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'Hunger Games' demolishes the YA competition

It's a phenomenon that troubles some. They worry about the series' bleak, violent vision of a near-future America that puts children through an annual fight-to-the-death meat-grinder.

When my in-house teen told me to read "The Hunger Games," I did what I usually do when I'm assigned young-adult literature.

I waited until he left the room, grabbed a scotch and prepared for my chore.

A few hours later, I was in his room, searching for books two and three of Suzanne Collins' sci-fi trilogy, as hooked as any of the million or so fans who have turned the books into a cultural phenomenon.

It's a phenomenon that troubles some. They worry about the series' bleak, violent vision of a near-future America that puts children through an annual fight-to-the-death meat-grinder.

Detractors might more productively spend their time wondering why Collins' vision resonates with its target audience.

Here's what today's young people are looking at: High schools fail to graduate 25 percent of their students. Youth unemployment at a 60 year high. College grads are trying to pay off $1 trillion in debt with jobs on a two-decade run of wage stagnation. Borrow from your folks? They're $700 billion underwater in their mortgages. Of course, you could always enlist, with endless deployment to combat zones. And, oh yeah, if you go out for Skittles some Town Watch numbskull with a loaded weapon might shoot you.

Sorry, baby boom worry-warts, but John Hughes is not going to cut it for these kids.

You can hardly blame YA readers for responding to Collins' vision of a two-tiered society that, for folks on the bottom, has stopped moving forward. In her book, that status quo is maintained by a totalitarian surveillance state that uses the so-called hunger games to provide a gruesome bread-and-circuses spectacle and to show its whip hand to the subjugated.

Combatants are selected by lottery, and "Games" - brought shrewdly to screen by director Gary Ross - begins when a coal-miner's daughter named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) steps forward to take the place of her drafted younger sister.

It's her first act of self-sacrifice, but by no means her last. She's a heroine of rare moral intelligence, the attribute that makes her such a stand-out character in kid-lit, and doubly so in movies

Everdeen is a mountain girl, a hunter by nature and by training, and could survive with her skill set, but she wonders (and Collins asks readers to wonder) what it means to "win" these perverted games.

The answer forms as the competition commences and she begins to turn the kill-or-be-killed ethos on its head. She assists the weaker players, shelters the meek, and becomes a rallying point for the oppressed districts forced to send "tribute" children into this JV Thunderdome.

"The Hunger Games" doesn't impose a violent spectacle on teens, it asks them to try to find a moral order in one, via its central character. Everdeen's moral IQ is what makes her such a compelling heroine, such a stunning change from recent teen lit fare.

Compare her to "Twilight" heroine Bella Swann, determined to indulge her crush on a hot guy, never mind that it brings to her small town every murderous vampire within a 10,000 mile radius.

Everdeen, by contrast, pretends to be in love with another player (Josh Hutcherson) to save his life, at the risk of hurting a boy (Liam Hemsworth) she cares about back home.

Lawrence , a rock on which to build a franchise, sells all of this beautifully. Her empathy roots the sci-fi extravaganza in an emotional reality that becomes crucial as the games unfold. This is not a movie that celebrates the kill. Rather, it wants you to feel the losses.

Director Ross also has skilled pros in key roles - Woody Harrelson as the drunken combat advisor, Stanley Tucci as the foppish host of the Games, and Donald Sutherland as the sinister head of the totalitarian state. Lenny Kravitz has a small but vivid role as the stylist who turns tomboy Everdeen into a fashion icon for the games.

I could complain a bit about Ross' cinematic vision for the privileged district that hosts the games. "Hunger Games" could have used the satirical chops and visual panache of, say, Terry Gilliam, but that's one flaw in a movie that gets so many other things right.

"Hunger Games" deserves every bit of the big pile it's bound to make, and deserves to be a successor in the popular imagination to the Potter and Twilight franchises.

And it carves out its own space. There is a whiff of reality here that's absent in these other stories.

"The Hunger Games" also breaks, thankfully, with the Chosen One formula that dominates YA stories, the special kid with special powers, pursued by the bad guy with special powers.

No one chooses this girl.

She volunteers.

Her special powers?

Compassion and gumption.