"The Hunger Games" is set in a future where the government, known as The Capitol, holds an annual contest where 12-18-year-olds fight to the death for fame and fortune.

"The Hunger Games" is an odd mash-up of TV reality shows ("Survivor") video games ("Mortal Combat") with a bit of "American Idol" thrown in.

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has the Steven Tyler role, judging from her flamboyant getup (Lady Gaga meets a Helena Bonham Carter character from a Tim Burton film).

The cartoonish and cartoonishly-named TV show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) acts like Regis Philbin on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and, in a blue pompadour and pig-tailed wig, looks like a character from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

His TV show co-host, Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones), appears to have placed second in an Elton John (mid-career) lookalike contest.

The game show hosts, and many in the TV studio audience seem to be trying to outdo each others' hairdos. Credit Readers Anonymous spoiler: Dozens of hair stylists are listed in the credits.

The "Games" are controlled by a NASA-like "situation room" phalanx of game controllers, who start fires, change rules and create flesh-eating beasts out of thin cyberspace from Computer Generated Imagery.

The game-show scenes are peripheral, make the movie unnecessarily long and could have been cut to make a more efficient and better movie.

Fortunately, at the center of "The Hunger Games" is Jennifer Lawrence as the preposterously named Katniss Everdeen. Blame author Suzanne Collins, of TV's "Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!" children's series fame and author of the bestselling trilogy, the first of which this movie is based on, for the overly-cute character names).

Lawrence (Oscar actress nominee, "Winter's Bone," 2010), an extraordinary young actor, plays a backwoods young woman transformed into a celebrity presence. Her radiant eyes, impassive face and, yes, cat-like composure lend the movie a veracity lacking in the screenplay.

Katniss's counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a sort of younger Michael J. Fox, is excellent. In a smaller role as Gale Hawthorne is the impossibly handsome Liam Hemsworth ("The Last Song"), auguring a more prominent role in the sequel.

Woody Harrelson, as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss's mentor, in a Tom Petty style wig, seems to be thinking wistfully of his days in the likes of "Natural Born Killers" (1994).

Lenny Kravitz makes a strong impression as Cinna, another of Katniss's handlers. He seems preoccupied, too, perhaps hoping the role lands one of his songs on the soundtrack, a royalty gravy train.

Wes Bentley gets the award for second worst-character name as Seneca Crane and worst salon services (for his Etch-A-Sketch beard).

Donald Sutherland, looking like The Mad Hatter in full white beard and hair, gives an avuncular reading in his role as The Capitol President Snow.

Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit," 2003; writer-director "Pleasantville," 1998; writer, "Big," 1988; "Lassie," 1994; "Dave," 1993), a son of Arthur A. Ross ("Creature From the Black Lagoon," 1954), co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray ("Flightplan," 2005; "State of Play," 2009).

Ross understands the teen-age angst, societal dislocation and Velveeta at the core of the cheesy material.

"The Hunger Games" is expertly lensed in blues and grays for District 12; flashy overstimulation for the TV sequences and forests of green for the "Games" by Director of Photography Tom Stern ("Million Dollar Baby," 2004; "American Beauty," 1999). The music is composed by James Newton Howard and supervised by T-Bone Burnette.

The violence depicted in "The Hunger Games" is less graphic than that in many war or crime-theme movies.

Then again, it is about a television game show where teens kill each other for sport. "The Hunger Games" books and movie are about that topic, too, as is this review, which you are reading.

You get the picture.

"The Hunger Games," MPAA rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens; Genre: Action, Drama, Science Fiction; Run time: 2 hours, 22 minutes; Distributed by Lionsgate.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Berks County's Taylor Swift sings "Eyes Open" and, with The Civil Wars, "Safe & Sound," and The Secret Sisters perform "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" during "The Hunger Games" closing credits.

Box Office, March 23: "The Hunger Games" opened at No. 1 with $155 million, third-biggest-ever opening, behind "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" ($169.2 million, 2011) and "The Dark Knight" ($158.4 million, 2008).

2. "21 Jump Street," $21.3 million, $71 million, two weeks; 3. "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," $13.1 million, $177.3 million, four weeks; 4. "John Carter," $5 million, $62.3 million, three weeks; 5. "Act of Valor," $2 million, $65.9 million, five weeks; 6. "Project X," $1.9 million, $51.7 million, four weeks; 7. "A Thousand Words," $1.9 million, $14.9 million, three weeks; 8. "October Baby," $1.7 million, opening; 9. "Safe House," $1.4 million, $122.6 million, seven weeks; 10. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," $1.3 million, $97.1 million, seven weeks;

Unreel, March, 30:

"Wrath of the Titans," PG-13: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Rosamund Pike and Ralph Fiennes tell the tale of Perseus, his father Zeus, son Ares and brother Hades.

"Mirror Mirror," PG: An evil queen (Julia Roberts) steals control of a kingdom. Lily Collins, Arnie Hammer and Nathan Lane also star in the fantasy.

"Goon," R: A semi-pro hockey player (Seann William Scott) battles the odds in the comedy.

"Intruders," R: Two children in different countries are visited by a faceless being in the horror film.

"Bully," R: A documentary about bullying in United States schools.

Hear Paul Willistein's movie reviews on Lehigh Valley Arts Salon, 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, www.wdiy.org http://www.wdiy.org , Lehigh Valley Community Public Radio. Read previous movie reviews at www.tnonline.com http://www.tnonline.com . Email Paul Willistein at: pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes