It didn't take long to fill the void left by "Harry Potter," and the impending empty space as "The Twilight Saga" nears the end of its shelf life. "The Hunger Games" is the new phenomenon, and, yes, it has already been drawing some comparisons to the aforementioned franchises.
Darker than "Potter" and with more intellectual depth than "Twilight," "The Hunger Games" does have a slippery slope to climb. While "Potter" battled evil forces and "Twilight" tangled with vampires and wolves, the book-turned-movie about kids in a not-too-far off future who are forced to compete in a challenge where they kill each other in order to survive does have a twisted nature.
It also has a devoted fan in Stephen King, and, when you look at it there's a little bit of King madness in the story, for sure. The first book, which has spent more than 180 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and will be even more of a smash when the movie is released, was written by Suzanne Collins, a former children's television writer and mother of two, who was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Theseus. In the myth, a group of young boys and girls is sent into a deadly labyrinth every nine years to fight a monstrous Minotaur.
In Collins' games, a girl and boy, ranging in age from 12 to 18 years old, are selected from each of the 12 districts of Panem, the ruins of what once was North America, to compete in a nationally televised event. Part "Survivor" and part Olympics, the "tributes" from each district fight to the death until there is only one standing. Why does this gruesome display take place? The Capitol now rules the roost, where opulence and excess is rampant, a stark contrast to the hugely impoverished and suppressed Panem. "The Hunger Games" are punishment by The Capitol for a past uprising, although it is shrouded in a show of good will by The Capitol as the winner wins the prize of food to feed their entire community.
Collins doesn't show any mercy for our fascination with reality television, war coverage and violence. In the world of "The Hunger Games," it's what keeps this bloody pageant alive year after year. The tributes compete in a man-made forest, filled with deadly traps that up the ante for the audience. A group of NASA-esque controllers sit in a high-tech room creating fireballs, hallucinogenic genetically engineered bees and man-eating dogs. The tributes, before they enter into the games, are urged to get sponsors to back their supplies and life-saving medicine when they need it.
While the story itself is gripping enough, the heroine Katniss is its anchor. The movie version of "The Hunger Games" found its perfect fit in Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar-nominated actress for her role in "Winter's Bone." No stranger to action films, she was one of the standouts in "X-Men: First Class" as Mystique. In "Winter's Bone" as the daring Ree, she showed the same cool burn as she does in "Games." Lawrence captivates from the beginning of the film when she volunteers herself for the deadly games in order to save her younger sister who has been selected in the ruthless lottery. Lawrence plays Katniss with the quiet energy required to make the character believable, but is able to exhibit the inner strength that makes her so bold.
She's surrounded by a strong cast, including Josh Hutcherson ("Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Journey 2") as Peeta Mellark, a baker's son and the male tribute from District 12. The role of Haymitch, the disheveled victor of the 50th Hunger Games who enjoys his booze a bit too much, fits Woody Harrelson like a glove. Lenny Kravitz, who shows he's not only gifted musically, but can act, too, was an interesting, but satisfying, casting choice. Stanley Tucci relishes his role as "Hunger Games" host, blue-haired Caesar Flickerman. He plays it over-the-top, as it should be, inciting audiences to cheer on the deadly games.
But it's director Gary Ross who brings "The Hunger Games" to its full and vibrant page-to-screen triumph with his unfolding of the film through Katniss' point of view. Even overdressed and indulgent inhabitants of The Capitol are seen through Katniss' eyes. Ross's directorial debut was "Pleasantville," and there's that same sensibility throughout many segments of "Games."
Even at its two-hour-and-22-minutes running time, "The Hunger Games" leaves you wanting more (or shall we say, hungry for more). There are three books in the novel series, "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay." Start counting; the sequel is due to be released on Nov. 22, 2013.