With the Harry Potter film series done and dusted and the Twilight Saga limping towards its finale, a new teen fiction adaptation is being let loose on us, and it's seriously good stuff.

The Hunger Games is based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, who was involved in adapting what's likely to be the first of a screen trilogy with director Gary Ross. Together they have crafted a film that for almost two and a half hours has you on the edge of your seat.

It's not the most original dystopian fable. But with its well-formed characters, strong narrative, tense action and heartbreaking moments, The Hunger Games is more than just a blockbuster film of a blockbuster book, it's also smart, poignant and thrilling.

We're transported into a futuristic America, a post-apocalyptic world called Panem with a class structure where the rich and powerful live decadent lives while coming up with ways to keep the poor oppressed. The citizens of Capital have little to worry about, except perhaps what extravagant outfit they are going to wear next, with a dress sense seemingly influenced by a mix of Marie Antoinette and Willy Wonka.


That's in a stark comparison to those in the enslaved 12 Districts where life is purely about survival, and never more so than at the annual Hunger Games.

After a failed uprising by the peasantry, the Capital-ists decide that each year one boy and one girl will be plucked from each district as contestants in the Hunger Games. The games - filmed for television - turn kids into gladiators or "tributes" who are trained to kill and then let loose in an artificial forest where they must eliminate each other until one survivor emerges triumphant.

One of those contestants is Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence in her second fantasy franchise after last year's X-Men: First Class. But her Katniss is closer to the backwoods toughie she was Oscar-nominated for in indie breakthrough Winter's Bone.

Lawrence's strong, moving and nuanced performance centres the film, and even when she's forced to commit violent acts she retains our sympathy. Best of all though, she keeps the story moving forward as the more you think about her actions, the less certain you are about her motivations.

Lawrence is surrounded by a talented cast, including Josh Hutcherson, as her fellow District 12 tributee Peeta Mellark, and Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth. No doubt this love triangle will heat up in round two but thankfully at this stage the romance is devoid of the cheesy lines and longing stares that can afflict teen flicks.

Among the grown-ups, Stanley Tucci has a ball as the over-the-top host of the games television show, and Woody Harrelson seems perfectly cast as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta's alcoholic coach.

Obviously a film about a bunch of kids sent into a forest to kill each other while Big Brother watches has a rather brutal set-up and tone. Ross doesn't shy away from the violence, but mostly he has the decency to look the other way while it's taking place.

Depending on your age, it's either a sensitive decision or a cop-out - either way jerky camera work, shots of raised knives and spatters of blood tell us everything we need to know.

There's no need to have read the book to understand what's going on, and judging from the positive chatter from die-hard fans after the screening they should feel rewarded as well.

Since it's part of a trilogy, it does suffer from one of those frustratingly open-ended endings priming us for the next chapter.

That said, I can't wait to see what Katniss Everdeen gets up to next.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Director: Gary Ross
Running time: 142 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Move over Bella Swan, there's a new heroine in town and she rocks