Why is The Hunger Games So Popular? Part 2

In my last post on The Hunger Games, I offered some explanations for the popularity of the book/movie that do not account for its extraordinary popularity. Yes, it’s a page-turning thriller, but that doesn’t explain why millions of people, especially teenage girls, love it so much. There are many other less successful page-turning thrillers. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is unexpectedly hard and peculiar, not the sort of heroine you’d expect to capture the hearts of America. And there just isn’t that much romance in The Hunger Games, at least not when compared to Twilight or even Harry Potter

So, why, then is The Hunger Games movie breaking records and The Hunger Games trilogy of books topping the bestseller charts

I’ve looked around online to see what people are saying about this. I found plenty of the explanations I consider to be inadequate. But some people get a little closer to what I think is really going on with The Hunger Games. Consider, for example, this excerpt from an interview with Elizabeth Banks, who stars as the bizarre character of Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games film:

I know that you were a big fan of these books going in, so just looking at it from the outside, this story really has become a phenomenon and I was hoping you could tell me why you think that is.

Well, first of all, the way she writes the book – they’re just page-turners. You can’t put them down. So there’s that. Rebellious teen at the heart of it, I think a lot of people can relate to that, and there’s a great love story, of course. But most importantly I think it really speaks to our time. There’s just something in the zeitgeist right now about media and using media not just to entertain but to shape our world – oppressive governments, youth revolts. It’s happening around the world right now.

Banks is moving in the right direction, I believe. There is something at the core of The Hunger Games that connects deeply to young people today. It is related to oppressive government and youth revolts. But it’s much bigger and broader than this. It’s about young people feeling profoundly alienated and abandoned from adult society. It’s the kind of “hurt” documented in Chap Clark’s watershed book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. It’s the disconnectedness documented in Christian Smith’s landmark study, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, has struck a painful, vital nerve in the lives of today’s young people. In fact, I’d argue that the popularity of The Hunger Games proves in a popular and obvious way the very things that Clark and Smith have argued on the basis of sociological analysis.

Yet, there must be something more going on, because The Hunger Games does not feature a youth rebellion against an oppressive adult society. (This may or may not come later in the series. I will not offer any spoilers here.) All of the readers who love The Hunger Games became engaged in this series through the first book. And the dominant element in this book is not kids fighting oppression, but kids fighting themselves to the death because of the oppressive order that controls their lives. What could explain the resonance young people feel with this kind of story, which, at first, has so little hope?

The answer, I believe, lies in the congruence between the world of The Hunger Games and the world we adults in America have created for our teenagers. Not only have they been substantially abandoned by us, so that they feel alienated, but also they are literally caught in a cruel game that pits them against each other. No, I’m not thinking of the usual adolescent conflicts that have been around for ages. Rather, I’m thinking of the battle among teenagers to be successful, to win, to be not just their best, but better than their peers, including their friends.

This battle often begins on athletic fields or in dance studios as parents drive their young children to win, even at great cost to their emotional health. The battle is brutally evident among teenagers in the most contested game of all . . . getting into a great college.

If this seems silly, allow me to defend what I’m saying here. I know of which I speak because I have a freshman in college and a daughter who is a junior in high school. I’ve watched the pressure my own children have had to live with since they were in elementary school. I’ve seen how they must compete with their peers, and often against their best friends, for success that will someday lead to the most prized success of all . . . getting into a great college and, if possible, with a fine scholarship.

I certainly worked hard in high school and tried to excel. I managed to do well enough to get into a fine college. But teenagers today face five times the pressure I felt about getting into college. They are overloaded with AP courses, extra-curriculars, internships, test prep courses, and the like. Why? Because that’s the only way they’ll be able to beat their friends who are competing with them for those hard-to-get spots in top colleges. This system may help students to excel, but it also depletes them and discourages them. Sometimes it can depress or devastate them. Yet, they are caught in the game, a game made by the adults who control their lives.

