Everyone who has read my reviews more than a month already knows I never read the books. My motto is if the book is good enough, some studio will make it into a movie. I'm always hearing from book readers how they are often disappointed by the film adaptation of a book. "Oh, it wasn't as good as the book..." it is oft said.


My way, if I'm disappointed in the film it is because I am disappointed in the film; not as a comparison to a book but an evaluation of film making.


After screening director Gary Ross' new film "The Hunger Games", I can't possibly imagine Suzanne Collins' novel being too much better. Indeed, Ms Collins co-writes the screenplay with Ross and Billy Ray; she also acts as executive producer - so she had a lot to do with keeping it on true to the book.

That said, it is my understanding that the book version contained scenes that were much more violently graphic than the film; so one can only assume it was toned down to achieve the targeted PG-13 rating. (Don't be surprised to see a director's cut at a later date.)


Still, the film has such a strong, well developed narrative that the toning down doesn't appear obvious to us non-book readers. It is that well directed narrative that makes this almost two-and-a-half hour film practically fly by even with the complex nature of the characters.


It all takes place is Panem - what remains of North America. It is divided into 12 districts and The Capitol; the Capitol won the war and has enslaved the other districts in various levels. According to the story, about 75 years earlier, the twelve districts revolted unsuccessfully.


As punishment for the revolt and to continue flexing it's totalitarian muscle, the Capitol stages The Hunger Games in which each district selects two teenage tributes to battle tributes from the other districts until only one of the 24 tributes survives. The games are televised and are a big hit.

In most cases the districts have kids who have been training their entire lives to compete. As is usually the case, the more affluent districts have the more sophisticated training. District 12, which is a poor mining district doesn't have those fancy training facilities. Everyone is just barely getting by.


Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected to be one of the tributes much to the dismay of her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Immediately, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place with her instinctive hunting knowledge as her biggest skill. This decision is not to the liking of her beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) but much to the liking of her co-tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who has a crush on Katniss.


Obviously, this creates the ultimate "Prizzi's Honor" dilemma that only one person can come out this competition alive. In the best case scenario, they would be faced with killing each other at the end.

Though Katniss has plenty of hunting talent, it is advised that she get mentored by a former winner. Enter a somewhat inebriated Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) as her mentor.


Since it is a televised program there is an emcee Caesar Flickerman played flamboyantly by Stanley Tucci. This is very reminiscent of Richard Dawson's "Running Man" role of Damon Killian. In fact a great portion of the games reminded me of that 1987 thriller and even - to a certain extent - 2009s "Gamer". Clearly this is not an original concept of amping up mortal combat to a televised product.


What marks "The Hunger Games" above it's predecessors is the character development and complex narrative that isn't confusing. But that is the nature of Gary Ross; he is able to take a complex story and keep it interesting without insulting the audience. Consider his previous two films were "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit" - both lengthy films with complex characters and narratives that didn't fall apart.


One departure Ross made was with the soundtrack; Randy Newman scored both "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit". This time listen for the very catchy tracks from Oscar winner T-Bone Burnett ("Crazy Hearts") and eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard ("Defiance", "Michael Clayton", "The Village", "My Best Friend's Wedding", "One Fine Day", "Junior", "The Fugitive", and "The Prince of Tides"). Behind the camera, note veteran cinematographer Tom Stern keeps the shots perfect; he's Clint Eastwood's director of photography since "Blood Work" through "J. Edgar".


This is a film that is stacked, and it shows. Lionsgate opened the vault and you can see every dime on the screen.


"The Hunger Games" is a film that lives up to the hype. It may live up to that hype through to Oscar time in 1213. Truly a film that almost makes me want to read the book! Nah!   -- GEOFF BURTON