It’s only natural to want to compare “The Hunger Games” to “Twilight.” Both are based on a series of young adult novels that were devoured primarily by teenage girls at a phenomenal rate.
Both feature boatloads of teen angst, young love, and heroines who are subjected to all manner of struggle and torment.
But that’s where the comparisons stop because the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” is superior to the “Twilight” movies in every conceivable way.
Set in a dystopian future, “The Hunger Games” takes a darkly simple science-fiction setup about a group of teens forced to battle to the death on a twisted, reality television show and injects it with compelling characters, intense action sequences, and a proportional dollop of melodrama.
Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen (played brilliantly by Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence), a confident and strong young woman who lives a hardscrabble existence in one of 12 districts under the decadently well-off and tyrannical thumb of The Capitol.
As punishment for an unsuccessful rebellion each of the districts must send a teenaged boy and girl to The Capitol every year to compete in The Hunger Games where all 24 children are forced to battle to the death with the single winner crowned with riches and fame.
And you thought an immunity challenge on “Survivor” was rough.
When Katniss’ younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected for the games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, and she is promptly whisked off to The Capitol with the other contestant from her district, the meek and dewy-eyed Peta (Josh Hutcherson).
There the duo is prepped for the competition as they are assigned a combat mentor named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson at his drunken best), a publicist named Effie Trinket (an over-made Elizabeth Banks), and a fashion consultant named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, who is cool enough to be the world’s fashion consultant).
Katniss and Peta are paraded around the Capitol with the other tributes and are given the celebrity treatment while being feted by the pompous and slimy blue-haired, talk-show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, who is so ridiculously awesome here I kind of wish Caesar Flickerman had been the one to replace Larry King).
Some of these scenes are a little over the top as The Capitol has the ghoulish feel of ancient Rome crossed with the court of Louie XVI.
But all of this garishness is quickly dispatched once the games begin and Katniss fights to survive against the elements, her fellow competitors, and the whims of Head Gamemaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley).
Behind it, all is Capitol President Snow (a stately Donald Sutherland) who views the games as a tool of intimidation to keep the subjected districts in line.
Director Gary Ross has only helmed two other features, but both were quite memorable: the TV land fantasy “Pleasantville” and the rousing “Seabiscuit.”
Here he pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the arena and delivers an emotionally tense and dynamic film. There’s not much filler here as Ross gives the characters enough room to come into their own while convincingly laying out their motivations.
He also finds time to tweak our own consumer culture and the soullessness of reality television without letting the movie devolve into farce or parody. Ross pulls this off by keeping Katniss at the heart of the story.
Katniss Everdeen is motion pictures’ most fully realized and compelling female action hero since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the “Alien” franchise.
Katniss is noble, brave, and resourceful and Lawrence deserves all the credit in the world for convincingly bringing this character to life.
This is certainly some grim subject matter and even though it does end on a hopeful note (leaving enough breathing room for the inevitable sequels) this is not a movie for young children.
Even still, as the father of a little girl, I look forward to the day when she is old enough for “The Hunger Games” because it is a rare instance where Hollywood offers up such a positive female role model.
As a father, I hope and pray my daughter turns out a lot more like Katniss Everdeen and a lot less like Bella Swan.
“The Hunger Games” is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.