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AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close
In this image released by Lionsgate, Elizabeth Banks portrays Effie Trinket, left, and Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games."

"THE HUNGER GAMES” *** — Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hensworth, Alexander Ludwig, Donald Sutherland; PG-13 (intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens); in general release

The much-awaited film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” begins quietly.

Two well-dressed men are sitting for a television interview. One has blue hair, the other an immaculately trimmed beard that swirls around his face. They carry on a sophisticated conversation about how the Hunger Games has unified their nation.

But a young girl’s scream quickly pulls the viewer away to the grim reality of District 12 — a gray, splintering world of poverty and despair.

It’s a jarring, effective juxtaposition that continues throughout the film and keeps “The Hunger Games” honest. The adaptation of the enormously popular young adult novel could have been made into a high-adrenaline action flick that gave token acknowledgment to the weighty themes of tyranny and injustice. Even worse, it could have been a bloodbath.

But director Gary Ross exhibits great restraint. More importantly, he never lets his viewers forget the difference between those who are starving and dying, and those who make a game of it.

Based on a novel where 24 children are placed in an arena in a made-for-TV fight to the death, “The Hunger Games” is indeed a violent movie. Teenage children die cruel deaths at the hands of nature, weapons and brute force. The PG-13 rating should be taken seriously.

Still, the violence is nowhere near gratuitous, and there’s no room in this film to revel in combat. The audience will be too busy wincing, aching, hurting and seething.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a strong and determined provider for a family that lost its father in a mine accident. She hunts — illegally — outside the fences of her district and cares for her sweet but brittle 12-year-old sister, Primrose.

A nightmare awakes Primrose on “Reaping Day” — an annual lottery where the Capitol, the controlling force of the country of Panem, selects a teenage boy and girl from each of its 12 surrounding district to compete in the Hunger Games. The Capitol president refers to it as “a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice.”

But it’s actually a televised slaughter of children at the hands of children, punishment for the past “treason” of an uprising.

Meanwhile, an obtuse Capitol populace treats it like a sporting event, cheering on the competitors, called “tributes,” and placing bets on their lives.

Despite long odds, Primrose’s name is drawn, and Katniss steps forward to take her place in the arena.

She’s joined by Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson, a baker’s son. They’re basically strangers, except for the fact that Peeta once saved Katniss from the brink of starvation. The District 12 tributes are whisked off to the Capitol, where they are wrapped in luxury while being prepared and trained for almost certain death.

Fussing around the tributes is the clueless Effie Trinket, played by Elizabeth Banks, who can’t see the plight of these teenagers through her caked-on white makeup. The tributes are mentored by a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the lone surviving victor of the Hunger Games from District 12.

Lawrence is too old to be playing the 16-year-old Katniss. Aside from that, she’s stunningly good in a role that fans of the book will demand a lot from. She’s resolute yet terrified, a heroine fighting for her life but refusing to descend into depravity. Harrelson complements her with the right mix of surliness and heart.

The tributes range from towering physical specimens who’ve trained their whole lives for the Games to slight young teens who never had a chance at survival. Once they are raised into the arena, an artificial mountain setting where the elements are manipulated from a high-tech control room, the killings begin. And it isn’t pretty.

Knives fly and bodies crumple. One boy has his throat slashed, while another has his neck broken. Ross, however, is able to mute some of the carnage, which no doubt helped the film avoid an R-rating. Many of the killings are implied, taking place off screen, or depicted from a distance or through a shaking camera lens. But they are no less harrowing.

The tension among the desperate tributes, the starving districts and the callous Capitol residents is always kept tight. One particularly heartbreaking scene depicts a lobby where bets are being placed on the tributes. Haymitch looks across the room to see young children opening a gift from their father, which turns out to be a sword. He is noticeably pained as the children playfully act out a killing.

Ross, who co-wrote the script with Collins, makes it awfully difficult not to ache for the tributes and downright impossible to view the Games the way the Capitol populace does.

The book’s devotees will miss some complexities and nuances of the written work. And at a lengthy two hours and 22 minutes, it’s difficult to imagine the conclusion feeling rushed, but it does. The visuals are also likely to disappoint those who have vivid images of the opulent and grotesque Capitol lifestyle in their heads. Still, it’s a faithful adaptation, and fans of the book should be satisfied, if not thrilled.

“The Hunger Games” is not carefree entertainment, and it’s not for young kids. But those mature enough to see the violence in context, handle the heavy themes and undergo a periodic shredding of their emotions are in for a captivating experience.

“The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens; running time: 142 minutes

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