‘The Hunger Games’: your kids are angrier than you think

A frightening story about kids killing other kids for the amusement of adults has become a blockbuster. Here’s why.

Dystopia now
Lionsgate/The Kobal Collection

Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and fix their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even.

Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager. And living it in an era of economic uncertainty, conspiracy theories and fear of environmental collapse. Western civilization used to produce literary utopias, but in the past century of world wars, financial panics, murderous totalitarian regimes and nuclear threat, dystopias have outnumbered sunny projections by several orders of magnitude. Pessimistic depictions of the future are now everywhere in popular culture. Teens and teen books are not immune to larger trends in society.

Whether any given North American teen is familiar with the entire library of novels casting adolescent emotions and life against some rather disturbing backgrounds, he or she—particularly she—is certainly aware of The Hunger Games. The film version of the pop culture phenomenon, as metaphor-rich a teen dystopia as could be—high school-age kids put in an arena to literally kill each other for the amusement of grown-ups—set a record for a non-sequel on its March 23 opening day with $68.25 million in ticket sales. That was the fifth-best all-time opening day; three days later, after sales reached $155 million, the movie had the third-best opening weekend ever, and again, the non-sequel record. With advance sales also setting records, many screenings are fully booked for days to come.

Aided by its strong male draw—audiences so far have been 40 per cent men, compared to the Twilight series’s 20 per cent—The Hunger Games and its coming sequels seem likely to eclipse the total take of the blockbuster vampire-romance movies. Giant photos of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays heroine Katniss Everdeen, usually with bow and arrow in hand, are plastered everywhere. There’s a Hunger Games board game, in which the action is not set during the actual death match—unlike video game makers, all-ages board game manufacturers shrink from scenarios which require players to slaughter their opponents—but during pre-games training. Other franchise tie-ins include a $14.95 light bulb featuring a red mockingjay (a hybrid creature crucial to The Hunger Games storyline), knee socks, ear buds, a Barbie doll, a replica bow, and even girls’ underwear that salute the baker’s son who is one of Katniss’s suitors: “Peeta: so sensitive . . . with great buns.”

The anticipation of success pumped up the fortunes of Lionsgate, the Vancouver-founded entertainment company that made the film, even before it opened. Its stock price hit a 52-week high last week, closing at $14.55 a share, up 90 per cent for the year. (That’s allowed several news outlets to express their schadenfreude over American financier Carl Icahn, who dumped his one-third stake in Lionsgate—some 44 million shares—for $7 each in August, a $300-million haircut compared to current valuation.) The studio is not the only entity cashing in. The state tourism agency in North Carolina, which provided the film’s locations, is offering special hotel packages, as well as organizing re-enactments of key scenes and survival skills courses. As happened in the town of Forks, Wash., the setting for Twilight, fans are arriving in enthusiastic packs, delighting local merchants.

Those who don’t stand to make money are somewhat less happy. The owner of Henry River Mill Village, which served as Katniss’s Appalachian home, sounded as exasperated as Jean-François L’Huilier, the mayor of Rennes-le-Château in France did in 2004, when he felt forced to transfer the remains of Abbé Bérenger Saunière (1852-1917) into a fan-proof concrete grave after Da Vinci Code devotees descended upon the Pyrenean hamlet of 150 souls. “The tourists come here and stomp all over the place with no respect for anything or anyone,” complained L’Huilier. “They set off explosions and climb over the cemetery wall to dig up the dead. That’s why I had to exhume the corpse.” Wade Shepherd, 83, the North Carolina village owner, hasn’t had to cope with any explosions (yet), but the fans are coming already. “Day and night, they’re driving through, taking pictures, getting out and walking. I’m just bombarded with people.”

As was the case with Twilight and The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games frenzy began with a book. Suzanne Collins’s 2008 novel and its two sequels, Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) sold very well before the movie was announced. By late 2010 there were almost three million copies in print. Now there are 10 times as many, in 26 languages in 38 countries, including two million in Canada. And the novels have been equally strong in e-book format—Collins was the first young adult genre author (and 6th author overall) to join Amazon’s “Kindle Million Club,” meaning she had sold over a million Kindle versions. Earlier this month she shot to the top of the list as Kindle’s bestselling author ever.

Her success is hardly surprising. There can scarcely be anyone left in North America who doesn’t know the basic outline of The Hunger Games. Katniss, 16, a coal miner’s daughter whose father dies in a mine explosion before the story opens, lives in the poorest part of the poorest district (No. 12) of near-future Panem, a North American authoritarian state that rose from the ashes of ecological catastrophe—worsening climate, rising sea levels and resource wars. The residents of the ruling Capitol live in high-tech splendour, governing with an iron fist the 12 outlying districts. There were once 13 districts, but in the course of putting down a massive rebellion two generations before, the Capitol obliterated No. 13.

