March 28, 2012 at 05:50 PM EDT

The Hunger Games grossed $34.8 million in the United States last Sunday (en route to a record-setting $152.5 million weekend), and exactly $40 of that total came from my household. My wife and daughter are fans of Suzanne Collins’ novels. My son and I were newbies to the dystopian world of Katniss Everdeen and the cruel Survivor-gone-psycho reality show that was The Hunger Games. I “enjoyed” the story, as much as one can “enjoy” a YA-style riff on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery whose second best quality was its artfully sustained tone of suffocating hopelessness. (The best quality: Jennifer Lawrence, who made this coldly cynical enterprise not only watchable but also meaningful. I loved the True Grit of this budding counterculture heroine.)

The whole set-up — from the Reaping to the countdown to Battle Royale outside the Cornucopia — was just heartbreakingly scary. They were trapped. Like, buried alive trapped. And I felt their despairing, mind-blowing panic. During the section of the movie set in The Capitol, I kept waiting for Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, to rebel and pull a Logan’s Run. (I mean this as a very small critique: I think the movie should have given us a scene during all that primping and training and star-making stuff in which one of them boldly quit and suffered the consequences. The movie needed to show the tributes — and the audience — why not playing the game invites a worse fate than playing it.)

But no: Into the arena they all went. The slaughter at the Cornucopia was horrifying. And because the first half of the movie had so effectively established the stakes and cultivated so much dread, this violence didn’t need to be any more graphic than it was. It was exactly, precisely as disturbing as it needed to be. At least for me. And certainly for my son, a Halo-playing wanna-be badass middle schooler who chose to look away from the screen at this moment.

From this point forward, the movie began losing its effectiveness for me. I admired Katniss’ approach to nonparticipation, choosing to commit acts of violence only in self-defense, and never with intent to kill. (I think.) Still, the movie lagged more and more as Katniss tried to avoid conflict. Among the things that bugged me: The field-of-play “villains,” such as they were; those killing machine career tributes were superficial critiques of dehumanizing war culture. (Why the hell did Peeta form an alliance with them? If his intention was to protect Katniss, why the hell didn’t he kill them or maim them or something in their sleep when he had the chance? That boy needed more hardness, a little more Haymitch; he needed to be the admirable warrior to Katniss’ conscientious objector.) The stuff I liked: the ill-fated interlude with Rue, Seneca Crane’s manipulative game management, and Katniss’ final subversion of the game for the win.

Bottom line? The movie made me a fan. My quibbles aside, the movie got me invested in Katniss Everdeen. I hope she can survive her rigged-game world. More, I hope she can change it. I want to see if she can.

After watching the movie, I was presented with an interesting assignment by The Hunger Games cabal here at Entertainment Weekly. They were curious to know — from my perspective as a Hunger Games neophyte — what I made of certain aspects of the world, bits of business that (presumably) were given more explanatory context in the book but were presented more ambiguously in the movie. Not one to resist an opportunity to theorize madly and erroneously, I accepted the assignment.

NEXT: The hand signal, the rose scent, and the mockingjay — my clueless theories

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