More often than not, blockbuster franchises are light on content, heavy on special effects, and more escapist than thought-provoking. Easily my favorite part of The Hunger Games is the way the book and the film take up serious questions about exploitation, spectacle, and economy while still telling an amazingly compelling story.

Each year in Panam, a vision of the future in which North America is comprised of twelve districts of abject poverty and a wealthy capital, The Hunger Games are staged as punishment for a failed revolution generations before. In the games, two tributes from each district between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery and sentenced to fight to the death in a nationally broadcasted battle. The event represents the total hold the capital has on the districts, reinforcing their powerlessness. Worse, they are expected to take part in the spectacle and to enjoy it. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as a tribute to take the place of her twelve year-old sister, Primrose, who was chosen as that year’s female tribute for their district. The male tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) once saved Katniss’s life by tossing her two burnt loaves of bread from his family’s bakery. Since then, Katniss has felt indebted to him, but is too proud or too awkward to say anything about it. After training and pageantry in the capital, Katniss and Peeta have to fight for their lives against the other lethal tributes and each other while the people who love them at home, including Katniss’s best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), have to watch and worry.

As adaptations go, The Hunger Games is really strong. The writers are able to capture a lot of the political undertones of the novel, despite having to convert first-person narration to third-person. In doing so, they add some interesting scenes depicting the production of the Hunger Games which show how arbitrary and pointed so much of the violence is. Conversely, however, I was sad to lose Katniss’s own thoughts about subversion and her lack of agency in Panam and in the Games. I think the writers did a good job of balancing a narrative that contained so much build-up to the event itself so that the audience is sufficiently taken through Katniss and Peeta’s journey to the arena without rushing the action in the arena itself. The climax is a little underplayed, as are the emotions afterward, but everything to that point is carried out really well.

The actors in this film are mostly fantastic. Jennifer Lawrence does a beautiful job portraying the emotions Katniss experiences and her reserved (sometimes grumpy) way of expressing herself. The cast of adults who populate the Capital, including Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as MC Caesar, Woody Harrelson as Haymtich, and Elizabeth Banks as Effie, bring to life the book’s characters in vivid, interesting ways. Among so many veterans, Josh Hutherson’s inexperience does stand out, but he mostly holds his own until Lawrence totally upstages him in the film’s second act. Amandla Stenberg plays Rue with more vivacity than what I had pictured in the book, making her character a more effective foil to Katniss’s sister Primrose and making their scenes together more bittersweet.

The costume design at the Capital is pretty strange, but the realized vision of Cinna’s fire dress is gorgeous. The sets are wonderful, highlighting the natural environment of the games while still incorporating details that make it apparent that the situation is the set of a constructed public event. In the scenes in the outlying, impoverished districts, the muted colors and retro costume design create a setting reminiscent of Great Depression American, emphasizing the poverty most of the tributes have grown up in.

For a strong adaptation, compelling performances, and an aesthetic that captures the world of the book without getting too showy with CGI, I rate The Hunger Games 4/5 stars.

The Hunger Games was directed and written by Gary Ross with Suzanne Collins, based upon her novel. It runs 142 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.