The fictional mockingjay bird is symbolic of both the Hunger Games book trilogy and film. Image by KendraKaptures, via Flickr.

Pushing aside concerns over the novels’ unsettling themes, the first instalment of The Hunger Games franchise exceeded box office expectations and set several records along the way. For book retailers, this translated into an extended run on the bestseller list as promotion for the film was splashed across the front page of nearly every magazine, billboard and blog.

The long-running comparison to The Hunger Games has been the Harry Potter series, which captured the same interest from its target audience of young adults as it did their parents. But in the 12 months between the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two and the first Hunger Games film, there has been a noticeable shift in how book-based film franchises are marketed.

Instead of relying on the off-screen personalities and public appearance of the writer, director and major actors to sell the film, The Hunger Games marketing campaign has pivoted around the story itself.

Harry Potter vs. The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games.

It’s hard to talk about Harry Potter without rehearsing the meteoric rise of J.K. Rowling, the elegant, articulate author who created one of the most successful book series ever written. When the Potter books came out, Rowling’s unlikely celebrity loomed as large as the fictional journey of Harry and his friends.

And as soon as the first film was released, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the film’s other previously unknown stars were followed at the films’ premieres and had their private lives picked apart by paparazzi – their celebrity often eclipsing the story of Harry Potter itself.

J.K. Rowling shares her celebrity with the Harry Potter series. Image by Daniel Ogren, via Flickr.

When Pottermore, the digital home for Harry Potter, launched in beta, who better to invite fans than Rowling, who appeared in the first viral video for the site?

With marketing efforts focused on the real-life personalities attached to the product, the books and films were left standing alone to tell the stories of Harry, Hermione and Ron.

The Hunger Games franchise, on the other hand, has made fictional character Katniss, rather than actress Jennifer Lawrence or author Suzanne Collins, the face of the series.

In posters and press kits, the central image is of Katniss, her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, dirt smeared on her face, holding a bow and arrow aimed toward an unseen predator. Lawrence’s promotional appearances for the film have been almost hyper-focused on her character – whether she has the correct hair colour, the archery skills she had to learn to play the role or how well she wears the costume – rather than the actress’s personal life.

Several social media marketing tactics were deployed to hype The Hunger Games film, including Tumblogs like Capitol Couture.

As for Collins, although she has a screenwriter credit and is a producer of the film, her presence in marketing the adaptation has been minimal.

The Hunger Games, with its classic heroine, meticulously crafted setting and familiar mythical narrative, has used a story-first approach to generate ticket sales.

The film’s marketers have used Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to direct people to an interactive microsite called thecapitol.pn. Visitors can register themselves as citizens of the fictional city, interact with other residents and become district mayors. In other words, the site was a gateway into the Hunger Games story.

The strategy has paid off for both the film and the books. Last summer, just under 10 million copies of the books were in print and now there are more than 24 million in the United States alone.

On the digital side, the novels were the first young-adult series to sell more than 1 million e-books and are still among the top ten on the Kindle bestseller list.

The success of the The Hunger Games is a reminder that most good stories can sell themselves.