This is how you adapt a novel into a satisfying movie. Granted, The Hunger Games was practically begging to be made into a film. With its gripping love triangle, its dystopian America where the poor are kept far away from the foppish, ruling 1 percent, and its tournament where teenagers from around the reconstituted United States are annually pitted against one another in a battle to the death for the amusement of the nation, the book practically reads like a screenplay already. You don't so much read it as smash it directly into your brain through your face; even people who hate to read manage to swallow The Hunger Games whole in less than 24 hours.
But it helps that the movie version of The Hunger Games isn't some cheapo Twilight-style cash-grab. The film is divided into three distinct portions. Gary Ross's direction starts out almost impressionistically—a series of long, wobbly shots of our hero, Katniss Everdeen (yes, really), as she hunts animals in the forbidden area of District 12. As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is dead-on: She's strong and quiet, but savage and sharp when she has to be. The film was shot in the North Carolina Appalachians, and Lawrence looks as comfortable in the lush green woods as a native. T Bone Burnett's spare soundtrack, too, is made up of flourishes of bluegrass music that you just wander upon, like a moment of birdsong overheard in the woods.
As Katniss is transported to the Capitol to prepare for the Games, Ross's direction becomes more confident and showy. We meet her support staff, coiffed up in ridiculous high fashion. The cast, again, is just right: Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, especially, are basically the human version of pampered, poofy dogs.
And the Hunger Games themselves are exactly as Collins wrote them: swift moments of brutality surrounded by long purgatories spent hiding in the woods, waiting for something terrible to happen. Hardcore fans are sure to miss three or four small details that didn't survive the transition from the 337-page novel to the 140-minute movie, but that's just quibbling. The movie stands as a work of art on its own, and that's the best possible tribute to the book that I can imagine.