And where did this game come from? Did teenagers invent it to torture each other? Hardly. It’s a creation of the adult world, the world of hyperactive tiger moms, the world of dads who demand athletic prowess from their children to stoke their own egos, the world of colleges competing with each other for top ranking (and therefore money, reputation, and influence). The college game has almost nothing to do with helping young people become moral, well-balanced, healthy, spiritual, and well-educated. Rather, it has to do with parental egos and the cutthroat business of education, not the business of educating students, but the business of building financially successful academic institutions. (If you’re looking for documentation of the claims I am making here, I would highly recommend Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson. This very funny and, at times, very chilling book reveals in detail the craziness of the game into which we draft our teenagers.)

The competition among teenagers to get into college epitomizes what they have experienced in so many other settings throughout their lives. The adults who have the power over them demand that they compete, often against their friends, for the sake of the adults’ own benefit (pride, success, bragging rights, etc.). We force our children into the game whether they want to go or not. We provide all sorts of preparation and prettying up so our kids will be successful. And we laud the few who win the game. In the process, our children can feel used, pressured, desperate, lost, alone, starved, hurt, and as if they are fighting for their very lives. Hmmmm. Sounds a lot like The Hunger Games

Of course I realize that not all teenagers are shooting for the top colleges. But even those who are not competing at this level still feel the demands of the game, not to mention the sense of failure when they don’t live up to the expectations of the adults who control their lives. So, even though Katniss Everdeen is hard and remote, teenagers relate to her. They feel her pain, if you will. They relate to her experience of being trapped in a world that makes unfair demands upon her. They connect to her desire to break away and be free. They suffer with her as she is forced to conform to adult expectations. They feel her desperation as she is forced into a competition she didn’t and wouldn’t choose for herself (except to save her sister’s life). Thus, young adults connect with Katniss in spite of, or perhaps because of, her depressed stoicism. Take this sense of connection with Katniss and her cohort, throw in action, mystery, danger, surprise, interesting characters, and a bit of love, and you have a formula that will sell millions of books and millions of movie tickets.

From what I have read, Suzanne Collins did not write The Hunger Games as an implicit critique of succeed-or-die game that we adults have foisted on our children. But, in my opinion, her story expresses the frustrations and yearnings of teenagers who are caught in this very real game. Thus, it helps them to wrestle with their own feelings of desperation, powerlessness, fear, and hope. Wouldn’t it be great if The Hunger Games also challenged us grown ups to ask whether or not we really want to draft our young people into our version of the hunger games? Wouldn’t it be something if we could learn from The Hunger Games phenomenon and begin to rethink the world we have made for our children?

  • Yuri Wijting

    Hi Mark, could we also add the competitiveness of seminaries? As an ex-seminarian, I felt that the place where I was meant to learn a love for Scripture and Jesus became an academic gauntlet where it’s pass or fail. I got obsessed with having straight A’s so I could possibly do a doctorates at a prestigious university, and then I quit. I left for a host of other reasons, but I can vouch for how stressful and competitive it is.

  • Lynne

    I like what you have to say here and think there is a lot of merit to it.  I am a high school teacher and see all of what you discussed in your blog on a daily basis.  there is one question that is hanging over me.  I teach in a school with many lower income families.  For many of these kids education and sports are not important yet they are equally interested in these books.  For these kids, I believe, they are connecting to the need that Katniss has to provide for her family, in particular her sister.  She hunts and puts herself at risk trading in the Hob to ensure that she can take care of her sister.  She puts her name in the tribute selection extra times each year, so that she can get extra rations for her family.  the kids I teach are doing the same things as Katniss.  They are putting their youth aside to take care of their family because the people they depend on are not dependable, or dependable enough.  thanks for your thoughts on this amazing series, yes I am hooked too and by Sunday afternoon my husband and I were not the only over 30s in the theater.

  • Rodney

    Mark,

    You may be surprised to know (as I was) that my fifteen-year-old daughter’s immediate interpretation was “typical dystopian literature: in this case a veiled critique of the West’s economic system that comes at the expense of developing, majority world countries.”  She thinks it especially shows up in the caricature of the citizens of the Capitol.

    I think she’s right.  And, I’m surprised few have chimed in.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, that’s another setting that makes the point, sadly enough. One might hope that seminaries nurtured a different kind of culture.

