Before there was the movie, there was the book.

"The Hunger Games," the first title in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy, grabbed onto the New York Times bestseller list the month it was published -- September 2008 -- and has never let go.

There are now 11 million copies of the young-adult book in print in 47 countries, as well as 2.4 million copies of three new movie tie-in editions. (The three-book series as a whole has more than 26 million copies in print.)

The story is dark and violent, centering on a resourceful teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen who lives in Panem, "a place that was once called North America." The country's wealthy Capitol is surrounded by a dozen impoverished districts, and every year two children from each district are chosen to fight to the death in a televised ritual called the Hunger Games. When Katniss' little sister is chosen, Katniss steps forward and fights in her place.

The book blends the dazzle of an Olympics-like opening ceremony, the voyeurism of such reality TV shows as "Survivor" and the haunting, disturbing plots of, perhaps, William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and Richard Connell's 1924 man-hunts-man short story, "The Most Dangerous Game."

Collins has placed her inspiration a little farther back, to the gladiator games of ancient Rome, which, she has said, "entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment."

Substance, not schlock

Teens and parents alike are devouring these books, which carry a strong message beyond the shock value. Collins' primary theme is war, but the book also addresses issues of privacy, poverty, class, oppression and individualism.

"Dystopian and apocalyptic fiction has been around for a long time," said young-adult author Laura Ruby, who teaches in Hamline University's MFA program in writing for children and young adults.

"This comes right out of 'Fahrenheit 451,' 'Brave New World,' '1984,' " she said. "Each of those books sort of captured that generation's specific anxieties. And what writers do a lot of times is just extrapolate and exaggerate from the horrors they see every day."

Unlike apocalyptic novels written for adults, YA dystopian fiction generally ends on a redemptive, positive note.

"The point is not to dwell on the apocalypse, but to survive it," Ruby said. "These books, I think, offer some sort of hope, as violent as they can be."

Eleanor Saari, 13, of Plymouth, loved the book and didn't mind the violence, which she thought was necessary for the plot. "I believe it was sad, all those things that happened," she said. "But it was part of the story. The book would not have been the same without it."

Her favorite character was the heroine, Katniss -- a strong and capable 16-year-old whom Ruby calls a "kick-butt heroine, one that boys and girls can get behind, because she's not as interested in romance as she is in surviving and saving the lives of her family -- and also, in the end of the series, overthrowing a totalitarian regime."

"The Hunger Games" was a huge hit for Scholastic Books (which had already had a huge hit in the Harry Potter series) and was on many "best of" lists for 2008 -- from Library Journal to the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times called it "brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced."

When the movie opens at midnight Friday, Eleanor will be there. "I feel like the movie is going to be a good thing, but I don't feel that it will be as good as the book," she said. "I just feel that books are usually better."

These books, however, are not without their critics.

Melanie Donnelly, 16, of St. Paul, liked the trilogy, but points out that in the end, Katniss is forced to choose between two boys -- Gale, her hunting partner, and Peeta, her partner in the Hunger Game.

Does she make the right choice? "Not in my opinion," Donnelly said firmly.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302