The Hunger Games and Us
Editor's Note: For more on the social justice themes of the Hunger Games trilogy, don't miss Julie Clawson's new ebook, The Hunger Games and the Gospel.
Last week, during one of the interviews I gave the Los Angeles Times on the movie The Hunger Games, this year's record-breaking blockbuster, writer Steven Zeitchik asked me a question about the topicality of the decade's top tween/teen cultural phenomena. Do Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games really have anything to say to us?
Steven's point—and he's not the only critic to suggest it—was that these works seem to many to be entertainments largely devoid of topical content. The Guardian suggested that Katniss Everdeen's story in The Hunger Games is about as relevant to the everyday lives of its readers and viewers as the stories of Harry Potter and Twilight's Bella and Edward—which, they implied, is not very relevant at all.
My own take is different, and grows out of my work as literary and cultural critic. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are often about things a lot deeper than their obvious storylines. Politics. Ethics. Morality. As C. S. Lewis noted half a century ago, when readers enter into a story that isn't identifiably their own reality—whether that reality contains a school for wizards, gentle and sexy vampires, or a dystopian reality show—they are actually more, not less, open to learning from the story's themes, since they don't automatically erect defenses against ideas. That's why really good popular culture is almost always in some ways about the society that makes it so popular.
I wrote in my book on Harry Potter that the Potter books—and films—actually draw increasingly from post 9/11 events, which helps explain why the series becomes progressively darker as we near the end. They may be entertaining, but they're also dealing with recent issues such as torture, government control of information, and executive power.
While I don't get Twilight myself, it's clear from their amazing popularity among girls and women that these stories are tapping into some very real tensions among women about the inadequacies of today's men and being forced to take care of themselves. (I think, for example, of all the single-parent families headed by a female, think of all the absent mates and partners, think of men putting off marriage because they can't find jobs.) Twilight offers some wish fulfillment for even supremely capable females about being supported, protected, and loved up by someone strong and sparkly—for eternity!
The Hunger Games too deals with some powerful current socio-political tensions. Author Suzanne Collins spoke of how the story originally grew out of her channel-surfing that conflated reality TV and footage of the War on Terror. The story forces us into the uncomfortable perspective of identifying with the reality-game consuming citizens of Panem (think the Latin phrase "panem et circenses," or "Bread and Circuses") as we root for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in the Games and celebrate the deaths of the contestants we dislike. (Although, I thought the film had a bit more sympathy than the book for its hyper-cruel contestant Cato [Alexander Ludwig].) We can't turn away—which is the same situation of many of those watching.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.