In 'Hunger Games,' a Teen Heroine for Dark Times

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.

Its female protagonist and two attractive love interests -- Peeta and Katniss' hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), give "Games" surface similarities to "Twilight." But romance is secondary to Katniss' instinct to protect her family and outwit fellow competitors and cruel government Gamemakers who dry up water sources and turn the outdoor arena boiling hot by day and freezing by night.

The film's producer, Nina Jacobson, said she saw "Hunger Games" as a unique enterprise, without any through-line from "Potter" and "Twilight."

"I have always believed this is a book that can appeal to all ages," Jacobson said. She found the book to be as much of a page-turner for her as it was for her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, she said.

"It started as a YA book, but everyone I know who has read it has responded to it. It is not just a young person's book ... (and) the heroine is as relevant to boys as she is to girls."

Bob Crongeyer is 49 and male, but he related to Katniss while reading the book. "I found myself asking, 'What would I do in these situations? Would I be as brave?' "

Crongeyer always has enjoyed sci-fi, he said, as well as "1984," "Animal Farm," "The Handmaid's Tale" and other books depicting "utopian societies that have gone wrong."

A third-to-sixth-grade GATE teacher at Sacramento's Taylor Street Elementary, Crongeyer discovered the "Games" books through an adult friend. The books were a big topic of discussion last summer at a writing project for teachers that Crongeyer co-directs at UC Davis.

Nicole Kukral, 33, "had to find out what the fuss was about," when she heard other teachers in the writing course discussing the books. Once she read them, "I fell in love with them and I couldn't wait for the movie to come out."

Kukral, a San Juan district secondary teacher on special assignment, appreciated the critique of reality TV in Collins' portrayal of audiences who revel in the inherent cruelty of the Hunger Games.

Though shows such as "The Bachelor" don't show competitors killing each other with spears, they do depict "humans metaphorically tearing each other apart," Kukral said.

Crongeyer made the books available to his older Taylor Street students in their reading workshop. Some are hurrying to finish the books before the movie opens.

"It's kind of like it was when 'Harry Potter' was the big phenomenon, and a lot of kids became hooked on the act of reading," Crongeyer said.

"Hunger Games" and other examples of dystopian literature can help students conceptualize a sense of self within a larger society, Crongeyer said.

"It gets them to think in ways they haven't thought before," he said, and examine "why we do what we do."

"Are we doing it as part of society, or is it something innately human, driven by who we are as human beings?"

The "Games" books are "rich with philosophical questions," said George Dunn, a University of Indianapolis philosophy professor and co-editor of the new book "The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason."

Moral questions follow Katniss through the Games, as she tries to survive while doing the least amount of harm to others.

"How do you live through that, while maintaining a sense of yourself and your own values?" asked Dunn, 54, who read the first "Games" book in one sitting. "How can you continue to define yourself and not be defined by situations you find yourself in?"

Because Katniss sometimes must make unpleasant choices, "Games" presents a dimmer worldview than most young-adult books. The chilling nature of the story's central contest entails plenty of violent acts.

"I warn the kids about it, and there are some very sensitive kids who have chosen not to read the book," Crongeyer said. He did not find the violence "overly graphic," he said.

The filmmakers had to walk a fine line in depicting the novel's violence, Jacobson said.

"We wanted to not dilute the subject matter or to glamorize, stylize or glossify or be gratuitous with the violence," Jacobson said.

The film's PG-13 rating fulfills their goal, Jacobson said.

"We wanted people who discovered the book to be able to see the film."

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