne Collins’s prose (in fact, I found it to be so distractingly awful that it nearly ruined any pleasure I could gain from the book) and I recognized that the story was essentially just a poor man’s Battle Royale, I had to admit that Collins was an excellent storyteller (at least by young adult novel standards) and her world-building was very compelling. When I saw that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast in the film version, I allowed myself to get excited because I believed that free from Collins’s prose, her quick-paced plotting would be allowed to shine. And I was right. The film adaptation of The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville), is a visually stunning triumph that allows the story at the heart of the novel to finally shine the way it was meant to.

An unidentified number of years into America’s future, a young girl named Katniss Everdeen (Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) lives under the thumb of the totalitarian nation of Panem. After an unsuccessful uprising against their dictatorial government, the 12 districts of Panem are now forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to fight in a televised battle to the death as penance for their past rebellion. Katniss, a young hunter living in the impoverished District 12, volunteers to fight in the Hunger Games when her 12 year old sister Prim is chosen by the random lottery as Tribute. Along with her District’s other tribute, the strong and friendly Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is shipped to the Capitol, the lavishly rich and eccentric District 13, where everyone dresses like an extra in a Lady Gaga music video where she receives training and a makeover from the alcoholic Haymitch (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), a past winner of the Games from her District, and her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). After two weeks of training, Katniss and the 23 other tributes are unleashed into the arena for a bloody battle of survival where only one Tribute can be left standing.

First and foremost, the casting decisions in this film were almost uniformly excellent. I only have one small complaint (Peeta, so I guess it’s not that small). Jennifer Lawrence is without question one of the most talented young actresses in Hollywood today and the only reason she shouldn’t have won the Oscar back in 2010 for Winter’s Bone was because of Natalie Portman giving arguably the greatest female performance of all time in Black Swan. Perhaps because I knew she had been cast as Katniss before I read the books, I’m not sure if I could think of a single young actress who seems better suited for the role, and while Katniss isn’t the most complex or demanding role, it’s fair to say that Jennifer Lawrence added layers to her performance that just weren’t there in the actual script. Woody Harrelson was an absolutely brilliant Haymitch, and this continues his sudden career resurgence as an actually quite talented actor (instead of being typecast as idiot characters) that really began with his role in The Messengers (one of 2009’s most underrated films). Liam Hemsworth was an appropriately swoon-worthy and brooding Gale even if he wasn’t given much to do. Elizabeth Banks was completely unrecognizable as Effie. My only complaint with casting was that Josh Hutcherson didn’t seem to have enough personality as Peeta. In the books, Katniss is sort of boring and Peeta is the really engaging character. It’s the opposite effect in the film.

For a film that runs at two hours and twenty minutes, The Hunger Games will fly by even when you take its lengthy introduction scenes into account. The direction and editing are simply spot on, and I can’t remember the last time that a film of this length felt this short. Suzanne Collins plotting was break-neck and while the film adds a lot of material, it actual improves the cohesiveness of the story by placing much of the action in greater context. I remember hearing some of the girls behind me in the theater on Saturday complaining about all of the material that was added, but I honestly felt it helped to give a bigger-picture view of Panem and that this story isn’t wholly about Katniss. I was worried that the film version would shy away from the graphic depictions of violence that has made the book so infamous among more squeamish parents, and let’s just say that isn’t a problem. It earns every ounce of its PG-13 rating (and I could go on a long rant here about how sad it is that we’re okay with exposing our kids to absurd levels of violence but not sexuality and language but that’s a rant for another day). The film is clever in how it depicts some things but when it wants to create a visceral, gut reaction (like with the death of a certain beloved Tribute that’s only a small, small child), it doesn’t pull any punches.

Free of Suzanne Collins’ actual writing, which makes Stephenie Meyer look like Neil Gaiman, the only structural problems that remain in The Hunger Games are legacy problems from the book, mainly how threadbare the character development is. Despite Jennifer Lawrence’s lovely performance, I still don’t feel like I know very much about Katniss, and other than being a sensitive, nice guy, there’s almost nothing to know about Peeta despite the very significant amount of screen time he gets. Don’t even get me started on all of the other Tributes who with one or two exceptions, are a giant army of Red Shirts. Although, the series does actually improve one characters development compared to the first book, President Snow (Academy Award nominee Donald Sutherland), by actually showing him in his true evil dictator style by having him converse with the Game Maker (American Beauty‘s Wes Bentley). Realizing that this isn’t mean to be a character drama by any stretch of the imagination, I still wish we had a little more reason to care about the fates of the people trapped inside of this battle to the death besides the designated heroine.

Everybody should go watch this film. Much like my expected feelings toward the upcoming The Avengers film (which is being made by Joss Whedon), The Hunger Games will be one of this year’s “event films” that not only lives up to its hype but provides the sort of no-holds barred visceral entertainment that even stuff film purists will have to admit to enjoying. Gary Ross brings a unique artistic vision to this series that should please not only the ravenous fans of Suzanne Collins’ books but even people who haven’t read them or who were like me and thought they were highly overrated. Will this be one of the best films of the year? I really hope not, but as the sort of film that steps across traditional viewer taste lines, its egalitarian appeal can’t be overlooked. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Final Score: B+