Young adult readers have propelled “The Hunger Games” trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins into bestseller stardom. The new film, The Hunger Games, is likely, therefore, to be a blockbuster.
It is important that parents pay attention to why their teenagers would be so attracted to The Hunger Games, especially because fear of the future is a major theme.
These novels follow a teenaged girl and her friends who must confront, and survive in, a not-too-distant America where tyranny reigns, hunger for most people is the norm, torture is used to quell rebellion, and a rich few lead lives of pampered luxury. The bored and the rich are entertained by a fight-to-the-death “reality show” called “The Hunger Games.”
Do these novels project the subconscious fears of many teens that their future will be more and more grim, and they will have to do all they can in order not to be crushed by it? In The Hunger Games, the government is out to get you, adults die or fail you, and the media is all about illusion and hype. Maybe you can rely on your friends. But maybe you can’t.
Keep in mind that for more than half of the lives of young adults in this country, the United States has been engaged in two wars. The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, is still going on, and lately, going badly as we try to get out. It has been routine for young people who grew up in the last decade to see war footage; combine this with violent video games and more and more risky reality shows and the whole can blend into a seamless, chaotic carnage.
Indeed, according to Collins, the idea for the novel, “The Hunger Games,” came from channel surfing on her television, and seeing both reality shows and war back to back. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.”
Unsettling is right. These books are more disturbing than the Harry Potter series. In the J.K. Rowling series, some very bad, even deranged, adults try to harm kids and young adults, and other, mature and responsible adults try to help the young people. In The Hunger Games, young adults and even kids are mostly left to fend for themselves in a brutal society. There is kid on kid violence portrayed in a graphic way.
Torture occurs, and is a part of the terrorism used to keep the struggling, starving people in line. These novels reflect the influence of torture in the conflicts of the last decade, from Abu Ghraib to “rendition.” It is sobering to reflect that torture is also a theme in the later Harry Potter novels. Young adults today know torture occurs, and is even defended by some in power.
The main protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who takes her young sister’s place, when her sister is chosen to compete in an annual televised event in a post-apocalyptic America called Panem. In punishment for a rebellion in the past, two young people, a boy and a girl, are chosen by lot from different areas of the country. These “tributes” are forced to fight to the death in a live-televised game that resembles the reality show “Survivor,” except that winning is defined as being the last one actually alive. Katniss takes her sister’s place, aware that she will most likely be killed in the game.
What is attracting young people to such a grim tale?
Two Methodist pastors, a father/daughter team, have created a Bible Study centered around Collins’ novels called “The Gospel According to ‘The Hunger Games’ Trilogy.” “”Sacrificial love … is the most obvious theme throughout all three books,” one pastor is quoted as saying.
Yes, but there are many other themes in The Hunger Games that go beyond self-sacrifice, themes that are also biblical. One important subject in The Hunger Games is a wholesale indictment of economic exploitation and injustice. The prophet Jeremiah could very well be speaking to the haughty and cruel President Snow of Panem, who exploits the people, has young adults kill each other for entertainment, and who has lied and stolen to gain his power and his luxury palace:
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages… you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.” (Jeremiah 22:13-17)
In The Hunger Games, there is a bitter rejection of government corruption, military surveillance and violence, manipulative media, and reality television.
Media hype is treated very cynically in the novels. This is important to recognize as I think it is a sign of resilience of young people. They are making their own effort to take back their life and meaning from mass entertainment culture and the Internet. As Katniss says bitterly and cynically as she looks at the television coverage of the selection of those who will fight to the death in the Hunger Games, “The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the effect.” In her world, the media feed on death.
Suspicion of the motives of others is another important theme in these novels, and one that as a parent I find concerning. Do kids and young adults, in the dog-eat-dog world of social media in school, think they can trust each other at all? They certainly can’t trust adults. Parents need to pay attention to this.
The young adults in The Hunger Games have to cope as best they can in this corrupt and violent society. It is true that the young woman protagonist has a strong moral core, but her morality has been forged in this degraded and repressive society. She is not totally disconcerted by the idea of killing a young man from her own hometown, someone who did her a big favor in the past. She steels herself to kill him, and suspects his motives if he tries to help her. She wants to love, but except for loving her little sister, whose life she saves by taking her place in the Hunger Games, she has built up a shell to survive her society. And she plans to kill the others in the game to survive. She does befriend a girl who resembles her sister, and ultimately she and the young man from her hometown cooperate in the games, but suspicion remains.
One of the pastors who created the Hunger Games Bible study notes that while all the young people [in his church] had read the novels, “[T]he parents on the whole seemed oblivious.”
Big mistake. Parents need to read these novels and pay attention to what is attracting their kids today.
Now, I need to make a confession here. I would not have known about The Hunger Games books if one of my students had not written about it. But it seemed important to her, and so I thought I would take a look. I was stunned when I did. As I read these novels, I asked myself what kind of world we have created for the young people who have lived with war, torture, media hype, political polarization, and economic recession in formative years of their lives. It’s not one they see as good.
The popularity of The Hunger Games tells us young people are fearful of the future, and they think they’re on their own in fighting for a better world. Can we tell them they’re wrong? Why would they believe us?
An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.