Prepare to be wowed by "The Hunger Games." The futuristic sci-fi thriller ushered in a new era of young adult novels, and the same applies to the movie. Move over Harry Potter. A darker, more mature franchise has come to claim your throne.

Essentially a paint-by-numbers version of the original Suzanne Collins book, this Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”)-directed dystopian adventure keeps almost every scene from the novel intact, leaving little room for deviation or interpretation. However, since the book is such a strong narrative blueprint, the movie is instantly compelling and perfectly translates to the big screen.

Panem, a society split into 12 districts under the rule of the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), holds the annual Hunger Games where each district selects two ‘tributes’ to fight to the death in a savage arena. Volunteering on behalf of her sister, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes the challenge. Leaving behind her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and fighting with her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss aims to take down the system and restore hope to those who have none.

Like the books, the film is violent, clearly earning it’s PG-13 rating. The subject matter itself is rather disturbing: a group of 24 children fighting to the death. Seeing a horde of kids hunting another tribute while cheering and hollering as if they were playing a friendly game of tag is especially chilling.

But it’s not all gloom. Just as Katniss examines a beautiful butterfly in the war-torn arena, the film explores finding beauty, hope and humanity in a world stripped bare.

More On This...

The film’s primary focus is character. Over a steady but lengthy pace usually reserved for adult dramas, we are given time to relate with each character, including the minor ones like Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ costume designer and Woody Harrelson’s fabulous performance as Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s broken mentor.

Jennifer Lawrence is inspired casting as Katniss. While the film may be missing the book’s essential inner dialogue, revealing the young tribute’s insecurities and anger, Lawrence silently exhibits all those emotions on her innocent face. She does a superb job inhaling the fear and solemnity of a stomped-on society and exhaling flames of defiance.

The film is also accessible to those who have never read the books and even those not fans of the genre. The wonderful Stanley Tucci plays TV news personality Caesar Flickerman, who acts like our on-screen reference guide while also providing the most colorful performance in the film. The film is grounded in the real world, with the sci-fi gadgetry used almost as an afterthought.

While “The Hunger Games” has all the right details, all the right scenes, fine acting and cinematography, if there is a criticism, it is that it is missing that extra spark. The paint-by-numbers approach is fine and safe, but perhaps a director more experienced with lavish spectacles could have handled the ‘oomph’ of the film a bit better.

Either way, “The Hunger Games” is an excellent film, and likely the beginning of a franchise of modern classics.