Hollywood is obsessed with the demographic characterised as YA (that's Young Adult to you and me). These are the guys most likely to part with their hard-earned cash at the local cineplex. They're also the guys most likely to get behind a popular franchise by using their social networks to keep it in the public eye. That groan you heard from Hollywood last year was a collective howl from studio executives as they pondered a future without both Twilight and Harry Potter to bolster their coffers. The search is thus on in earnest for the Next Big Thing to capture the imagination of the YA audience.
There are high hopes for Stephenie Meyer's The Host, the first instalment of which kicks off next March with our gal, Saoirse Ronan. For the moment, though, Hollywood has put its faith in The Hunger Games. And the signs are good. Based on the first in a trilogy of popular sci-fi novels by Suzanne Collins (they sold 25 million copies in the States), the movie has just recorded the highest advance ticket sales for a non sequel in the history of Hollywood.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, The Hunger Games is a dystopian drama set in a totalitarian North America (now called Panem) that's broken up into 12 districts where food is at a premium and martial law prevails. In the absence of bread and circuses, the authorites keep everybody on their toes by organising The Hunger Games. This is an annual gladiatorial event for which each district is required to send two young people (chosen by lottery). Those selected, now called Tributes, receive combat training before being transported to a woodland area from which only one can emerge alive. Oh yes, and the whole thing is filmed live for the edification of a national TV audience.
The film opens in the poorest of the districts, District 12, and the selection process of its two tributes. The first is Peeta (Hutcherson), a strong and likable baker's son. The second is Katniss (Lawrence), a level-headed sixteen-year-old who nobly volunteers for the gig when her kid sister's name is pulled from the hat. Given that the story unfolds entirely through the eyes of Katniss, the success of The Hunger Games was always going to depend on the casting of that role. Both Hailee Steinfeld and Chloë Moretz were in the running but the producers have scored a winner with Jennifer Lawrence. The Kentucky youngster made her mark with a superb, Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone (2010) but her performance here is even better. Katniss is a born survivor (deadly with a bow and arrow) whom Lawrence invests with both a brooding intensity and a humanity which has the audience rooting for her from the outset. Elsewhere there are eye-catching turns from Woody Harrelson as a mentor figure to the Tributes and Stanley Tucci as the over-the-top TV host.
Directed with aplomb (notably in his use of hand-held cameras) by Gary Ross, The Hunger Games has obvious echoes of films such as Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders and Hounds of Zaroff, but it's also aimed at a young audience weaned on reality TV with whom the satirical edge of Collins' yarn will undoubtedly resonate. (These guys know all about the cult of celebrity.) And any fears that the 12A rating would somehow dilute the film's visual impact are unfounded. The violence here feels real and pervasive, even if the gore is kept to a minimum.
Hollywood needn't worry: this is a franchise which will run and run and already it's left me feeling hungry for more.
Competition Winners: Katy Conneely, Galway; Meaghan Cullen, Cork; Karen Fitzsimons, Dublin; Aoife Horan, Donegal; Mary Rose Porter, Louth. Prizes posted 20/4. Thanks to everyone who entered.