'Hunger Games' 101: The plot and players of Panem


This is one lottery no one hopes to win.

Young adults chosen by chance compete in a kill-or-be-killed reality show -- that's the grim premise behind "The Hunger Games," the popular book trilogy written by former kids' TV writer Suzanne Collins.

But the material soars because at the center of this futuristic story is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who has enough love, courage and, luckily, skill to play. If she wins The Hunger Games, it's more than just easy living for her and her starving family.

Katniss has a social conscience, and if the authorities want to use her for their means, well, she has plans, too.

Friday's big-screen adaptation of the first book will have fans flocking to the theater to see if justice has been done. Online ticket outlet Fandango.com reports the film already has more than 1,000 sold-out showtimes, surpassing advance-ticket sales of the 2008 vampire blockbuster "Twilight."

Lionsgate Entertainment is poised to make "The Hunger Games" a tent-pole franchise that could financially support other, smaller projects. Interesting to note: In January, Summit Entertainment LLC became a subsidiary of Lionsgate, which brings the "Twilight" saga into the corporate mix.

The "Hunger Games" trilogy -- completed by "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" -- is young adult fiction, but, like a certain other series featuring sparkling vampires, it has a strong following among adults. Unlike the "Twilight" books, it's also drawn a healthy percentage of male readers.

More than 26 million copies of books in the trilogy are in print, including a special movie tie-in edition. "The Hunger Games" debuted in September 2008 with the next two chapters arriving one year apart after that.

There are great acts of love, but no sex, throughout the series, but the trilogy has drawn criticism for the inventive and often creepy level of violence -- on top of the whole "kids-killing-kids" thing, of course.

Not since Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" had such a literary stir been made over the selection of a piece of paper. No homespun Americana here, however, in the land now known as Panem.

The Capitol is Panem's cruel but glittering center of government, art and culture. It has reaped the spoils of a distant civil war against the rest of what was North America, having humbled the other 11 "Districts."

For 74 years, as a reminder, the Capitol has demanded two "tributes" from each district, a boy and girl ages 12-18 who compete in a weeks-long battle royal to the death. It's mandatory viewing on national television, and the participants are treated as reality show celebrities.

In District 12, a mining town known as the Seam, Katniss and her friend Gale illegally hunt with bow and arrow to support their families. Her story begins on Reaping Day, the quasi-festive occasion when tributes are chosen by chance.

Ms. Collins, writing on the official Hunger Games Facebook page, recently posted: "I've just had the opportunity to see the finished film of 'The Hunger Games.' I'm really happy with how it turned out.

"I feel like the book and the film are individual yet complementary pieces that enhance one another."

Let the Games begin.


THE PLAYERS

Some of the trilogy's most memorable characters make brief appearances in the first book, such as slick Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci in the movie), and Prim, Katniss' little sister. From the looks of it, Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) has a beefed-up role in the film version. Here are the players:

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) -- Katniss is strong and determined to protect her family at all costs. When the casting process began for Katniss, the talented Ms. Lawrence had just scored an Oscar nomination for her work as a young woman trying to help her family in a hardscrabble existence in "Winter's Bone." Some "Hunger Games" fans initially groused that Ms. Lawrence, 21, was too old, too peach-skinned, too blond, but she's since been widely hailed as the right choice.

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- A baker's son rarely knows hunger, but he does know longing: Peeta has loved Katniss from afar since they were kids. Peeta once did a kindness when the Everdeens were starving, and Katniss must decide what she owes him once they are in the Games arena. Mr. Hutcherson and Ms. Lawrence said they bonded making the film, although she did give him a mild concussion when they were goofing around, off-camera. "The only time I got hurt was when I got kicked in the side of the head by Jennifer," he told E! Online.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) -- Thankfully, there isn't any serious Team Peeta/Team Gale nonsense in "The Hunger Games." Still, Gale must be considered Katniss' soulmate. At the beginning of the book, he wants her to run off with him. Although he can only watch her in the Games, his hatred of the Capitol is an indication he will stay on the sidelines only for so long. Mr. Hemsworth lost out to his brother, Chris, in playing a Norse god, in "Thor" and "The Avengers," but he might just have the last box-office laugh when the dust clears.

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) -- Katniss and Peeta's escort throughout the Games' process, she is a flighty, overdressed, powder-puffed woman desperate to trade up to a better District than 12. Is she merely self-centered or truly one of the bad guys? Ms. Banks, who lobbied hard to win the role, had to spend more than two hours getting made up each day and has joked that director Gary Ross had better focus on her absurd shoes and nails, considering the pain and inconvenience they cost her.

Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) -- One of only two District 12 tributes to have survived the Hunger Games, Haymitch is mentor to Katniss and Peeta, provided he stays upright and sober. He's more cunning than he appears, however, and Katniss worries he might be favoring her fellow District 12 tribute. Mr. Ross has said from the start he wanted Mr. Harrelson to play the role.

Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) -- Whereas the rest of "The Hunger Games" styling team might seem at home in The Emerald City (think wild hair, dyed skin, Tammy Faye Bakker makeup), Cinna is a young stylist who dresses simply and thinks outside the box. He also makes Katniss and Peeta the talk of the Games parade. The casting of the musician to play Cinna was somewhat controversial, but he showed his acting chops in 2009's "Precious."

Rue (Amandla Stenberg) -- District 11 tribute Rue is a waif of a girl whose stealth and agility help her stay alive when pitted against more alpha contestants. It is her friendship and aid that spark a turning point in the Games for Katniss. The young actress playing Rue did some of her own stunts in 2011's "Colombiana."

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) -- The Capitol's most powerful citizen cares more for his beloved rose garden than he does the lives of others. The president eventually will play an even bigger role in the rest of the trilogy, but fans know it's clear: Yep, he's evil.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1478, twitter.com/MariaSciulloPG . First Published March 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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