  • Anonymous

    Great insight, thanks. Yes, I can see how people who have very little could relate to Katniss in the way you describe.

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating. You’ve got one sharp fifteen-year-old!!

  • Gisela

    Well said.  Thank you.

  • Spaggio

    This is a well-thought argument, but I do think that you’ve missed the mark slightly. Teenagers today, children today even, are not alienated by the adult world, but coddled by it. We have, in the west at least, today an obsession with our youths that is unnatural and unhealthy. Partly due to a youth-oriented entertainment and marketing culture, but also due to the high-stress hopelessness of adult life today, we look backwards to our youth now gone. And, if we are parents, we attempt to mold our young-uns into the shape that we ourselves could never achieve leaving very little room for personal growth.

    I also think it’s worth noting that this story is a blatant rip-off of The Running Man by Stephen King, retro-fitted for the profitable young-adult (old child?) category (NB a remake-starring *gasp* Colin Farrell is in the works). 

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. Don’t you think, though, that coddling, especially when it’s saturated with marketing, leads to alienation? They are not mutually exclusive.

  • Mercy

    Hi, yes, thank you, so so so much from posting this. I have not read these books or seen the movie, but I was despertly searching for a reason why everyone liked them so much. I am in High school and my favorite thing is Theology and Apologetics. And I really understand what you were talking about with the whole compitition point. THis made a lot of sense to me.

  • Guest

    Excellent observations; all to the point; my thoughts after having watched this, exactly.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Thedoh

     Actually it is Total Recall that is the Colin Farrell led remake.

  • Mark

    I would suggest that not only do our kids have to compete for college, but they are expected (by their parents) to compete to get better at sports at a level of intensity and commitment that those of us over 50 never endured.  Camps, clinics, special coaches, year-round conditining, select leagues.  Maybe all pursuits are that way now–music, dance, theater etc.  Today, everything for kids is much more adult imposed competition against the other kids, with adults pushing pushing pushing. 

  • markdroberts

    Yes, indeed. Great but sad illustrations.

  • Scottschu

    Great article, much
    appreciated!

     

    It seems the interpretation
    ranges from a modern day takeoff on the Book of Esther to an antiwar message.  I do believe her initial message was
    anti-war, the Mockingjay book talks about the insanity of how adults can send
    their children to fight to settle their differences.

     

    Whether intentional or not,
    she has definitely struck a nerve with the current Millennial generation,
    especially the late teen female.  My take
    is that the popularity is due to a reaction against an oppressive and
    unresponsive central authority.  Younger
    folks can see the disaster awaiting, economic malaise, unpayable debt, a social
    safety net full of holes, working their entire lives to fund the Boomer social
    security.  They are angry, but do not
    quite know why yet.  It takes Katniss
    till the end to see that there is no difference between Snow and Coin.

     

    Good stuff.

     

    Scott

  • markdroberts

    Very interesting and astute. Thanks!

  • Scottschu

    I
    am intrigued by generational dynamics, so I plan to look at the books you recommend, thank you!  There is so much uncertainty and consternation right now, along with way too much malaise (fun word BTW), especially from
    those who have this (fleeting) idea that they are immune or insulated from the
    world’s problems.  

    Certainly you are familiar
    with Strauss and Howe’s generational studies; the 4th Turning is a
    terrific framework for understanding these dynamics.  It is a challenge to overlay this information with
    a Christian world view.  I can definitely
    see how the Millennial generation is much like the so called “GI Generation” of
    the great depression and WWII.  How they
    react to the challenges they face will determine much of our future.  The Boomers, in all our self-absorption, will
    likewise have to give up on our hope of a glorious retirement.

    Not sure Collins intended
    this much analysis and such a deep look at her books.  But it has generated a real firestorm for
    sure.

    Scott

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, Scott. Boy, I haven’t read Strauss and Howe in years. But you’re right, there stuff is relevant. I wonder what Collins thinks.

  • Estevan

    dude, its popular because of “Advertising”. people are sheep these days.


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