'Hunger Games'

Elizabeth Banks (left) and Jennifer Lawrence star in "The Hunger Games." The movie -- based on a series of best-selling novels -- opens in theaters this weekend, but many Baltimore-area shows are already sold out. (Murray Close, Lionsgate photo / June 6, 2011)

When the lights dim for "Hunger Games" at midnight Thursday, Fatimah Nelson, who bought tickets weeks ago, will be there, a bit breathless, at the edge of a plush seat at Arundel Mills.

"I've been waiting months and months and months," says the Baltimore 21-year-old. "I'm really excited."

Nelson and millions of others in Maryland and around the country are braced for the opening of "Hunger Games," the latest young adult book series to become a runaway hit and then a movie and, it's looking like, a cultural phenomenon on the likes of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight."

The movie is on track to become the online site Fandango's top-seller ever. More than 90 percent of people buying tickets on the site are buying that movie and more than 2,000 showtimes have sold out nationwide. Although marketed as a book for young adults, Fandango reports those 25 and older are buying 46 percent of advance tickets.

"The movie seems to be tracking through the roof," says Adam Birnbaum, a film buyer for independently owned theaters on the East Coast. "It is has become the most talked about film of the season."

The movie officially opens Friday, with a number of theaters offering midnight Thursday shows. Tickets to a number of the shows in the Baltimore area are long gone.

Five of the six midnight shows at Hunt Valley Regal Cinemas had been snapped up as of Tuesday evening, according to Fandango's listings.

The AMC Theatre in White Marsh was advertising multiple screens at midnight — including an IMAX — and also a 3:15 a.m. showing. Several of those sold out.

By Tuesday morning, every online sales ticket had been snatched up for the Friday 6:45 and 9:50 shows at Baltimore's Landmark Harbor East.

"We expect the crowds to be very big," says Kathleen Cusack, who operates Baltimore's Senator Theater, which is showing the movie. "There's all this buzz and a Harry Potter-like fanaticism."

The books — "The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" — are huge. The first novel has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 180 consecutive weeks.

Even "Twilight" writer Stephenie Meyer blogged that the story kept her up for several nights in a row because she couldn't stop thinking about it.

The books are considered young adult fiction, aimed at readers ages 13 and up, but have been embraced by people of all ages. More than 26 million copies of the trilogy — in 40 countries — have been sold.

Suzanne Collins tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, one of 24 teens selected to compete in the televised Hunger Games in a future where the United States has been divided into 12 regions all under the tyrannical rule of The Capitol.

Cameras capture every life-and-death moment as the players battle until only one is left alive. The games were established as a way for the government to remind citizens who is in charge.

The story's message is unlike the "Twilight" series, where a young teen dates a vampire, or "Harry Potter," where magic wins the day. "The Hunger Games" is anchored to an existence that can already be seen today in the unending flood of reality TV shows. It's a cautionary story of what happens when people start to lose touch with their humanity.

Lauren Kay has all three books loaded onto her Kindle. She devoured the first one a few weeks ago and now can't wait for the movie.

"I was instantly hooked," says the Baltimore 22-year-old. "I absolutely adored it."

Kay, who was left cold by the melodrama of "Twilight," loves "Hunger Games" for the action and adventure. She can also see herself and her love for her little sisters in Katniss.