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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Hunger Games'

Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

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In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games," opening on Friday, March 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)

THE HUNGER GAMES

(PG-13)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

The third hugely popular young adult book series of late (arriving in the wake of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight") to be adapted for the big screen, "The Hunger Games" finally arrives with a high level of buzz and anticipation that is practically off the charts. Having already set a presale ticket record on the fandango web site (replacing the most recent installment of "Twilight"), "The Hunger Games" is poised to become one of the biggest if not the top box-office champ of 2012 -- and it's only March.

While all three franchises share considerable conceptual overlap (sci-fi and/or horror settings with adolescent protagonists and overflowing cultural/political parallels), "The Hunger Games" decidedly separates itself from the other two with what will likely become the single most controversial aspect of any film released this year. It depicts children willfully and wantonly killing other children. Before we start splitting hairs here, by legal definition, anyone under the age of 18 is not an adult and is thus a child -- or a minor -- if you wish to make it sound slightly less abhorrent.

As this is a work of fiction that is set in the distant future and is working with bottomless artistic license, "The Hunger Games" can do whatever it wants in the name of art. That is its right. The problem with this argument is that the producers of the movie chose to craft it in a way that will allow preteens -- en mass -- to see it.

Ask anyone who has read the book and they'll tell you the only way it could have been faithfully translated to the screen would have required an "R" rating. While not complete box-office suicide, an "R" rating for this film would have cut its take in half, if not more. Even with its hard "PG-13" rating, it is totally inappropriate for most of the people who will end up seeing it.

Let's disregard all of that social impact stuff and get to the most important point: how does it work as movie for an adult viewer that has never read the book? It's not bad, really. It doesn't assume a lot and it explains its plot adequately. There are no huge gaping holes in the narrative but there is just enough to indicate to the uninitiated that it's missing something.

The most obvious of these shortcomings is where exactly in the future are we (it's probably the early 22nd century), what got us here (probably nuclear war) and why is this place that used to be North America now divided into 12 districts and is now called Panem? About 30 seconds of the film addresses these questions and it's not nearly enough narrative exposition.

Depending on your tastes, what fills the rest of the movie is either a variation on a reality TV show, a demolition derby or the NCAA Final Four. One underage male and female is chosen by lottery from each of the 12 districts who are taken to the Capital where they will be made media and audience friendly, buffed and polished and then thrown into a highly-controlled wilderness setting where 23 of them will die and only one will emerge as the champion/victor/idol.

If you are among that crucial (but not firstly targeted) 18-24 demographic, have (or never have) read the book and possess little to no awareness of classic literature or films made prior to the mid '90s, the movie will strike you as a brilliant, watershed classic. That's incredibly great news for the studio.

If however you are familiar with certain older books and/or movies, you might feel like ... .well, the victim of blatant recycling. These titles include but are certainly not limited to: "The Wizard of Oz," "The Lord of the Flies," "Fahrenheit 451," the original "Rollerball," "Romeo & Juliet," "The Fifth Element," "Gladiator," "Ben-Hur," "Deliverance" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

Again, luckily for the studio, few of the ravenous fans know of or can recall little of these films and that's a net plus. The box-office will be very kind for "The Hunger Games" overall but among those not still living with their parents (and that includes anyone also eligible for AARP benefits), not so much.

Based just on the first installment, "The Hunger Games" is light-years better than "Twilight" (all of them) and about as good as the weakest "Harry Potter" (each is interchangeable). The biggest concern any non-fan of the book or film might have is: will the incredibly talented lead Jennifer Lawrence (who signed on for three more installments and will be in her late 20's before it's all over) be forever typecast and unable to go on to better if not bigger things after this? Let's certainly hope not; this should not be her career-defining role. (Lionsgate)