Now, as part of the ongoing price the lords of Panem exact from their surviving subjects, the better to keep them in a state of terror and abject submission, each district annually sends a male child and a female child, aged 12-18, to fight in the Hunger Games until only one remains alive. Every moment of the games, from the actual killings to individual moments of despair, is televised. Viewing is compulsory in the districts and hugely popular in the Capitol, where the pampered inhabitants lay bets on the winner and often intervene by sponsoring the more appealing among the so-called tributes—that is, by providing timely gifts of food, weapons or medicine that can make the difference between life and death. That makes strategy as important as brute force or killing skills, and a young girl can win the games over older and stronger males.

Katniss is a highly compartmentalized character, focused on providing for her family, particularly her 12-year-old sister Primrose, after her father dies and her mother becomes paralyzed with grief. Her relentless drive to protect her sister is why Katniss takes up illegal hunting, becoming a skilled archer in the process, and why, unlike her male poaching companion, 18-year-old Gale, she doesn’t spend any time thinking about the political system that grinds down her and her neighbours. Or, for that matter, any time noticing Gale’s romantic interest in her. And it’s why, too, Katniss ends up in the 74th Hunger Games: after Prim is randomly chosen as District 12’s female tribute, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. The male tribute picked is Peeta, also 16, also romantically inclined toward Katniss, who is, once again, utterly unaware of it. The two travel to the Capitol where, under the tutelage of Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s only living previous winner, they develop a strategy—genuine on Peeta’s part, ambiguous at best on Katniss’s—of attracting sponsors by playing star-crossed young lovers.

Small wonder The Hunger Games created a stir in 2008. With a well-written and even better-paced story, a not entirely likeable but hugely compelling lead character, a dash of romance (all the more interesting for its uncertainty), and a powerful major theme that taps into our fascination—and unease—with reality TV (particularly the intimate, purportedly behind-the-scenes parts), Collins’s novel hit the zeitgeist dead on.

And then there’s the aspect of it so large that many of its cheering fans seem unable to consciously see it—the children are killing each other in a battle for survival, as savage a satire of high school and our contemporary economic distemper as can be imagined. For its teen target audience, especially girls, who live in a social milieu potentially even more vicious than that of adolescent boys, it could scarcely offer more appeal.

Parents, though, are certainly conscious of the child-on-child violence, and for every individual who posts that it’s never too soon for the youngsters to learn it’s a Darwinian world out there—as if middle school hadn’t already taught them that—or that “the game is rigged,” as one jaundiced mother commented, many more are worried. Violence in movies that draw kids is always a concern, but killing of teens by other teens has led to media appearances by child psychologists discussing the potential effect on younger viewers and cultural critics weighing in more generally. YA novelist Kenneth Oppel, given op-ed space in the Globe and Mail, assumes Collins is crassly exploiting our culture’s delight in violence as entertainment, before concluding that modern society is so twisted that volunteers would line up for a real Hunger Games, so long as the winner was guaranteed “the latest iPhone and a lifetime unlimited data plan”—a statement that exceeds the cynicism he ascribes to Collins. At least her characters are fighting for their lives.

And The Hunger Games is hardly alone on the shelves of children’s bookstores, which are packed with teen novels of wildly divergent plots but eerily similar themes. Young adult dystopia, broadly defined—tales for teens about survival in a world of cruel or helpless adults, where everything is falling apart and the competition for resources or safety can include turning on one another—is a literary genre whose time has come.

“I look up at the wall where we post our YA bestsellers,” says Phyllis Simon, co-owner of Vancouver’s Kidsbooks, “and I can see that the top five or six are dystopias.” Whether they are the classic form, featuring harshly repressive societies, or post-apocalyptic scenes of chaos—both neatly mirror the see-saw nature of teenage life—they almost all have the same root cause as The Hunger Games: climatic catastrophe. “There’s no fuel, there’s no water,” Simon notes. Or, sometimes, there’s too much. In Scottish writer Julie Bertagna’s Exodus, first published in 2002 before the dystopia wave gathered force, and re-issued in February, it is 2099 and the world is drowning. As the polar ice melts and the seas rise, 15-year-old Mara and her family have to flee their fast-disappearing island for a city built on the drowned ruins of Glasgow. But there is no true asylum in a high-tech city that rules with primitive force, and Mara has to find her people a new home.

