Why is The Hunger Games So Popular?

On Friday morning at 12:01, I found myself sitting with my teenaged daughter in a theater vibrating with expectation. Along with four hundred eager fans, we were about to watch the film version of Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games. I looked around the theatre to see if anyone looked my age or older. I spied a few who seemed to be parents. But there was no doubt that I was in the 1% of this crowd, the over-50 1%, that is.

As it turns out, I was helping The Hunger Games set a box office record. It ranks first in “all-time highest grossing non-sequel midnight screenings ever.” There’s no doubt that this movie will be a blockbuster. Not only has it started strong, but also it will continue to draw multiple millions of moviegoers.

This has perplexed many people, especially parents who wonder why their children want to rush off to see a movie about children killing other children. One obvious reason for this is that their children, usually teenagers, have read and loved The Hunger Games series of three novels. I’d guess that the vast majority of those who joined me at midnight a couple of days ago were already big fans of the story they were about to see on the big screen.

Alternatively, it may be that almost all of the females in the audience loved the books, and brought their male friends along for the premiere. In my completely non-scientific survey, most of the readers of The Hunger Games are female, especially among teenagers. Of course this ups the ante on the popularity question. Why in the world would girls flock to a movie in which the main course is an extended and violent portrayal of kids killing other kids? Why is The Hunger Games so popular, especially among young people who, if they lived in its fictional nation of Panem, might find themselves in a place to kill or be killed by their peers, even their close friends? Why have so many young readers fallen in love with The Hunger Games, and are now translating that love into blockbusting ticket buying?

To be sure, there are some easy answers to these questions. The Hunger Games is an engaging story, a page-turner. Suzanne Collins is an entertaining writer who combines predictability with surprise in the way of all accomplished thriller writers. Plus, the story has plenty of action, dangers, and intrigue. I envy Collins’ imagination, even though I wouldn’t want to have her nightmares.

But, I don’t think the extraordinary popularity of The Hunger Games can be explained by the answers I’ve just given. They contribute, but they’re not nearly enough. They simply don’t account for the heart connection many young readers feel with this literature, and now with this movie.

I have a couple of theses on the popularity of The Hunger Games. These are based, I should explain, not simply or even mainly on the movie I saw a couple of nights ago. Last year, I read the all three books in The Hunger Games series. I did so because my daughter loved them and I have intentionally tried to read books she enjoys. (Yes, this means that I also read all four of the Twilight novels, something not many men in their fifties can say without embarrassment.)

Before I began The Hunger Games, I would have bet that the popularity of these books was rooted in two predictable factors: the appeal of the protagonist and the presence of adolescent romance. I was shocked to discover that neither of these factors are adequate to explain why teenagers love The Hunger Games.

The main protagonist of the books and movie, the teenage girl known as Katniss Everdeen, is an impressive warrior, especially with the bow and arrow. But she has been hardened by a life of suffering and loss, as well as hatred for the government of Panem and the oppressive society it imposes on its citizens. Only occasionally does Katniss show human warmth, and even then she is unusually restrained. She almost never laughs, cries, or gives evidence of vulnerability. She is not what I expected in a protagonist, a female version of Harry Potter, someone who is hard not to love. Katniss is, in fact, a hard person to like, especially as one moves into the second and third books. The movie version of The Hunger Games softens up Katniss quite a bit, but she is still a flinty character. No, she isn’t nearly as hard and disturbed as Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest. But Katniss is well on her way to joining Lisbeth’s league.

There are romantic elements in The Hunger Games, but they are nothing compared to the raw passion of Twilight or the heartfelt love in Harry Potter. Without spoiling the story, let me say simply that there is precious little romance in The Hunger Games, and what is there is restrained and almost always mixed with sadness. There is actually more genuine love in this story than romance, such as the love between sisters or sacrificial love between friends. But there isn’t a whole lot of love, either.

So, if the popularity of The Hunger Games cannot be adequately explained by its engaging action, its peculiar protagonist, or its sparsity of romance, what will do it? There has to be something more, something that accounts for why millions of teenagers love this story. As I wrote above, I have a couple of theses. I’ll present and defend them in my next post in this series. In the meanwhile, I’d be most interested in your ideas. If you’re following The Hunger Games phenomenon, and especially if you’ve seen the movie and/or read the books, why do you think The Hunger Games is so popular?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1801635705 Laura Hooge

    It’s a great page-turner and it’s detailed. The characters are engaging. Well, that’s the reason I liked the first book. Of course, I’m an avid reader who thinks the plot is built heavily on details, and thus likes and enjoys those books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.vandagriff Ben Vandagriff

    Having not read the any of this series, I can still point out this one simple truth, that when the old Hollywood hit machine comes into play, the pure unadulterated hyperbole accompanying every major release grows exponentially each time a new one arrives. As I recall, the actual practice of having a midnight release started w/ the first Spiderman movie, & this allowed that film to shatter all previous records up to that time. But these records are designed to fall as they continue pump out these record setting films that are actually of minor social impact. The Avengers movie will break all the records in May & some summer blockbuster will trump another. That’s show biz folks. 

