Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." (Murray Close / Lionsgate)

Movie theaters got scorched this weekend as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” blazed its way to the top of the box office, easily beating last weekend’s No. 1 contender, “Thor: The Dark World,” and recording the highest-grossing November opening of all time.

The Jennifer Lawrence-starring sequel to last year’s “The Hunger Games” raked in an estimated $161 million, according to Lionsgate, the film’s distributor. The sci-fi thriller was hosed down just short of beating out “Iron Man 3” for the best opening of the year.

That popular Marvel franchise opened with $174 million. Still “Catching Fire” took in enough to handily beat the November record of $142.8 million held by “Twilight Saga: New Moon.” It was also enough to secure the film the No. 4 spot on the list of top opening weekends of all time, just below "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" ($169.2 million) and above "The Dark Knight Rises" ($160.9 million). Marvel’s “The Avengers” holds the No. 1 spot with a stunning $207 million.

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The original “Hunger Games” enjoyed a $152-million opening weekend, and it looks like the sequel’s greater success can partly be credited to the fact that it’s drawing a broader audience. Exit-poll data shows that the audience is 12% more male than it was for the original film, raising the proportion of male audience members to a healthy 41%. The audience was evenly split between viewers over and under 25.

It was an incredibly strong start, even if it did not meet early speculation based on prerelease audience surveys that the film would topple the year-to-date record held by “Iron Man 3.”

There also had been early speculation that “Thor: The Dark World” might not hang onto the No. 2 spot this weekend because its audience was probably similar to that of “Catching Fire,” and also because of the surprise showing of last weekend’s No. 2 film, “The Best Man Holiday.”

Distributed by Universal, the heart-warming rom-com was projected to debut with a moderate $17 million but went on to trample all expectations by earning an average grade of A+ from moviegoers according to market research firm CinemaScore, as well as a studio-estimated $30.6 million.

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This weekend, however, “The Best Man Holiday” did not manage to outpace “Thor,” which took in a decent $14 million. That represented a 61% drop from its second weekend when it took in $38.5 million. Its cumulative gross now stands at $167.8 million.

“The Best Man Holiday” experienced a 58% drop from its opening weekend to earn $12.5 million and hold steady in the No. 3 spot with a healthy cumulative gross of $50.4 million.

“The Hunger Games” didn’t have much by way of competition this weekend since the only other wide-release opening was “Delivery Man.” The DreamWorks picture, starring Vince Vaughn as an underachiever who suddenly discovers he has fathered hundreds of children as a sperm donor, took in a dismal $8 million and received a cringe-worthy 36% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

By comparison, “Catching Fire” received an A rating on CinemaScore and an 89% “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

“The Hunger Games” franchise is based on the best-selling books by Suzanne Collins and imagines a dystopian future world ruled over by a despotic and cruel government that pits children against one another in rigged death matches aimed at instilling fear in a restless population on the verge of rebellion.

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Jennifer Lawrence is the series’ reluctant hero. Lawrence won an Academy Award for best actress last year for her work in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” and since then her profile has been steadily rising. She is currently considered among Hollywood’s hottest stars.

Audiences are responding to her as much as they are to their love of the franchise and their love of love in general. “Catching Fire” explores the romance between Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, and her Hunger Games compatriot Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson.

“It was great, fantastic. Pretty much stuck to the book, which was what I expected,” Bianca Jacques said as she left a Friday afternoon screening of the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “My favorite part was that the romance between Katniss and Peeta becomes real. I can’t wait for the next one.”

The final book in “The Hunger Games” trilogy will be divided into two installments to be released in 2014 and 2015.

For now, part two is spreading fire across the globe with a massive cumulative international take of $307.7 million. It’s doing best in Germany where its gross is four times as large as the first film's.

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