From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
FOR THREE MONTHS LAST spring, the normally laid-back town of Asheville, N.C., was transformed into a Hollywood hot spot swarming with fans. The cast of The Hunger Games settled into the city's downtown area, where "there were already people waiting outside the hotel with Hunger Games books and posters," recalls Lenny Kravitz, who plays kindly stylist Cinna in the film. "They have so much invested in this movie. They're really passionate."

That's putting it mildly. With more than 23.5 million copies in print, Suzanne Collins's dystopian trilogy-part action, part sci-fi, part swooning romance-has ignited the most obsessive fan fervor since a certain girl-meets-vampire love story. Now, with the first film in the series headed to theaters on March 23, the Games is poised to explode in the biggest way yet. When the trailer debuted online on Nov. 14, it received 8 million views within the first day, and book sales have increased by more than 7.5 million since then.

Set in the postapocalyptic country of Panem, which is controlled by a totalitarian regime, the series introduces 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Hailing from impoverished District 12, the bold heroine must prove her mettle when she competes in the sadistic government-enforced Games, which combine reality TV entertainment a la American Idol with a Coliseum-style, mano-a-mano death match. And yes, while the plot does contain a love triangle-Katniss is pursued by two suitors, Gale and Peeta-"that's not really what it's about," insists Elizabeth Banks, who plays outlandish government official Effie Trinket. "There's no schoolgirl crush happening here. The stakes are too high for that. This isn't about a first kiss. This is life and death."

At the core of the story, of course, is Katniss: Stoic and gutsy beyond her years, she's also a tender tomboy who's still finding her way-both as a budding rebel leader and as a young woman. "Her evolution as a character was incredibly compelling to me," says director Gary Ross (Sea-biscuit). "The way she went from somebody fighting for her own survival to somebody who is willing to give her life for something she believes in. It's such a graceful character arc." As 11-year-old Willow Shields, who plays Katniss's little sister Prim, puts it, "Every girl my age is drawn to Katniss because she's such a great role model. She's just one of those characters you really look up to."

Even after actress Jennifer Lawrence, 21, won the plum part, "I continued to get boxes and boxes of mail from girls who felt desperately that they should play Katniss," says casting director Debra Zane. "One young woman from South Korea would send me this beautiful package every week. That really is a tribute to Suzanne."

Lawrence, meanwhile, hopes that the film will be a tribute to Collins's work as well as to the fans. "I loved the book," she says. "I knew that the movie would be amazing. I'm just excited for everyone to see it."



THE BEGINNING

Since its publication in 2008, Collins's hit has been translated into 26 languages and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 160 straight weeks.



INSIDE THE HOB

"We weren't trying to re-create a 1920s Depression-era environment, but we used it as our foundation," says production designer Philip Messina of the film's District 12 look (including its black market known as the Hob). "We wanted to create a place that felt like people did 14 hours of physical labor a day and weren't getting enough to eat. Where the citizens are always one step away from giving up."



THE REAPING

The ceremony to select the District 12 tributes proved to be an emotionally grueling scene to film. "It was extremely moving," says Elizabeth Banks. "Even being there through 12 takes of it, I was touched as a fan, as an actress and as Effie Trinket." Liam Hemsworth was also in awe of the spectacle. "There were like 400 extras in the same gray clothes-it was like a prison camp," he says. "It was hard not to think about if this were real and someone's brother or sister got picked."



THE MAKING OF KATNISS'S "GIRL ON FIRE" LOOK

"I was excited but nervous to tackle that look," says the film's head costume designer, Judianna Makovsky (left), of the "girl on fire" outfit-the showstopping number (conceived by the Capitol's stylist Cinna) that Katniss wears to the opening ceremonies of the Hunger Games. As it's described in the book, the outfit "is very simplistic; it's basically a black leotard with tights and boots," says Makovsky. "We wanted something a little more spectacular than that, to keep it elegant and simple, since in our minds, Cinna would never design something ugly." Makovsky even made sure the outfit stayed true to the essence of Katniss and Peeta's hometown. "Since they're supposed to be representing District 12, we wanted to use a fabric that incorporated the look of coal."



TRAINING DAY

"I am a huge outdoors fan-camping and hiking-plus I'm addicted to the show Man vs. Wild, so I felt like I was prepared for The Hunger Games," says Hutcherson (here showing off Peeta's camouflaging skills). The film's casting director Debra Zane zeroed in on other key traits Hutcherson shares with his character. "He has all the nuanced, self-deprecating humor that Peeta has," says Zane. "He was able to capture all those Peeta-esque qualities right out of the gate."



SHOWTIME!

Jennifer Lawrence could relate to how Katniss feels when she's thrust into the spotlight. She told her director it was similar to the 2011 Oscar season: "I have hair and makeup people coming to my house every day and putting me in new, uncomfortable, weird dresses and expensive shoes, and I just shut down and raise my arms up for them to get the dress on, and pout my lips when they need to put the lipstick on," she said in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.



ON HER WAY TO BATTLE

Although she's forced to take part in the games, Katniss is "a hunter but not a killer," Lawrence has said. "It's not like she looks around the arena and goes, 'Yeah, I got this.' I think she looks around helplessly and thinks, 'I made a promise to my sister that I would survive; now I have to kill in order to do so.'"