    “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” ― P.T. Barnum 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lori-Galasso/1046081865 Lori Galasso

    Interesting topic Mark, looking forward to your take. I’m sure to be the minority in the room, but I have a high tolerance things that scare and disturb me. I pay attention to things that give me a rise and I’m impressed at their ability to do so. The Hunger Games are disturbing to many that way, by design. 

    Since I was a child, I’ve known real violence is only a random act away and was taught (typically) to avoid confrontational situations that might provoke one. On the other hand, the arts are a virtual free-for-all, with endless degrees and context. For instance, when your loved one becomes one of the walking dead, just what are you supposed to do…? Lock them in the barn and hope for a cure, or whack ‘em all in the head to protect the living? I mean, have you seen those guys? Relentless, clawing, always trying to get into your house at night to have a go at your insides… Do you want to end up just like that yourself? No sir, you don’t. In such cases you’ve just got to make the hard choices. :) For me, the arts are the best way to safely play out my (very real) fears. I like to identify with an unassuming hero who overcomes an impossible (virtual) threat with strength, skill and cunning, because sometime I may need be that in my real life. 

  • Troy

    Having finished Hunger games book 1 and started on book 2 today, my thought about its teenage popularity has to do with its post-apocalyptic setting and the social stratification within the Panem society. While the books are an extreme example, I think their appeal lies in the ties to what kids (and adults) have seen within society in the last 5 years.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comment. Very helpful.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Lori. That’s a fascinating take on how violence and art work in someone’s life.

  • Anonymous

    Good point. I may very well see the midnight show of The Avengers because those super heroes tap into my childhood memories. Plus, they’re just so cool.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, all of that takes sure helps.

  • Leslie Dayebert

    I loved it not only because it was well-written and gripping, but because I saw it as the logical (if frightening) progression of where our society is headed. Look at the reality television and voyeurism coupled with lack of civility in society – take it to its furthest extreme. This is absent of course Christians rising up and becoming a moral force for change.  I’ll be interested in what you have to say and am sure it will be much meatier than my comments – this is just my first impression without any great cogitation.

  • Jim Stochl

    I just finished the Kindle version of the book, and will now look forward to seeing the movie. That’s the right order, yeah?

    The images in the book are disturbing: children killing children. And yet in the post-apocalyptic setting, there are themes of self-sufficiency, and of community and dependence, and love, and hope, and rebellion. The main characters are well written, and “rounded”, not the flat characters that occupy so much teenage literature. The author is creative, and makes the best of surprises and tension. There is great pathos (when Rue dies), but also great inner confusion on Katniss’ part concerning who she is, and how she is to relate to others. She is tough and tender, loyal and independent, caring and calloused.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mark.

  • Victoria

    I’ve read all three of the books.  I think a lot of people miss the message in the story behind all the gruesome killings.  I agree that the idea of kids killing each other is a bit disturbing, but I also know that the message of the book isn’t about that.  It’s about a revolution and a message of hope in a basically hopeless situation.  Combine that with the love, suspense, and action, it is easy for me to see why so many people like the books.

    That’s just my opinion though.  I see the story as one of hope.

  • Spendthrifter

    Please include a spoiler alert if you plan on revealing major plot developments that could ruin the experience “when Rue die). Thanks.

  • Spendthrifter

    Make that (“when Rue dies”).

  • Anonymous

    I’m a 38 year old man, so I’m not really the target audience, but I loved the books.  For me the simplest answer is that they are well done, and have a certain depth to them. It’s not just an exciting story, there is some meaning here.  What is the meaning?  I’m not entirely sure yet, so I’m eager to see other’s thoughts here.  But my wife and I spent several days talking over and discussing the books after we read them.  These aren’t books to read-and-forget.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry. That one slipped by. As you noticed, I tried not to include any spoilers. I’ll see if I can edit it out. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with your insight, though I can’t say I loved the book(s) for that reason. It’s hard for me to love what is both sad and frightening.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Jim. Great thoughts. I edited out one name because it is a spoiler. Still, I appreciate your insights.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your comment.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

