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Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from The Hunger Games.
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2012, 4:44 PM
By JIM BECKERMAN

Let the games begin.

Fans of "The Hunger Games," the first in a wildly popular trio of dark teen novels by Suzanne Collins, have been watching the progress of the $90 million movie version, set to open Friday, with the same passionate interest as the fictional citizens of Panem watching the grim lottery known as "the reaping."

"Ever since the first movie trailer came out, people have been stopping at the library, either to complain or to celebrate with me," says Laura Leonard, teen and reference librarian at Hillsdale Public Library.

Why this book? And why now? Teens have a penchant for the tragic, whether it is the star-crossed romance of "Romeo and Juliet" or the ghoulish goings-on in the "Walking Dead" graphic novels. But rarely has a vision of life, aimed squarely at teens, been quite as bleak as the futuristic world of "Hunger Games," where young people in 12 districts of what was once North America are kept in varying degrees of deprivation, only to be chosen at random in the reaping by the realm's rich overlords to kill each other off in glitzy televised games.

Adults, no less than kids, have been caught up in "The Hunger Games" and its two sequels, "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay," also slated for the big screen. Part of it, says young-adult librarian Keri Adams, of the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack, is the sheer velocity of the books, and Collins' skills as a writer. "The pacing is so perfect, you can't put it down," Adams says.

Then, too, there is the strong female lead – still the exception rather than the rule in juvenile fiction – and a sub-theme of class warfare that may resonate after the "Occupy Wall Street" movement (the first "Hunger Games" book was published in 2008, the year of the financial meltdown).

But "The Hunger Games" trilogy is also part of a larger trend of dystopian books that is keeping pace with paranormal romance as a key teen niche. "Divergent" by Veronica Roth, "Blood Red Road" by Moira Young, "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner, "Uglies" by Scott Westerfeld and "Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi are among the books that trade in futuristic worlds haunted by terror, starvation and the struggle to survive. Do today's teens really picture such a bleak future?

Maybe not. But they're certainly aware – perhaps more than previous generations – of the unpleasant possibilities.

"There's more media coverage that they're exposed to, in terms of climate issues, economic issues, international coverage of rebellion and uprisings throughout the world," Leonard says. "I think that since they're so digitally connected, they're seeing more media coverage of those types of issues at a younger age."

Yearly sacrifice

Part Orwell, part "Survivor," part Roman gladiatorial games and part reworking of the Greek myth of the seven boys and girls chosen yearly to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, "Hunger Games" struck a unique chord with young readers. Naturally, they've eyed the movie with both hope and suspicion.

Who would be the director: Sam Mendes? David Slade? Gary Ross? (Ross was the victor.) Who would play the pivotal role of teen warrior Katniss Everdeen? Hailee Steinfeld? Abigail Breslin? Jennifer Lawrence? (Lawrence landed the part.)

Most important, how would filmmakers translate into images a book that has meant so much to 3 million readers? What if they didn't get it right?

There had been worries that Lawrence – fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in "Winter's Bone" – might be too old, at 21, to play a character who is 16. That the muted love triangle in the book, between Katniss, her at-home buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her arena partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), would be amped up in order to appeal to the "Twilight" audience. That the book's gloomy vision would be softened, or that the violence would be gratuitous rather than disturbing (the film is rated PG-13).

But so far, the news has been reassuring. "Hunger Games" is expected to honor the spirit, and mostly the letter, of the book. The futuristic gadgetry of the Capitol has been downplayed, apparently, and some of the lesser characters have been reduced to a glimpse or two. But the trailer looks hot, the soundtrack (by Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire, Carolina Chocolate Drops and others) sounds intriguing. The odds appear ever in the film's favor.

"As far as I can tell, everyone is excited about the movie," says Adams. "I know I am."

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

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