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
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?