When news of The Hunger Games movie first surfaced, the obvious first thought was probably not, ‘Hey, cool!’ (We all thought a movie would be on its way soon anyway.) It was more along the lines of, ‘How are they going to make that into a movie that the target tween-and-up audience will be able to see without an accompanying parent or guardian?’

Sure, the violence inherent in the tale of 24 teenagers competing in an annual dystopian fight-to-the-death pageant would have to be watered down (and it has been), but the result is a movie that is still terrifying, captivating, and eminently watchable.

The film version of Suzanne Collins’ runaway novel (the first in her trilogy) benefits primarily from the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. Bringing the same spot-on mix of intensity and vulnerability that she showed us in her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence anchors the film like no other young actress working today could.

The second plus is the screenplay Collins wrote herself, along with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray (Flightplan). Much of her original dialogue is jettisoned, though the story stays intact. The result is a tight, well-paced, and haunting movie that has just the right amount of backstory for the dozen or so people who haven’t read the book, without being too repetitive for the millions who have.

Ross, who hasn’t been heard from since 2003’s fine-but-nothing-special Seabiscuit, seems to have been lurking in the shadows somewhere, anxious to pop out at just the right time to remind the world who he is. His decision to film in the herky-jerky, NYPD Blue-style verité was reportedly what pushed producers to hand him the reins in the first place (after he submitted a few mocked-up scenes with his job application), and it largely works in the finished product. Though occasionally distracting and unnecessary, there are more moments where it’s effective in both heightening the tension and in also giving us some little details that would have been missed otherwise.

Overall, The Hunger Games feels perfectly paced, though (as with the book) it takes almost too long to get going. Fortunately there are memorable performances throughout the opening acts to keep things moving, including Stanley Tucci’s hilarious and unctuous turn as the Ryan Seacrest of his day, and Elizabeth Banks’ clownish (in a very good way) performance as an unnamed PR flack (though, yes, we all know it’s Effie Trinket).

Lawrence is the glue holding everything together, and her honest and multi-faceted portrayal of Everdeen is among the best of the year so far. She brings more life to the character than even Collins was able to on the printed page.

There are some parts of the movie that suffer in the transition to the screen (the vital Peeta/Katniss backstory is glossed over, and the brutality is actually underwhelming), but overall there’s nothing to complain about here.

What could have been yet another throw-away, young adult franchise instead becomes a very viable movie in and of itself. It’s big but doesn’t feel overblown, and it’s crafted so well that it’s among the first movies of its ilk to rightfully earn kudos from fans and critics alike.

That’s how you do it.

4.5/5 stars