WITH the sun setting on the Twilight Saga this November and the Harry Potter series embarking on a magical future away from the big screen, there's a fantasy franchise-sized gap just waiting to be filled. Step forward The Hunger Games.
Based on the best-selling book trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the series is already loved by many, including Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who blogged about being "so obsessed" with the futuristic novels within days of the first book's publication in 2008.
The Games refer to an annual televised battle – a twisted punishment for a past uprising and ongoing government intimidation tactic – in which two teenagers from each of the 12 districts in the fictional nation of Panem (the ruins of what was North America) are randomly chosen to compete until only one survivor remains.
Like a cross between 2000's Japanese cult thriller Battle Royale and The X Factor, each "tribute" has to win audience votes while using their survival instincts to fight for their lives – or be killed.
Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone actress Jennifer Lawrence takes centre stage as Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old from the impoverished District 12 who volunteers to take her younger sister's place to enter the Games, with Josh Hutcherson starring alongside as fellow tribute Peeta Mellark.
"Katniss is this futuristic Joan of Arc – she's a symbol of hope, freedom and revolt, and she's a hero that doesn't want to be a hero," explains Lawrence.
Hutcherson, 19, was also immediately drawn to his role: "I've never connected with a character as much as I have with Peeta, so it was really good to do a role that's close to who I am as a person."
Lawrence admits she had a moment's hesitation about signing up, before her mum talked her into accepting the role.
"When I was doing indies and people were asking me why I don't do a studio film, I always said the size of the film doesn't matter. What matters is the script, the story and telling a story you care about," says the 21-year-old.
"This was a story I cared about and I wasn't going to do it because of the size of it. The books are important for our generation to read. We live in a world that's obsessed with reality television and it's completely desensitised us to the shock factor."
The actress revealed that X-Men: First Class, in which she played shape-shifting Mystique, gave her a taster of the training involved.
"X-Men was more difficult because it involved gym work, whereas Hunger Games training was more running outdoors and working out in ways you don't realise you're working out. It's like playing on a gigantic jungle gym and swinging around, as opposed to doing 100 pull-ups," she says.
Both stars had to undergo gruelling and intensive training to get into shape. And despite being a natural sportsman, Hutcherson – who has appeared in The Kids Are All Right and most recently in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – had to pile on 15 pounds of muscle to play Peeta.
"I love stunts and physicality. The dieting took about four weeks but it was a lot of eating. That was the hardest part – eating a lot of protein," recalls the Kentucky-born actor.
"I was eating things I don't like. Not Pop-Tarts sadly, but always grilled chicken breast. By the 10th one of the day, I'm like, 'I can't swallow this bite. It's too much!'"
It was just as painful for Lawrence, who trained with an Olympic archer and had to learn parkour to play free-running expert archer Katniss.
The actress, also from Kentucky, believes the training has paid off: "Josh is faster than me, but I can hit a bullseye. If somebody stood really still, I could probably kill them with a bow and arrow."
Lawrence confesses she once accidentally gave Hutcherson concussion on set, but says it was revenge for a prank he played on her.
He adds: "I got Jennifer pretty bad. I made her pee in her pants after I put a life-size dummy in her trailer. She went in to go to the bathroom and got terrified."
Both insist that the film, which Collins co-wrote and is executive producer of, does justice to the book.
Director Gary Ross didn't "downplay the violence" despite the 12A rating, Lawrence adds. "We weren't going to make a watered-down version of what we love. If you take the violence and brutality out of the movie, you take the entire heart out of it."