For a while, The Hunger Games appears to be little more than the bustling answer to a question no one thought to ask: What would it look like if Stanley Kubrick oversaw the unveiling of Alexander McQueen's spring line? The post-war future Suzanne Collins's story is situated in is home to men and women with painted faces and coloured wigs and beards trimmed like topiaries and gnarly eyelashes that fork out like twigs from a trunk.

The clothes, of course, I will not even attempt to describe, and the names of the characters are equally flamboyant, as evocative of ancient Rome (Seneca, Claudius, Coriolanus) as your kitchen's spice rack (Clove). If nothing else, the director Gary Ross succeeds in plunging us into a vividly imagined world very different from our own, when most sci-fi filmmakers, like the talented Andrew Niccol, are content to view the future as simply the present with drabber skies and a dearth of soap.

If, like me, you stumbled upon the name of Collins's bestselling young-adult novel only in the context of this brisk and brutal film, you shouldn't worry too much about the specifics, about the Treaty of Treason and Peacekeepers and Gamemakers and the Hall of Justice. The eponymous sporting event is a reality show beamed on television to all twelve districts of the nation of Panem, each of which has submitted two contestants, a boy and a girl.

The savage spectacle could easily be named Survivor: Dystopia — its participants, adolescents cast into an arena that's essentially a jungle, think nothing of hacking one another to death (that is, if the elements and the genetically modified wildlife don't claim them first). At the end, only one of the 24 will come out alive, which is why the very entertaining Woody Harrelson, playing a boozy mentor, tells Katniss (the emphatically self-possessed Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), “Embrace the probability of your imminent death.”

That advice is probably meant for us. It is we who have to embrace all this dying, of all these children who should be in school instead of wielding weapons and conniving to come first. Come to think of it, this is school — at least the American version of it we know from the movies. Collins's genius is to have reimagined high school as a literal war zone, where only the fittest will survive, and our despair is heightened because we are never allowed to forget these kids are just kids, as when Katniss marvels as a butterfly lights on her arm, or when she cuddles up with a boy, like any girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Like JK Rowling, Collins breathes the air of pop culture, and The Hunger Games reminds us of everything from Lord of the Flies to the post-apocalyptic epics of the 1970s (Logan's Run, Westworld). But, like Rowling, the product transcends pastiche. Ross may gloss over the killings to keep his family-friendly rating, but he doesn't fail to remind us, all over again, that growing up can be murder.

The Hunger Games

Genre: Sci-fi/Action

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

Storyline: 24 kids compete in a savage reality show in the future

Bottomline: Brisk, brutal entertainment