  • H2oblonday

    I think, looking at it from an 18 year old female prospective, violence is the main part of this book, I mean it is titled The Hunger Games, however, the reason behind that is something more than teenagers in love and anything else you can come up with. For me, I see it as fighting for something more than survival, glory or food. It is actually fighting for something that is worth fighting for. Family, sacrifice, love. The passion for something other than glory, but to show that you can do what you believe if you are passionate enough. This phenomenon that is spreading like wildfire (had to do it) shows that their are people who are passionate for this story and movie because the book was such a success. With the other books, it shows even more that aside from the survival and fighting to live, it also portrays that if people come together, they can change something for the better, not a pretty rebellion, but one with a united cause. I guess in this situation, regarding the hype from the movie, it depends on how you look at it. You can see that yes, it is violent and cruel, but when it comes down to it, how is our society any different, we may not be killing each other directly or snapping necks, but we are breaking ourselves down. That’s all for now Uncle Mark :)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for adding your insights here, AR. Very interesting!

  • Vlien

    I actually find it very easy to like Katniss. Even though her life is hard, she keeps going and does everything for the people she cares about. She’s both though and sweet, just not in a girly kind of way. I was never a girly girl and can identify with her. Just like Hermoine is valued for being smart and loyal and not how she looks or plays the popularity game. 

    Besides Katniss (because I do think a lot of girls do really like her). I’d say the succes has a lot to do with people even children not trusting the people in power anymore and don’t want to fight eachother anymore but make things better together.

    The result might not be what Katniss was hoping for, all the more painfull as she was willing to give it her all,and ended up losing so much. Definately not a happy ending, although it’s probably closer to reality. It does not always work out as wonderful as we had imagined.

    I’m not american,  and people often find a different meaning in the same story regardless of different backgrounds but that’s why I loved it.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks for your input!

  • Guest

    It made me feel like I was in her shoes, I felt simpathy for her, I felt for her losses, I was angry at the capitol. It also seemed as if the main character was talking to you because it was in first person. Also, there was always alot of suspence and multiple things going on in your head that you didnt want to keep reading. When I put the book down, I worried about the characters as if I knew them, when I finished the book, I could not explain the amount of grief that went through me, as if I had lost someone dear to me, it made you feel like you knew the caracters and knew how they felt.

  • Epicdavid777

    well the hunger games is very addictive yet I wonder how it could possibly attract so many young readers…

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.desimone Joshua DeSimone

    There is a central theme in YA that a lot of people seem to be forgetting and how it ties into why these books are so popular with a teen. You have to realize that, in that point in life(and for some, after it as well), they often feel trapped, walled in much like Katniss. Harry Potter was the same way until he found out he was a Wizard. In Katniss’ case, however, she gets a level of freedom and it isn’t what she expected. She dreams of when “things were easier,” when things were far less complicated and things weren’t really as life or death as she thought.

    Any adult can see this corrilation to life. When you’re in high school, the world seems closed, hard to reach, and contrived. Teens want to explore it and want *freedom*, but once they get it, it’s pretty terrifying. Most adults don’t up being truely happy and a lot of them look back on their younger days with longing because the grass is so much greener back there before the “freedom” became too daunting.

    Teens read to experience the emotions they feel being acknowledged by someone else out in the world through words. These books aren’t about genre, they aren’t about violence, they aren’t about romance. These YA novels tie in to extremely deep feelings of entrapment withint their families and societies. Harry Potter plays out in a more idealistic fashion where the main character wins out and essentially life is great. The Hunger Games is much more realistic in terms of cause and effect within the confines of the real world and *this* is what young adults want, someone to explain the world to them without a condiscending tone.

    I think adults would also be surprised to find that many, many people feel sometimes like the world is actually its own form of “The Hunger Games”. Authors dramatize things to an extreme, but all of these larger-than-life stories like this, “The Matrix”, “Lord of the Rings” and the like tie into a constant feeling of being at war with the world itself.

