A Parent’s Guide to The Hunger Games

So what are these “Hunger Games” I’m hearing about?

The Hunger Games Trilogy is an addictive, well-written series of books written by Suzanne Collins in the young adult market. First published in 2008, the three books The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay have sold millions of copies in dozens of languages and spent over a hundred weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List. The movie of the first book, directed by Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence, came March 23, 2012 and was very successful. The second movie, Catching Fire, will be released November 22, 2013. The third book will be made into two movies.

What’s it about?

The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic future America. The Capitol, run by President Snow, brutally rules what’s left of the former country. There are 12 Districts (a 13th having been destroyed by the Capitol for rebellion). The Capitol is rich and foppish while the districts are poor and often starving.

Spunky Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, roughly comparable to Tennessee or Kentucky. It’s a coal mining district where all the men and many of the women are forced to work in the mines. Katniss violates the law by breaking into forbidden territory and poaching game by bow and arrow with her friend Gale. She is beginning to think Gale might love her and is not sure how she feels about that.

Every year, the Capitol drafts two “tributes” from each District as a show of power. These tributes are forced to fight to the death. They enter an acres-large, high-tech arena with many special effects traps and obstacles. The fight takes several days and is televised around the country. The Capitol loves the spectacle and watches it with enthusiasm. The districts are forced to watch and are conflicted as they hate the games, but hope for the success of their own tribute.

The last tribute alive wins, earning fortune for himself or herself and some better standards of living for their district.

Katniss becomes a tribute by volunteering in the place of her younger sister, Primrose. The other tribute is a boy named Peeta, the baker’s son.

Most of the book is the fight between Katniss and Peeta and the rest of the tributes. One important character is Rue, a little girl who reminds Katniss of her sister Primrose and who Katniss tries and fails to protect. Rue sings the tune of the mockingjay, which is the three note whistle you hear in the commercials and a symbol of innocence and beauty.

Because the Hunger Games are as much about fame as fighting, the tributes are interviewed and discussed over TV. In his interview, Peeta professes his love for Katniss and their love story, which is only partly real, becomes the talk of the games. It also becomes a love triangle in Katniss’s heart between Gale and Peeta.

What are the themes of the Hunger Games?

A primary theme is injustice and how to stand up in overwhelmingly adverse situations, or even if it’s possible to do so. Neither Katniss nor Peeta want to fight and kill, but are forced to do so by the arena itself as well as fear for the safety of their families and district in general. How can they be true to themselves when forced to do horrible things?

Another theme is conflicting and shifting loyalties, with the result that Katniss has a hard time determining who she can trust, including her advisors, Gale and Peeta.

A third theme is the concept of reality TV and what that does to both the participant and the audience. Like in ancient Rome, the gluttonous citizens of the Capitol thrill to watch their gladiators fight, although it’s a bloody and horrific business. What makes a people group enjoy such horrible entertainment?

As a corollary, fame is explored. Katniss has stylists and advisors who help her use and manipulate her fame to gain benefits in the games. If she is popular enough, the populace will buy and send helpful items when she needs it. She hates the primping and trappings of fame, but realizes she needs to use them if she is to survive.

The themes of reality TV and fame make it very timely for current day.

What is the tone of the books?

As you can imagine, the tone is very dark. Unlike the Harry Potter series, which started light and became darker as it went on, The Hunger Games starts very dark and remains so. There are few humorous moments or lightness. The description of killings in the book are very gory. It remains to be seen what the movie will do with them.

Should I let my kids read the books or see the movie?

It’s up to you. The love story is innocent, but the themes are heavy and dark. The series ultimately questions if there is anyone to trust or anything worth fighting for. It’s certainly something for kids to wrestle with. I tend to err on the side of letting kids deal with heavy issues and explore stories, but it might be too much for a sensitive kid. Personally, I have tickets to take my daughter and son, big fans, to the midnight screening of the film when it opens.

For more, read our review of the first movie.

Or my tongue in cheek Interview with George Washington

Watch a clip of the movie here.

Updated November 19, 2013

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

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  • http://ticketstubz.blogspot.com Candice Frederick

    I’m not even a parent, but I still needed this guide! Thanks!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Glad it was helpful!

  • http://www.dirtywithclass.wordpress.com Dirtywithclass

    My dad followed pretty much the same idea with me and my 3 brothers. He never stopped me from seeing a movie.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Except for explicit, graphic images and traumatizing content for younger kids, that’s my M.O. too.

  • Sean

    I read somewhere that it is a blue state Harry Potter. Do you see it this way?

  • Bob

    Having read all three books, I am looking forward to seeing it. They were excellently written. The themes, while some may find them heavy, at least have positive moral convictions that shine through. Not a movie for the very young (not a Disney type movie), it is well worth taking your children to see. Great movie for teens and even for us seniors (I’m 66).
    I naturally gravitated towards this movie because of my background in the military, yet, even with all the high tech added to the novels, it comes across as very believable.
    I am just hoping the movie does justice to books. The only way that will happen is if they do it as they did the Harry Potter books or the Lord of the Rings books. If they do to Hunger Games what they did to Eragon, it will be a miserable experience.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Suzanne Collins created a rich, tense, lush, highly imaginative world. It’s very well done and gripping. Thanks for the comment. And for reading Hunger Games. I’m with you. Sometimes Young Adult lit is the best kind of lit around.

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  • Dan

    When will your review of the movie be out? I look forward to it. Also, I hope this is one movie where they go away from the book at the end. I thought Collins mailed in the second half of Mockingjay and also tried to get too clever with the ending.

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  • DTRANTS

    I am a huge fan of the hunger games and I think the books offer some great life lessons and are very current. Especially during ‘Catching Fire’ (The second in the trilogy) themes such as alliance/friendship are very prominent and continue into Mockingjay (The final book). When the rebellion ignites it relates to our current situations where you are killed for standing against the power. I don’t understand how lots of other parents hate the trilogy! It is lead by a strong female protagonist who is independent, stands up for what she believes in and would do anything for her family and friends, this is the type of person I want my children to look up to not some of the other weak – more tame – female leads. Jennifer Lawrence who plays Katniss Everdeen is also very aware of this and refused to loose weight for the role saying she wants teenagers to have a healthy bodied role model (This is relevant to Jennifer in real life where she has been accused of being fat when she is a healthy bodied beautiful woman). Jennifer said “I don’t want kids to be like ‘I wanna look like Katniss so I’m gonna skip dinner’”. So even if you hate the trilogy but your children love it then why discourage them about it, shouldn’t you be grateful that a strong woman is at the head of it. Most people think it is solely about children killing each other so don’t judge it if you haven’t read it because there is so much more to it.


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