I’ll confess. When I first heard about the storyline of Hunger Games I was appalled and thought civilization had slipped another cog into the abyss.
Hunger Games has sold 26 million copies and is the first young adult book to sell a million copies on Kindle. Released last weekend at theatres, it broke box office records for a new non-sequel release.
People who know the basic plot line are asking why the series is so popular?
After all, Hunger Games is a dark story set in a post-apocalyptic future. It features twenty-four teenagers, two each from twelve districts, chosen at random and released into the wild with a mandate to kill each other until one is left standing.
In reality TV fashion these killer teens are televised so an elite, effete, pampered audience can be entertained. A game master introduces dramatic elements like forest fires and mutant attack dogs to keep the storyline exciting. Bets are placed on winners and losers and “sponsorships” provided for the audience’s favorite teenage warriors.
These gladiatorial games are the invention of a tyrannical, oppressive government seeking to suppress any attempted uprising by the twelve impoverished districts, whose inhabitants sustain the pampered lifestyle of the Capital of Panem, a nation rebuilt from the ruins of a war savaged North America.
The Hunger Games is wildly popular and controversial. The American Library Association ranks it fifth on the list of most banned books for 2010, because of parental complaints that the books are sexually explicit, unsuited to the age group, and too violent.
Is Hunger Games gratuitous violence run amok or a morality tale?
It is common knowledge that Suzanne Collins conceived the Hunger Games when one night she flipped the TV channel from teenagers on a reality-TV show to footage of teenagers serving in the Iraqi war. She couldn’t shake this jarring juxtaposition. As a result, beyond the short sentences, page turning plotline and memorable characters, Hunger Games smuggles ideas that matter into the reader’s minds.
So does the popularity of Hunger Games offer good news for those of us concerned about American civilization and the younger generation? I say yes, for a few reasons. (I can only speak for the first book of three, and I have heard the violence ratchets up in book two and three.)
1) Hunger Games is a morality tale being devoured by a generation raised on situation ethics. The cynical citizens of the Capital say, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” about a game in which the odds are 24 to 1 that you will be killed. Neither Katniss, our heroine, nor Peeta, desire to take human life, and as the last two survivors, both seek an alternative to killing the other. Both eschew their self-interests by helping each other and other contestants too.
2) Hunger Games celebrates the heroic efforts of a few who inspire hope for the many. Like the young Theseus in Greek mythology, who overthrew decadent political and religious powers to establish Athens, in Hunger Games underdogs Katniss and Peeta set out to beat the system. They raise hope in the Districts and concerns in the Capital. President Snow warns the game master, “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous.”
3) Hunger Games is a searing, angry commentary that exposes our entertainment culture as a diversion from the injustices and superficiality of contemporary life. Like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Hunger Games reveals the dark side of a society whose minds and consciences are numbed by sensate amusements. Before it collapsed, the Roman Empire offered the spectacle of humans killing humans in Coliseums. Ironically the Hunger Games movie puts us in the stands of today’s Coliseum, the movie theatre, as we are entertained by watching a sick culture being entertained by watching what we are watching! Hunger Games exposes the dirty little secret “If no one watches, then they don’t have a game.”
4) Hunger Games is a love story for a generation trying to distinguish between love and friendship. Harry Potter, Twilight and now Hunger Games each feature a triangle of friends in which friendship and romance become intertwined and our central character must make a choice for love. Katniss Everdeen’s best friend in the district is Gale Hawthorne, but her partner in the Hunger Games is Peeta Mellark, who she learns has been smitten with her since childhood.
The Hunger Games is juvenile fiction that makes you think. The themes are big, and dark and the stakes are high, something like real life.