  • Wimshurst3

    I actually have to disagree with most of the comments here. I hated the series. The characters were flat, underdeveloped, and extremely one dimensional. It’s a slightly less bad Twilight. You have the main character, an unattractive girl who is unpopular and angsty. She’s someone every self absorbed teenage girl can relate to. Then she has two very attractive, ridiculously out of her league guys pursuing her. That’s the dream of unpopular, unattractive teenage girl. If you like your guys effeminate and weak, then you can be “Team Peeta”, or, if you like your guys brutish and over-protective, you can be “Team Gale”.
    Everyone devotes all their attention to the main character and all her mistakes are eventually forgiven. She can use the excuse of what she went to in order to push away everyone who might make a positive impact on her life. She’s immature, rude, and just plain mean. She’s every teenage girl.
    The only “pretty girl” in the book, Glimmer, is, of course, characterized as the popular mean girl who the target audience already hates. She’s given no development and her brutal end is just a little victory moment for the unpopular teenage girls. President Snow is the controlling authority figure which everyone hates, Peeta is the boy everyone has a hopeless, unfulfilled crush on, and the stylist is basically the “cool mentor” who will put up with all your bullshit and indulge your whining.
    The only characters who recieved any significant development at all, Katniss and Peeta, are just stock representations. Peeta, the guy who gets the girl in the end, has a borderline obsessive fix on Katniss. It actually left me feeling very creeped out by the end of the first book and was just sickening by the time the second ended. Katniss never changed. She just stayed the bitter, selfish, leech on society she always was. The only characters I could say I liked (Rue, Glimmer, Johanna, and Boggs) were all one dimensional and, although they could have had fantastic potential, remained half baked ways of relating to the target audience.
    So, in the end, this series undeserved popularity comes from the fact that any teenage girl can put themselves in Katniss’ shoes then use her story as an excuse for their own immature behavior. Next to that, the love triangle is every unpopular teen and pre-teens dream. What acne faced girl wouldn’t want two hot guys lusting after her in a slightly stalkerish way? This is exactly why Twilight was so popular.
    These books follow the sickening “formula for success” which most popular books do these days. Hash out a formulaic storyline, throw in some horrible writing, and tweak the setting just enough to be called “unique”, and you’ve got yourself a best seller. It’s sad, really…

  • Ur hater

    U stink cuz u hate the hunger games……I HATE U!!!!!!!!!! (but I love the hunger games and most of all PEETA)

  • Booby

    Good answer…..I agree…u shouldn’t just read and forget especially when it comes to the hunger games

  • sick of the hunger games

    YES! I’ve been waiting FOREVER for someone to hate the hunger games! Katniss’s character is so cliched, a flat Mary Sue. Come on, we’ve seen the emotionally distant, super-mature character with a traaaaagic past and is sooooo selfless a bazillion times. Twilight was terrible, but at least it was a lot more honest, and the romance was more passionate and real. In the Hunger Games…WTF was up with Collins with the love triangle? Does every YA novel need a sappy love triangle? They’re stupid, unrealistic, stupid, slow, stupid, usually irrelevant, and stupid again.

    Oh, and the plot…seriously. It had so much potential, but it was so contrived. Deus Ex Machina and plot convenience annoyed the crap out of me. CHANGING THE RULES FOR KATNISS??? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? Why the hell would they do that? Oh yeah, because Katniss is Just. That. Special. UGH UGH UGH!!! Oh yeah, and of course Rue would be conveniently killed by someone else so Katniss’s Awesomeness would not be challenged. The writing style was horribly immature and contrasted sharply with Katniss’s personality. There is minimal to zero character development, the world building has so many holes in it it should have collapsed a long time ago, the characters are flat, boring, cliched, and stupid.

    And, oh yes, the Hunger Games is antifeminist. I really wonder why no one noticed this. Katniss is strong only becuase she is masculine. She’s so masculine, in fact, that she’s really more of a boy than a girl. Being a badass does not equal depth or being likable. I saw literally nothing feminine in Katniss, making her a terribly unrealistic and unbelievable character. Basically, Collins apparently thinks that for a female to be strong, you have to be masculine. If you took away Katniss’ badass qualities, you’ll get Bella Swan. Sure, she’s selfless when she sacrifices herself for Prim, but didn’t Bella do the same thing with Renesmee? Bella gets horrible reception, and she certainly deserves it, but Katniss is waaaay overrated. I’m sick to death of the Hunger Games hype. It is GROSSLY overrated and the flaws in it practically are slapped in the face but for some magical reason are ignored or dismissed.

    Don’t tell me it’s YA. I’m part of the target audience, being thirteen, and I hated it. It will never have the legacy Harry Potter did. It is a fad, just like Twilight, and just like Twilight, it will fade.

    Don’t flame me. Everyone has their freaking opinion. I am not crazy, I am not trolling, I have an average IQ, I am not mentally retarded. I know I’m in the minority. Let me note that I don’t hate the book so much as I hate the hype, because it doesn’t deserve it. I think the only reason why it’s popular is because Twilight sucked so badly and people were looking for something anti-Twilight. the HG is only slightly better than Twilight. At least Twilight was more honest and open, albeit being shallow and stupid.

