The Hunger Games: A mums' and dads' guide

It's the forthcoming movie the kids are all talking about - and you don't want to be left looking a square. Let Genevieve Roberts and Kate Youde guide you through this cultural minefield

The Hunger Games is coming. It's going to be big. And unavoidable. For those who have their heads buried in the art-house cinema sand, or simply manage to avoid teenagers, THG is the Next Big Film. Think Harry Potter hype, crossed with those incredibly-popular-but-annoying-to-anyone-post-pubescent vampire films, with a bit of Stieg Larsson thrown in for good measure.

For the uninitiated, THG is based on Suzanne Collins's 2008 novel, which has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. It offers a bleak futuristic vision of America, where each year 24 teenagers take part in the Hunger Games, a sacrificial sport where only one can survive. For those of you left scratching your head, here's a little guide to save you feeling shamefaced at the dinner table – or being scorned by teenagers in your midst.

Meet Katniss Everdeen, the strongest heroine of the century

She's headstrong, intelligent and a great shot with a bow and arrow. The 16-year-old protagonist, named after a tuberous vegetable by her father and played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to take her younger sister Prim's place in the 74th annual Hunger Games, the televised battle with only one expected to survive. But behind every great woman is a cast of many. Her mentor Haymitch, survivor of the 50th Games, and Cinna, the stylist who designs her dress that sets itself on fire, all help her to bring about radical change.

Step into a world of Districts

In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, formerly North America until fires, hurricanes and encroaching seas took their toll, the Districts surround the Capitol, a little like the Home Counties. There were originally 13 Districts, but civil war obliterated one. Now, those remaining concentrate on one product each: luxury goods in District 1, technology in District 3, agriculture in District 11 and mining in Katniss's home of District 12. And each District is forced to offer two tributes – or teenagers – for the Hunger Games death match, the yearly reminder to keep the peace.

A trip to the Capitol

This fortress city, home to the rich and powerful, controls the Games, a source of entertainment for residents. By curious coincidence, the shrill aristocrats who call the Capitol home are the only citizens exempt from supplying teenagers to take part in the Games.

But the residents don't have it all good: style has become so important to citizens that plastic surgery has spiralled out of control. And they drink purgative liquids to make them vomit so they can eat more, without realising that many of them are close to starvation.

Peeta vs Gale: welcome to the love triangle

Katniss's two potential love interests, Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, and Gale, (Liam Hemsworth), bring teenage-friendly sexual tension to THG. Gale is a childhood friend of Katniss, who is possibly (well, probably) in love with her. But Peeta, the male entrant to the Games from District 12, helped Katniss out when she was close to starving by giving her bread.

Witness the Reaping

Think the Grim Reaper meets the National Lottery, with less lucky bonus balls. In every District, each teenager's name is placed within a glass bowl, one for boys, one for girls. Those picked out will be forced to compete for their life.

Media control of the Games

Not only are players televised, but in an Orwellian twist, those living in Panem are forced to watch the fight for survival – and can send in gifts to help their favourite contestant win.

Suzanne Collins, author of the trilogy, has said: "I was flicking through images of reality television, where there were these young people competing for a million dollars, or a bachelor, or whatever. And then I was flipping and seeing footage from the Iraq war. And these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way. That was the moment when I got the idea for Katniss's story."

Who to look out for

Aside from Lawrence, Hutcherson and Hemsworth, there are appearances from Lenny Kravitz, who plays Cinna, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, dictator of the Capitol, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch.

Familiarise yourself with the Mockingjay icon

Katniss is known as the Mockingjay because of the pin she is given by her friend Madge, the Mayor's daughter, to take into the arena with her for the Games. The Mockingjay itself is seen as a sign of rebellion against the Capitol. There are now Mockingjay icon pendants available to buy online, but it may be a step too far to actually invest.

Catch up on Suzanne Collins

It may have been excusable not to know who she was when The Hunger Games was first published, with a print run of 200,000 copies. Now that it has inspired parodies including The Hunger Pains, The Younger Games and The Hunger but Mainly Death Games, the former children's television writer should simply be referred to as Collins. Drop in references to her early work, The Underland Chronicles, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, to sound like a true expert.

The rest of the trilogy

The Hunger Games is pretty much old hat now, so it's the second and third books in the trilogy, Catching Fire (Katniss and Peeta's victory in the Games leads to rebellion) and Mockingjay (Katniss has survived the Games twice, but the Capitol wants revenge), that will split the sci-fi lovers from the bandwagonners. Catching Fire will be released at cinemas next November, while Mockingjay has not yet been confirmed – but it seems only a matter of time until it is (we confidently predict November 2014, secure in the knowledge that it's unlikely to come back to haunt us as we'll surely be swept up in another craze by then).

Is The Hunger Games better than Twilight?

If you find yourself getting your Districts confused, or mixing up your Gales and Peetas, then this is the question to throw out. Does dystopian sci-fi trump vampires? Leave the Robert Pattinson camp to square up against Jennifer Lawrence devotees, while you beat a hasty retreat.

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