Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games,"...

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," released by Lionsgate in theaters March 23, 2012. Credit: Lionsgate

One kid bludgeons another to death while sports commentators murmur approval in "The Hunger Games," a teenage sci-fi film that's obviously darker than "Harry Potter" and far more sophisticated than "The Twilight Saga."

The movie clearly wants to replace those massive franchises, but is America ready for a story in which children kill each other for prime-time entertainment?

Sales figures for Suzanne Collins' best-selling "Hunger Games" novels say yes, but this inaugural adaptation seem less sure. Though its violence can be rough and its satire sharp, the movie feels softened by its PG-13 rating and only glancingly illuminates the book's darker, Orwellian themes. It's solid and serious-minded, particularly for an aspiring blockbuster, and the attractive cast should satisfy fans. But there's a smarter, tougher film hiding inside this one.

Speaking of smart and tough, our heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a young huntress from rural District 12, played with grit and bottled-up emotion by Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"). Local boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, "The Kids Are All Right") seems a wan presence, but it's clear why he yearns for Katniss: She's a teenage Diana, bowstring ever-taut against flushed cheek. Their loyalty will be put to the test in the annual Hunger Games, a lethal Olympiad with only one winner.

Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") works hard to visualize Collins' elaborate dystopia, with mixed results: The tyrannical Capitol city looks like West Berlin guarded by "Star Wars" Stormtroopers, while Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, as various Games celebrities, wear zany Mad Hatter outfits. Woody Harrelson goes for high quirk as a drunken mentor with an odd lisp.

At its best, though, when bigger teens start preying on smaller ones while cameras record the splatter, "The Hunger Games" makes for a potent mix -- "Lord of the Flies" meets "Network." It's a promising pilot for a franchise with potential to be something more than mere entertainment.


PLOT In a dystopian future, two teenagers must compete in a deadly reality-television show RATING (PG-13)(some intense violence and action)

CAST Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks.

LENGTH 2:22.

PLAYING AT Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE Lawrence is smarter and gutsier than the movie itself, but this is a promising start to a potentially edgy and serious-minded teen franchise.

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