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Move over, Bella Swan. Katniss Everdeen is the new tween It Girl. The tough-as-nails teenage heroine of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games already has her own Facebook page and Wikipedia profile. This summer, Mockingjay, the third and final book, moved more than 450,000 copies in its first week. “Book 3 was the breakthrough book for Harry Potter and Twilight, too,” says HG editor David Levithan, Scholastic’s executive editorial director. “We’re hitting right on schedule.”

The Hunger Games takes place in a bleak, postapocalyptic world where, every year, 24 children are randomly selected and forced to battle to the death on television. And while the saga — which kicks off when Katniss volunteers for the bloodfest in order to save her sister — hasn’t yet reached the cultural saturation of Stephenie Meyer’s megahit, comparisons are inevitable: Both are addictively readable young-adult series about a female teen in a complicated love triangle. But the similarities end there. HG is more thoughtful and much, much darker. The books (which hide a compelling antiwar message behind the veneer of a tween thriller) are exceptionally well written and expertly paced, with near-constant suspense. And unlike Twilight‘s passive, angsty Bella, Katniss is a self-possessed young woman who demonstrates equal parts compassion and fearlessness.

With a protagonist as appealing as Ms. Everdeen, it’s no surprise Hollywood has come courting. Besides, with both the Harry Potter series and 
The Twilight Saga winding down, the studios desperately need a new young-skewing franchise with a rabid fan base. Luckily for Lionsgate, it optioned the Hunger series back in March 2009. Veteran scribe Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) recently turned in a draft, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is in negotiations for the first film. If all goes well, the studio hopes to be in production by next spring.

But despite its vividly cinematic language, The Hunger Games won’t be easy to adapt. EW has seen an early copy of the script, which includes a note-by-note retelling of the Games. How can the studio show brutal kid-on-kid violence and still pull off a PG-13 rating? “It’s always going to be an intense subject matter, but you can tell the story with some restraint,” says producer Nina Jacobson, who praises the books for appealing to both girls and boys. “The only people these books are not for are those under 12. The movie will be the same.”

Additional reporting by Keith Staskiewicz.

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