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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

"The Hunger Games" has become a phenomenon. The young adult dystopian novel, published in 2008, became a best-seller in print and Amazon's most downloaded ebook. Now the film adaptation is set to break records as well. It opens at midnight tonight and first screenings were sold out months in advance.

It stars Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone" as the young warrior-heroine Katniss. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Suzanne Collins' novel "The Hunger Games" and its two sequels are smashingly well written and morally problematic. They're set in the future, in which a country - presumably the former United States - is divided into 12 fenced-off districts many miles apart.

Each year, to remind people of its limitless power, a totalitarian government holds a lottery to select two children per district to participate in a killing ritual televised to the masses, complete with opening ceremonies and beauty-pageant-style interviews. Out of 24 participants, only one child will live. And we hope it will be Katniss Everdeen, from the impoverished mining District 12 - a teen who, when her little sister is picked in the lottery, volunteers to take her place.

Why is it problematic? Kids killing kids is the most wrenching thing we can imagine, and rooting for the deaths of Katniss' opponents can't help but implicate us. But the novel is written by a humanist: When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that Katniss has one less adversary, but we never go: Yes! We feel only revulsion for this evil ritual.

If the film's director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids killing kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free - you can hardly see who's killing who. So despite the high body count, the rating is PG-13. Think about it: You make killing vivid and upsetting and get an R. You take the sting out of it, and kids are allowed into the theater. The ratings board has it backwards.

The packed preview audience clearly loved "The Hunger Games," but I saw one missed opportunity after another. Director Ross has a penchant for showbiz satire, pleasant in "Pleasantville" but ruinous in "Seabiscuit" - a great book about the torturous underbelly of horse racing turned into a lame, movie-ish period piece.

He approaches "The Hunger Games" like a hack. The film is all shaky close-ups, so you rarely have a chance to take in the space, and the editing is so fast you can't focus. As Katniss' dissolute mentor, Haymitch, a former Hunger Games champ, Woody Harrelson has no chance to establish a comic rhythm - or disgust at what he's doing.

The book's most fascinating and mercurial character, the costume designer Cinna, is now a blandly nice guy played by the agreeable but dull non-actor, Lenny Kravitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNGER GAMES")

LENNY KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) My name is Cinna.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Katniss) Katniss.

KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) I'm sorry that this happened to you. I'm here to help you in any way that I can.

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss) Most people just congratulate me.

KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) Well, I don't see the point in that. So tonight they have the tribute parade. They'll take you out and show you off to the world.

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss) They say you're here to make me look pretty.

KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) I'm here to help you make an impression. Now, usually they dress people in the clothes from their district.

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss) Yeah, but it's coal miners.

KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) Yeah, but I don't want to do that. I want to do something that they're going to remember. Did they explain about trying to get sponsors?

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss) Yeah, but I'm not very good at making friends.

KRAVITZ: (As Cinna) We'll see.

EDELSTEIN: A highlight of the book is how Cinna uses his showbiz savvy to make the reluctant Katniss a star, the center of the pre-Hunger Games pageant. But in the movie, her entrance in a costume that's literally in flames is so poorly framed you can't revel in her triumph. Ross throws away what could be a startling image of child warriors rising out of tubes to face one another in a semicircle, knowing they might die in seconds. Where is the horror?

The film gets some things right, like the shots of Katniss running through the woods, the canopy of trees above her streaking by. And it has an astoundingly good Katniss in Jennifer Lawrence. She's not a chiseled Hollywood ingénue or a trained action star. She looks real. And without words, she makes it clear that Katniss' task is not merely to stay alive, but somehow to hold onto her humanity.

A few other actors register in spite of the speed-freak editing. Josh Hutcherson has a strong, sorrowful countenance as Katniss' fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta. Stanley Tucci, in a blue bouffant, as a talk-show host. Wes Bentley, in a manicured black-fungus beard, as the games' high-tech coordinator. And Donald Sutherland, in a white mane, as the demonic lion of a president, are all you could hope for.

There's a terrific score by James Newton Howard that captures moods - wistful, mysterious - that the director fails to evoke. "The Hunger Games" leaves you content but not, as with the novel - devastated by the senseless carnage. It is, I'm sorry to say, the work of moral cowards.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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