There are many bestselling children's authors but only rarely do any come along who break through into the universal cultural consciousness. CS Lewis did it, as did Roald Dahl and JK Rowling. Now along comes Suzanne Collins, a 49-year-old from Connecticut, in the US, with The Hunger Games trilogy.

It's too early to know how durable this series will prove, but the signs so far are good. It has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The film has made converts of even the most curmudgeonly critics, grossing more than $US531 million worldwide in its first four weeks. More than one million copies of the books are now in print in the UK, and last month Amazon announced that Collins had become the bestselling Kindle author so far.

I don't think I've ever had a book or a television project where so much of the experience was dependent on the reader's own experience, and that's been really fun  

The woman behind the phenomenon is a bit of a mystery. Collins wrote for children's TV before turning to novels. She co-wrote the screenplay of The Hunger Games and is married to a TV actor - so knows a bit about the media circus - but she doesn't do publicity, hasn't even met her UK publishers, and seemed to tread the red carpet reluctantly at the film's Los Angeles premiere.

On her website, she is photographed in Central Park in New York, nose to snout with a toy rat, her long hair flowing witchily around her. "If you've read my fantasy series, The Underland Chronicles, you will have a clue as to why I chose this photo," she writes, offering no help to any visiting Hunger Games fan who had imagined her refulgent in a flaming robe. There is little else on the site about the Hunger Games apart from a few press quotes and the observation it is an "international bestseller".

Is her reluctance to self-publicise innocent or knowing? Either way, it's striking in the context of The Hunger Games, which is set in a nation, Panem, in which everything is televised. A post-apocalyptic society is ruled by the fascistic Capitol, which keeps the masses quiet by feeding them reality war games featuring teenagers who must fight to the last one standing.

The players who are "reaped" to play in the games are battling on two fronts: their primitive hand-to-hand combat, with whatever weapons come to hand, is mirrored by a more devious play for the sympathy - and sponsorship - of the people who are forced to watch. So the central character, Katniss, is both a warrior and a reality TV star with her own personal stylist. In these hunger games, it's not enough to be deadly with a bow and arrow; to survive, Katniss must seduce viewers into sending her food and medicine.

In a video interview made for her publisher, Scholastic, Collins says that the idea came to her when she was channel-surfing one night in bed. "I was very tired ... and I was flipping though images on reality television where these young people were competing for a million dollars or whatever, then I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is the moment where I got the idea for Katniss's story."

But the relationship between war and the media was impressed on her long before that night. Her father spent his career in the US air force and served in Vietnam. "My mother tried really hard to protect us but occasionally after afternoon cartoons ... the nightly news would come on and I'd see footage from the war zone and I would hear the word Vietnam and I would know my dad was over there and it was a very frightening experience for me."

The globe-trotting life of an air force family inspired two other preoccupations that would become central to the trilogy - it gave her space to develop a fascination with classical mythology, and it took her to lots of battlefields, ancient and modern, which her historically minded father would explain to his four children in strategic detail. The idea of a vengeful state that sends young people to be slaughtered came from Theseus and the Minotaur, while the games themselves are modelled on the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome.

At the heart of the books is the character of Katniss - an action heroine, whose ambivalence about herself and others does not merely decorate the story but drives the plot.

It's a trick that is particularly admired by the novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, whose Alex Rider books have been one of the most successful action series in the UK over the past decade. He says: "Suzanne Collins has pulled off a remarkable coup, producing a female character that has equal appeal to both boys and girls and it's interesting how the book manages to balance an intricate and detailed love triangle with sequences of fairly gruesome violence. It's not often you find both these things between the covers of the same YA [young adult] book.

"It helps that Katniss Everdeen is extremely well-drawn. She's tough without being a tomboy and attractive without being a sophomore although she has elements of both. Her relationship with Peeta (is it love or expediency?) is particularly well-handled. Even she is unsure where her feelings truly lie."

Though Katniss, who is 16 in the first book, is buffeted by familiar teen emotions - the desire to be special competing with a wish to belong - Collins insists the series is not a metaphor for troubled adolescence. In a rare interview, with the US School Libraries Journal, she said: "I don't write about adolescents. I write about war for adolescents."

Increasingly, though, adults are also reading The Hunger Games, which has been energetically marketed to the valuable crossover audience. Her UK publisher, Hilary Murray Hill, dates the tipping point back to 2010, when Collins was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, and Mockingjay, the third volume in the trilogy, was published in both teen and adult editions. "We'd built the campaign around the books, rather than the author, and the excitement was very strong in the UK," she says.

There is a very grown-up political logic to the books, which become steadily more uncomfortable as they go on, ending with the ultra-dystopian society in which the rebels - Katniss among them - resort to the same power games as their one-time oppressors. "Panem is clearly the USA seen through a distorting mirror ... with elements of the Roman empire thrown in. All very clever and thought-provoking," says Horowitz.

The writer Michael Rosen has written admiringly about the politics of Collins' dystopia. "What I thought was uplifting about The Hunger Games was that I was given plenty of clues of how power was enacted in this totalitarian future society - enough clues for me to see parallels in past and present political regimes."

Rosen's article struck a geyser of opinion, ranging from those who accused it of political incoherence and wrong-headed moralism, to those who, like a user posting as "psygone", saw the trilogy as a projection of "the subconscious fears of today's teens that their future will be more and more grim, and they will have to do the 'unusual' in order to not be crushed by it".

Rosen feels the hostility was partly to do with readers' dislike of feeling manipulated. "I'm quite happy to be warned by literature - particularly if the writer has enabled you to 'get behind' the dystopia, giving you some sense of how it came about."

Collins is unapologetic about the moral message of her books. She says: "I hope it does make people think about what they watch in a more reflective way." But she also points out that different readers relate to different themes. "For some it's the violence and the reality TV; others seem to be affected by the themes of hunger - food is a power tool that runs throughout it. Other people seem to home right in on the romance. I don't think I've ever had a book or a television project where so much of the experience was dependent on the reader's own experience, and that's been really fun."

So who reads it? Murray Hill says the fan base is evenly spread between the sexes, highly unusual for books with female heroines. To this core readership, the film has added action movie fans and connoisseurs of political dystopias.

The whole phenomenon could be summed up in the familiar phrase, coined by the Romans used to describe their strategy for placating the plebeians - "bread and circuses". For all Collins' reluctance to play the media, her great good fortune is to live in an age when the movie circus can spread the bread of literature so widely. With two more films still to come, you can bet that irony isn't lost on her.

Guardian News & Media 2012