  • TJMONSTER

    I, a 15 year old, LOVED the Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins. I think the main reasons are that it is a well written book, you can understand the characters and what they have to go through and also there is always a lot of thrill and adventure. Some of the other books i enjoyed are Tomorrow When The War Began series and A Series Of Unfortunate Events. They are all very similar in a way as there is a understanding of the characters, adventure and well written books. I do have to add though that I hated Katniss in the last book (MockingJay) she became too indepedant and was horrible to Peeta, a person who was mentally scarred. (I do not favour or LOVE Peeta like most teenage girls do). All in all I hope this comment has helped you understand why I/we love the Hunger Games.

  • SC13

    Im an adult (ie. over 30), avid reader, and female. I took a chance on reading the series without looking it up online to see what it is about(we dont have TV i mean we do but no cable and just one of those digital boxes so we can keep up with the news) so i had no idea of what it was about. I was clearly disturbed by the end of the series while reading it i just kept thinking there has to be a means to an end all this killing and violence has to be for the greater good but the explinations the characters themselves the series just left me with an unsettled feeling. Like thats it?!? and Why? I totally understand the critic’s who donot like the story and ive come to a conclusion its due to a lack of substance from beginning to end. I think if the characters were more developed the reasons behing the characters actions, the killings, and political motavations were further developed it would have been a completely different series a longer series and propabally not as popular not to mention unappealing to the Authors target audience. So for that I guess i get it but i still DO NOT LIKE the series. and please no angry post because unlike many I BOUGHT ALL of the books @ their full cost.

  • Michelle

    In all the books I’ve read Katniss is one of the only protanginists that I hate. A lot of what kept me reading was any anger towards her. That was the first story that has ever made me feel like that. The trilogy is so different then anything else I have ever read, I believe that is why it is so popular

  • tyleder

    I agree with you to some extent. I find your analysis of why Hunger Games is popular to be quite interesting. I appreciate your insight on “the regular teenage girl being able to place themselves in a teenagers shoes.” But i believe that your analysis has gone too far on why Hunger Games is popular.
    Katniss was NOT a “menace to society,” neither was she “selfish,” in fact she stood against the evils of society and risked her own life in the process. And while it is true that Katniss may have been in many ways similar to a teenager in her manor and demeanor Katniss only did what was necessary to survive and adapted to her difficult circumstances.
    I actually was quite impressed with Collins development of Katniss. And by no means was she just a “snob and a menace to society.” Katniss viewed being a tribute as a DEATH SENTENCE and yet she still stood up and was willing to give her life for her sister. She was perhaps in many way similar to a teenager in her manor and demeanor but she stood for so much more. She stood for love of family, helping friends, and standing up for what is right even in the midst of the most bitter adversaries.

    Katniss rescued Peeta at the risk of her own life! and stepped up to save Prim even at the cost of her own life. She defied the Hunger Games because she thought they were wrong and she showed her determination to stand up for what she believed by being willing to seal her convictions against the unjustness of the capitol with her life by eating the nightlock. These unselfish actions when Katniss risked her life to save her sister, to save Peeta, and to stand up for what she believes in demonstrate Katniss’s true character of unselfishness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.madison.73 Jane Madison

    Idiot

  • DownWHunger!

    OH thank God!

  • rhymewithoutreason

    I just don’t understand the draw to a series where children kill children for “fun.” I will not watch or read something so nonsensical as the HG or SAW series simply because the gore is pointless and disturbing and the effect of the world returning to a gladiatorial state. These are NOT redeeming qualities which some teenagers will not realize until they are much older and mature.

  • Tealgurl

    Well, care to elaborate a bit more? what exactly is it that make the hunger games so obsession worthy? I wasn’t convinced by the article, nor by your grammar. Why do you hate me because of my personal likes and dislikes?

  • Don

    The movie doesn’t even successfully make the deaths disturbing, shocking, visceral or threatening in any way whatsoever. It’s like twilight + lost + total drama island. More teenage girl crap.

  • Don’t Be Fooled…

    Shut up you sick-minded person! The hunger games is like saying killing is a good thing, if the hunger games were real, you probably would be scared to death! It probably would be even worse than when hitler came in power! %This movie is nothing but evil, it’s trying to pull you from your innocent side to an evil side.

  • Stasmi

    Great fiction creates a world that is not necessarily yours and allows you to understand it. Kids killing kids is a horror and in the world of the HG, it is their reality. Katniss wasn’t aiming to win a superficial popularity contest…she was trying to save lives and stay alive while not losing herself. She had to figure it out as she went along and her journey was neither pretty not perfect. She didn’t learn how to use a bow as a hobby but because it is what kept her family from starving. The harshness of her character was a direct result of the harshness of her life and the society in which she lived. I have called the HG books “brain candy” because they were a quick, easy and very exciting read.


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