The Hunger Games (12A)


Dir: Gary Ross

With: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson

Running time: 142 minutes

AND the winner of the franchise to take over from Harry Potter as a global moneyspinner is ... drum roll please ... this sharp, engrossing, thrill-a-minute drama based on the bestseller by Suzanne Collins.

They've come: the superheroes, the faux wizards, the werewolves. We've seen, and in some cases – M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender – we've laughed. But it is Gary Ross's action drama, courtesy of a muscular script, a natural born screen heroine in Jennifer Lawrence and a supporting cast that runs from Woody Harrelson to Donald Sutherland, that has conquered the competition.

Its secret? Not that different from Potter's: acquire the right source material, hire the best cast possible and dare to stretch your young, switched on audience instead of patronising the Blue Peter out of them. Ross's picture, even if it does overstay its welcome by a good 20 minutes, hits the mark on all counts.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, resident of District 12 in the country of Panem, which was once upon a time North America. Those allergic to the kind of fiction for which you need a glossary handy might be coming out in a light sweat by now, but don't worry. Ross's picture assumes some knowledge of the books, but not too much.

As punishment for once rebelling, the districts must surrender one boy and one girl to take part in the annual fight to the death know as The Hunger Games. Filmed and transmitted to the watching nation, it's basically Big Brother without the booze and the borderline mental health disorders.

Before the event, contestants in the Games are treated like celebrities in waiting. Travelling by luxury train, fed like geese heading for the slaughter, interviewed on prime-time television, the script by Ross (who wrote Big and directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), Collins, and Billy Ray (State of Play) will press many a button with audiences familiar with reality television, The Truman Show, and much else.

Those are the obvious cues. The joy of The Hunger Games is that it can be taken on any number of levels. It's a story of haves and have nots; it's a Darwinian fable; it's a nightmare vision of the future that looks a lot like the post-war European past; it's a glimpse of a brave new world in which so-called civilisation has reverted to the excesses of the Roman empire.

You could talk yourself into Pseuds' Corner quite easily with The Hunger Games, or you could take it as a rattling good yarn and simply enjoy.

Katniss's character is established in the first minutes of the film when we see her switch from comforting her younger sister to threatening to cook the family cat. No reams of exposition, just a couple of scenes that say everything required.

Lawrence, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a doughty mountain girl in Winter's Bone, wears the part of Katniss like a old winter coat. That wide open face of hers can switch from frightened child to incensed warrior in a flash, and Ross wisely shoots her in close up whenever he can. Otherwise, she's the very dab of an athletic, if underfed, young woman. No running around in skimpy shorts and heels for Katniss – it's anoraks, boots and rucksack all the way. (Just to make Lawrence feel at home post-Winter's Bone, she even gets to eat a few squirrels.)

In keeping with the target audience's eye for detail, The Hunger Games is a highly designed piece. The citizens of the capital city, all candy coloured hair and exquisitely tailored suits, look like they've stepped off a Vivienne Westwood catwalk. It's not uniformly well done – some of the special effects look decidedly wobbly – but Ross manages to conjure up a convincingly dystopian world.

He takes such a long time exploring the run up to the games you begin to wonder if the story will collapse under the weight of expectation once the scrapping starts. It doesn't. The action kicks in here, with set-up after set-up pitting the youngsters against each other. Yes it's brutal at times, even with the cuts made pre-certificate, but there is a surprising amount of humanity, and tenderness, too. If anything, a little too much of the latter.

Josh Hutcherson supplies solid support as Katniss's fellow competitor, but it's Woody Harrelson as her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy – crazy name, kerrazzee guy – who matches her for presence. The rest of the cast, including Donald Sutherland as a Machiavellian president and Stanley Tucci as an oleaginous chat show host, bring their grown-up game too.

There are two more books in the series. At this point, a sequel seems like a treat, not a threat. Then again, the first Twilight film wasn't bad either, and look what a pile of tripe that became.

But if Ross can keep up this gold standard, this is one franchise that won't be starved of audiences.