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March 23, 2012

'Hunger Games' isn't hungry enough

Gary Ross' movie version of "The Hunger Games" obeys the iron-clad rule of transforming beloved fantasy fiction into a big-budget film franchise: Do not offend the fans.

Like the "Twilight" series, and many of the "Harry Potter" pictures, this is a dutiful adaptation of an imaginative, evocative page-turner; it renders the most vivid passages of Suzanne Collins' best-selling novel — for instance, the attack of the "tracker jackets," a group of deadly wasps — exactly as you might picture the scenes while reading them.

Yet, Ross (who previously directed "Seabiscuit") serves up images that feel recycled from familiar pop ephemera like "Logan's Run," "The Fifth Element," or David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase; and the screenplay (which Ross co-wrote with Collins and Billy Ray) ultimately pulls too many punches, softening the novel's core of bitterness and nihilism. The result is well-made and absorbing, but never especially exciting — a movie that ends up denying the potential of its source material.

Collins' novel, published in 2008 and the first in a trilogy that also includes "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay," takes place in a nightmarish future, where North America has become a country called Panem, composed of 12 districts of varying degrees of economic prosperity.

In order to remind the populace of its debt to the government, Panem's leaders insist on an annual ritual, broadcast across the nation, called "The Hunger Games." Twenty-four teenagers, a boy and a girl from each of the districts, are chosen to compete in this "Survivor"-style fight to the death.

It doesn't take much effort to see Collins' novel — set mostly in a capital city populated by wealthy elites who sip brightly-hued cocktails and watch teenagers stab, maim and impale one another — as a screed against the one percent.

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