Eighth-graders at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland will leave class Friday to see “The Hunger Games” when the film opens nationwide. So will the seventh-graders at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

It’s rare for middle school teachers to turn a Hollywood film opening into a field trip, but “The Hunger Games” is based on one of those rare books that captivate masses of young readers, enticing them to read voraciously while impressing parents and teachers with its writing and complex story.

“I read it because so many students were reading it, and I got hooked and fell in love with the whole series,” said Aaron Filieo, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

The book’s power has thousands of people across southern Maine ready to line up for midnight premieres of “The Hunger Games” at theaters tonight — on top of the school groups and others who plan to see it on Friday. Some say they’ll try to have bows and arrows or wear “Mockingjay” pins, like the book’s heroes.

The book’s violence has been decried by some — the plot pits teenagers in a battle for their lives.

But many youngsters and adults say the violence is neither as graphic nor as explicit as in lots of other books, films and video games. “Harry Potter” is full of death and darkness, some say.

The violence isn’t what draws them to “The Hunger Games” anyway, many teenagers say. It’s the writing.

“I just had to keep reading because I just kept thinking about whether (main characters) Katniss and Peeta would survive,” said Baleigh Burns, 13, an eighth-grader at Mahoney. “It’s definitely not more violent than other things I’ve seen. And the violence is not the best part anyway.”

The film is based on a book by Suzanne Collins. “The Hunger Games” is the first in a trilogy that includes “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay.”

The story centers on 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a dystopian future in which North America has been wracked by natural disasters and civil war and subsequently divided into 12 districts controlled by an authoritarian government.

To demonstrate its control over the people, the government holds an annual event called the Hunger Games, in which a teenage boy and a teenager girl from each district are selected randomly to battle each other to the death in an elaborate reality TV show.

One reason the book resonates with teenagers is that the main characters are teenagers, including a very strong female lead. And unlike in “Harry Potter” books and films, these young people aren’t wizards with magic powers. They are typical teenagers trying to survive in a strange, cruel future society.

“It’s nice to have a strong female character to read about,” said Kendall Dinsmore, 15, a sophomore at Lake Region High School in Naples who plans to see a midnight showing of the film. “It gives you such a different outlook on what your society could be like.”

Kendall’s father, Dan Dinsmore of Casco, said he bought “The Hunger Games” for his daughter a couple years ago after researching the series and reading good reviews.

“Any time you hear about a book that has kids killing kids, your parental antenna goes up,” said Dinsmore, vice president of MedTech Media in New Gloucester, who has read the book. “The book paints a picture that has different themes beyond violence that are so rich and so deep, the violence is really secondary.”

The book is accepted enough by teachers to be put on suggested reading lists. Whole families read the book, and the whole series, after one family member reads it.

“What I love about the book is the experience it brought my family,” said Suzanne McCormick of Buxton, who is CEO of United Way of Greater Portland. “It started with my fifth-grader who read it. He said, ‘Mom, you have to read this.’ I read it and loved it and said to my husband, ‘You have to read this.’ My mother just came to visit and my son said, ‘Grandma, you have read it.’ My 9-year-old daughter is now reading it. We’re obsessed with it.”

“The book has allowed us to talk about what’s happening in the world,” McCormick said. “The conversation I’m intrigued to have with them at some point is about reality TV.”

As for parents who think the book might not be right for their children, McCormick suggests reading it. “You can read it in a day,” she said.

At Mahoney and Cape Elizabeth middle schools, the field trips came about when teachers began to realize how many of their students had read the book.

About 120 students from Mahoney are going to see it, and about 135 from Cape Elizabeth will see it, all with parents’ permission. Students are paying the admission costs — $6 to $8 per student — with financial help for those who need it. And the teachers at both schools plan to fit the movie into their lesson plans, with written work and discussions following the trips.

The excitement over “The Hunger Games” isn’t limited to teenagers.

Nine-year-old Elona Bodwell stayed up past her bedtime reading the first book. Then her father, Joshua Bodwell, picked it up and couldn’t put it down until he was finished.

“I totally and utterly support the books because they get kids hooked on reading,” said Bodwell, executive director for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. “I devoured the Hardy Boys as a kid. It’s not high art, but it got me hooked on reading.”

Elona, who attends the Sea Road School in Kennebunk, has read the whole trilogy and wishes she hadn’t read the books so quickly. Her father has no problem with her re-reading them.

“Every trip to the grocery store, I have to stand there with my daughter and be assaulted by these hideous magazine covers with the likes of Snooki and the Kardashian sisters,” Bodwell said. “So I’m thrilled for my daughter to have a strong female character that’s complex and moral, like Katniss, to look up to.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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Twitter: @RayRouthier