By Piya Sinha-Roy
(Reuters) - Seek shelter Hollywood vampires and wizards, there's a new movie in town looking to raise the stakes on what it means to be a film franchise in an era when "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and superhero films dominate box offices.
"The Hunger Games," based on the first novel in a best-selling trilogy by author Suzanne Collins, sees 24 children known as 'tributes' fight to the death in an annual televised event across the nation of Panem, built on the ruins of America.
The novels follow the story of one tribute, Katniss Everdeen, portrayed in the film that opens on Friday by Jennifer Lawrence, who becomes a beacon of hope for freedom against Panem's totalitarian government.
"She is a warrior for her people, a Joan of Arc, she's a fighter," Lawrence told Reuters about her character. "I wanted to bring out more of her vulnerability when she was in the Games. I didn't want anybody to forget that she could die at any minute. I never wanted that to slip from the movie."
"The Hunger Games" trilogy is the latest series of novels to become a Hollywood movie franchise, following on the heels of the $2.8 billion box office success of the four "Twilight" films, based on Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance novels. The final film, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" is due in theaters later this year.
Warner Bros. Studios' big screen adaptations of J. K. Rowling's juggernaut collection of "Harry Potter" novels took in an estimated $7.7 billion with eight films across the worldwide box office, the largest-grossing franchise in history. The film series ended last year.
"The Hunger Games" has already built a fan base among a wide group of readers, although young women make up the core fans. The books boast more than 2 million friends on Facebook and almost 300,000 followers on Twitter, all discussing the film ahead of its release.
And all eyes in Hollywood are on Lionsgate, the studio distributing the films, to see if it can turn in the next big franchise on the order of the "Potter" and "Twilight movies."
STAYING TRUE TO "GAMES"
Lawrence is joined in the film by a veteran cast including Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks. Rocker Lenny Kravitz has taken a rare movie role, and rising stars Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth also are on board.
All those involved said they felt a deep responsibility to "Hunger Games" fans in bringing their beloved characters to the big screen, but they also admitted to struggling with real-life issues that the books present.
"There's a bit of pressure, but at the same time, I think it fueled me to do better," said Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mellark, Katniss' fellow tribute from her hometown, District 12.
Dealing with the TV battles and deaths of children was a delicate issue for director Gary Ross, known for films such as "Big" and "Seabiscuit." His biggest challenge, he said, was the death of young tribute Rue, played by 13-year-old Amandla Stenberg, which is a key event in the story of Katniss' journey.
"I felt that stuff was, 'I better get this right,'" Ross said. "Getting out of the car that morning (of the scene's shoot) was a different experience. You know there's a lot on your shoulders."
The books and movie also send a strong message that the impact of reality TV contests is bad for society when taken to the extreme, as it is in "Hunger Games" where the people of Panem are forced to watch and celebrate the tributes killing each other.
"This is a huge message against reality television," said Lawrence, who admitted she was part of "that generation that's obsessed with reality TV."
Veteran actor Sutherland, who plays the controlling, manipulative Panem leader, President Snow, said the "Hunger Games" story had the potential to "motivate a generation of young people who have, by and large, been dormant."
"They could ... see the genius of Katniss Everdeen and the possibility that within themselves, they could find such a leader and provoke change ... something that would make the government do what the government is supposed to do, and not profit from it," said Sutherland.
Whether "Hunger Games" rises to those lofty heights of a film that causes cultural change, or if it even becomes a fan-pleasing blockbuster on the order of "Potter," "Twilight," "X-Men" or "Spider-Man" movies, awaits Friday's premiere and the months and weeks that follow.
But ahead of the debut, Ross and the cast can breathe a little easier knowing critics like it. As of Monday, the film had earned a 100 percent positive rating based on 16 critics at RottenTomatoes.com, which rates movies based on reviews.
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy called the film "an amply faithful adaptation" of Collins' novel and praised Lawrence's "impressive gravity and presence."
Justin Chang at Variety said it was "relentlessly paced, unflagging in its sense of peril and blessed with a spunky protagonist," and he praised the younger echelon of actors starring opposite Lawrence in the Games.
Olly Richards at Empire Magazine called the film "thrilled and smart as it is terrifying," while Xan Brooks at The Guardian wrote it is the "rarest of beasts: a Hollywood action blockbuster that is smart, taut and knotty."
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)