The first movie blockbuster of 2012 occurs in a post-apocalyptic world where hope is fleeting, food is scarce and young combatants battle to the death in a government-mandated contest presented on TV as entertainment.
It comes from a book for teens.
"The Hunger Games," out Friday, is expected to generate big box-office numbers via the millions of fans captivated by the 2008 Suzanne Collins novel on which it is based and the book's two sequels.
Widely considered the next entry in the lucrative book-to-movie youth market, after "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," "The Hunger Games" comes from a book less moony than "Twilight" and more pragmatic and older-skewing than the first "Potter" novel.
Its heroine, Katniss Everdeen (played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone") is a 16-year-old "tribute" conscripted, along with 23 other preteens and teens, to kill each other on live television until one tribute is left standing. Katniss proves highly capable but also compassionate, despite barbaric circumstances.
The trilogy has struck chords with girls who admire Katniss' fortitude and with adults who appreciate author Collins' thoughtfulness and willingness to ask the big questions.
Katniss "is really independent, and she knows how to take care of herself," said Maddy Todd, 13, of Citrus Heights, a seventh-grader at Andrew Carnegie Middle School. "I think it is really cool that she has been sort of taking care of her family since her father died."
At the book's start, Katniss' father's death in a mining accident and her mother's crippling depression have sent the girl into the woods outside her fenced-off "district" to hunt with a bow and arrow. The wild game and the roots and berries she brings home feed her mother and younger sister.
Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games in place of her kid sister, whose name has been selected by government authorities.
Katniss "already knows so much about everything, and that is what helps her throughout the book," said Sydney Padilla, 15, a sophomore at Vista Del Lago High School in Folsom.
More than 23 million copies of "The Hunger Games" and its sequels "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" are in print in the United States, according to publisher Scholastic. That number might not reflect total readers -- the books get passed around -- or times read.
Todd is reading the trilogy, which she called "riveting and really suspenseful," for the third time. She likes the movie's casting of Lawrence -- just 21 and already an Oscar nominee for "Winter's Bone" -- as Katniss, but said "they could have done better with Peeta."
Peeta, the other Hunger Games competitor from Katniss' district, is played by Josh Hutcherson, best known for his role as the teen son in "The Kids Are All Right."
Todd is keeping an open mind, though. She will make her final decision after seeing the movie, probably at a midnight show Thursday night.
Padilla will attend a midnight show in Folsom with about 10 friends, she said.
Plans for group outings have spurred healthy advance ticket sales. "Hunger Games" accounted for 59 percent of all online ticket sales at Fandango.com early last week -- 10 days before its opening. Six hundred showtimes nationally had sold out.
"It is outpacing the first 'Twilight' film" at the same point in the sales cycle, Fandango spokesman Harry Medved said.
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