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Friday, March 30, 2012

'Hunger Games' fans switch arenas from page to screen

What is it about The Hunger Games that has made it the hottest teen fiction series since Harry Potter and Twilight? We went to the source and found three avid and articulate fans — ages 17 to 74 — to tell us. They love Suzanne Collins' best-selling dystopian trilogy about a future dictatorship in which teens, primped by stylists and costume designers, are forced to fight to the death on TV. And they're just as excited about the highly anticipated movie version of the first book, starring Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. It opens Friday.

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday. By Murray Close, Lionsgate

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday.

By Murray Close, Lionsgate

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday.

'It's not so far-fetched'

On a recent Friday night in Westport, Conn., Melanie Mignucci has joined 120 kids at the Westport Public Library's sold-out Hunger Games tribute, a combination costume party/rock concert/trivia quiz/simulated survival game.

Dressed up as a "gamemaker," Mignucci, who works part time at the library, sternly dispatches bands of kids off to the book stacks, armed with cardboard shields and Nerf-ball weapons.

"It is amazing to see all these kids not only reading but spending their Friday night at a library, totally immersed in this fictional world," she says. "It shows how a book has the power to transport its reader into another world."

26 million: Copies in print of the trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and movie tie-in books.

200,000: First printing of the first book in 2008.

191: Ranking on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list for The Hunger Games a week after its release in September 2008. It didn’t crack the top 50 until Catching Fire, the second book, was published a year later.

12: Consecutive weeks, starting Dec. 29, 2011, that The Hunger Games has been No. 1 on USA TODAY’s list.

9: Weeks in 2012 that the three books in the trilogy have swept the top three spots on USA TODAY’s list, including this week’s.

Mignucci, 18, confesses she discovered The Hunger Games belatedly this winter, more than three years after the first book was published.

She loves to read. She started Harry Potter when she was only 6 ("It's really not that complicated," she says) but thought the love story in Twilight was "infantile." As a high school senior and fan of writers like Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), she figured she had outgrown popular young-adult novels.

Then Mignucci met Katniss Everdeen, Collins' teen narrator and heroine who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the kill-or-be-killed games.

"I'm so happy there's a female character getting stuff done in mainstream fiction," Mignucci says. "The plot revolves around her and her family's survival and sticking it to the Capitol," the seat of power in the dictatorship.

Mignucci was hooked by the dystopian world Collins creates.

"It's world that really could happen," she says. "Not that I see it happening, but you can imagine what if it did happen, especially how entertainment became a source of pacification for society."

To which she adds, "Brave New World, anyone?" a reference to Aldous Huxley's 1932 classic, which happens to be one of the 16 titles on the Westport Library's list of dystopian fiction. (Teen services librarian Jaina Lewis says kids are constantly asking, "What else is there like The Hunger Games?")

Mignucci, who hopes to join the Peace Corps and become a writer after college (she has been accepted at Bard and is waiting to hear from Barnard and Brown), sees the story as a blend of "gritty realism with a twist of the unthinkable. But in reality, it's not so far-fetched, considering today's oppressive regimes. The only real hint of fantasy is that the violence is gladiatorial in nature, and not a fact of life."

She acknowledges that the premise of the games — kids killing kids — could trouble younger readers, "but I'm 18. I've played video games more violent than The Hunger Games. I've seen a lot of war coverage on TV."

Her one fear about the movie: "I hope it doesn't facilitate a Team Peeta/Team Gale split," referring to the two boys (Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in the movie) who are rivals for Kastniss' attention and loyalty. "That would be so annoying. In the book, the romance is secondary. I love that. It's not just about finding the right boy."

A guy who can 'relate'

Rafe Singer, 17, a high school senior in Scottsdale, Ariz., discovered The Hunger Games a few months after the first book was published in 2008 when a friend told him, "You've got to read this killer story."

He fell for what he calls its "exciting pace," a "break from the slow books I read for school," such as Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. (Scores of high schools have added The Hunger Games to their reading lists.)

"It's a well-known fact among my friends," Singer says, "that if you want to go to bed while reading The Hunger Games, you have to stop in the middle of a chapter, because if you finish one chapter, you have to start the next."

After reading the entire series, he says the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland in the movie) is "someone I love to hate." But his favorite character is Katniss, "of course."

She's "incredibly brave," says Singer, who's considering a military career in aeronautics and has been accepted to the University of Arizona and Arizona State and is waiting to hear from West Point and the Air Force Academy. "I think her drive to be the father figure and be strong for everyone around her makes her one of the few female characters I can relate to at all. Plus, any girl who knows how to use a bow and arrow is attractive." (No, he adds, he hasn't met anyone like that in Scottsdale.)

As a "guy," he says, "the violence is pretty exciting," but on a "deeper note, the implications of controlling governments and reality TV are more interesting than other themes in popular novels lately."

Such as? "Sparkly vampires," he says and laughs.

Singer and friends already have tickets for the midnight movie release. He's eager to see how the film, rated PG-13, handles the violence, as well as Katniss' "inner struggles. She's an extremely introverted girl, so portraying all her emotions and thoughts and planning will be hard."

Singer loved Hugo, Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Brian Selznick's illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But after reading The Iliad, he was disappointed by Troy, starring Brad Pitt. "If they actually just followed Homer's writing, especially with all the gods flying down midbattle, the movie would have been 10 times more intense."

Strong female character

Rosemary Shearer, 74, has always been an adventurous reader. In the summer before ninth grade in Ames, Iowa, she read and enjoyed Herman Wouk's 1951 military drama, The Caine Mutiny, to the dismay of her teacher.

"She was shocked I would read something with swear words in it," Shearer recalls. "I had to find another book …something dull."

So when her daughter, 49, an education professor; her daughter-in-law, 50, a former school librarian; and her 11-year-old grandson all raved about The Hunger Games, she decided to try it a few months ago. "I raced through all three books in one weekend," she says. "My husband and son-in-law experienced the same thing, to their surprise."

She loves the series' "strong female characterization." In fiction, she says, "women are usually a sidebar to a muscle-bound hero. Katniss did it all. She was willing to lay down her life for a loved one."

Shearer, the retired manager of a land trust for the Superstition Mountains in Pinal County, Ariz., writes book reviews, under the pen name Roz Shea, for, a website for book discussions.

As a critic, she thought some of the violence in the second book, Catching Fire, was "a bit gratuitous." As a grandmother, "I kept thinking that this was a bit too graphic for young readers." But she also notes that the "fictionalized violence is close to the reality during the Roman Empire." After all, "Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic version of gladiator games."

(Collins, in a 2009 interview with USA TODAY, said the idea for the series came to her one night when she was channel-surfing between reality shows and news coverage of the war in Iraq: "On one channel, young people were competing for money. On the next channel, young people were fighting for their lives. I was tired, and the ideas merged.")

Shearer has high hopes for the movie. "It seems to have a great cast, especially the adult actors. I'm counting on it to be a big-budget blockbuster entertainment — if they stick to the plot."

But "if they take liberties with the story line," she warns, "all the kids who've read the books will hate it."

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