In The Way We Fall, published in January, Toronto writer Megan Crewe moves her fast-paced story, set in an island community off Nova Scotia, from the here and now through a near-future apocalypse to the brink of a dystopia, all thanks to a killer virus. Crewe doesn’t explain where the disease comes from, but lethal viruses, which terrify some people more than anything else—including Crewe, who began her novel “after a zombie virus story gave me a nightmare”—are almost never natural in origin. They are either the work of demented governments and hubristic scientists, or, in our era of migrating viruses, a subset of climate change apocalypses.

In these deep backgrounds, teen dystopias are in tune with their adult counterparts, whose worries have changed over time. Brave New World (1932) expressed author Aldous Huxley’s contempt for a consumer society drugging itself into oblivion; William Golding’s Lord of The Flies (1954), now taught to teens, was actually a postwar Freudian allegory for adults about the porous line between civilization and savagery; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and a host of others, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) warned of a totalitarian future; while On The Beach, Neville Shute’s post-nuclear-war bestseller of 1957, captures the ultimate fear of the Cold War generation.

Lately, though, the world’s nuclear terror has either been forgotten or become too familiar to trouble us anymore. It’s now all climate change in adult fiction too, as in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. In that 2003 book, her second dystopian novel (she also supplied the introduction to a 75th anniversary edition of Brave New World), Atwood fit in global warming, reckless science and a fatal virus. And it is adults, after all, who write the teen books, points out Canadian Moira Young, author of one of this season’s hottest titles, Blood Red Road, about a teen girl who leaves her dust bowl home in search of her kidnapped twin brother. Today’s YA dystopias are the work of adults “worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we’re leaving the young.”

And they’re happy to embrace it, laughs Simon. “There’s a dark side to teens, you know. They love melodrama, they love big emotion—and what’s bigger than the whole world going to hell because the adults have screwed up?” Teen literature, like teen lives, is a matter of firsts—“first love, first rebellion, first everything,” says Melissa Bourdon-King, general manager of Mabel’s Fables bookstore in Toronto. Nor do adolescents realize they are reprising the emotions, if not the circumstances, of their parents. “I was reading The Day of the Triffids and Fahrenheit 451 in the 1960s when Detroit was burning,” adds Mabel’s owner Eleanor LeFave. “Do you think,” she asks rhetorically, “that a renewed interest in dystopias might reflect the times?”

Still, the best, and the bestselling, of them do more than echo the headlines. As Megan Crewe points out: “The successful stories all marry exciting and frightening plot lines with more ordinary concerns that matter emotionally to teens—and their two main focuses are a love interest and what kind of person will I grow into.” Dating and death, to exaggerate only slightly. On Crewe’s plague island, her own heroine, 16-year-old Kaelyn, is already concerned about her possible grown-up self, already realizing her parents in particular and adult society in general have feet of clay, before the slow slide into anarchy and death—The Way We Fall is perfectly titled—forces everyone to make moral as well as pragmatic choices. “YA dystopias work not because teens think those actual events are going to happen—however plausible they may be—but because the real emotions they would evoke are caught. When I’m writing I try to remember how I felt as a teen. People who dismiss YA books have simply forgotten how complex they themselves were at that age.”

Death and dating is one summation of Battle Royale, the 1999 Japanese novel that is one of the grandfathers of the genre and, for many, a direct inspiration for The Hunger Games. In Koushun Takami’s story set in a near-future totalitarian Japan, the government terrorizes the population by randomly choosing a high school class, isolating the students on an island, and forcing them to kill each other until only one remains. The crucial difference between their situation and the one in The Hunger Games is that Collins’s tributes might know, among their opponents, only the other tribute from their district. Battle Royale involves a class full of teens who know each other well, with all the crushes, friendships and antagonisms that entails. If The Hunger Games is reality TV ratcheted to a madly logical end, Battle Royale is extreme high school: dating and death, indeed.

Far more in the mainstream are books like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, the first of which created a lot of buzz at its 2005 publication. Three centuries from now, children are raised by their parents until age 12, at which point, now known as Uglies, they begin displaying the characteristics, mental and physical, that will mark them as adults; would mark them, that is, except for the operation that turns them into Pretties at age 16. The Pretties are beautiful and thoughtlessly exploit the power of their allure: “Something made you want to protect them from all danger, to make them happy,” ponders lead character Tally, 15, and impatiently awaiting her own operation. “They were so . . . pretty.” But the operation also causes brain damage—a popular touch that, since, as Simon notes, “it’s normal for teens to hate the entitled.” In a society like ours, both obsessed with physical beauty and deeply worried over its emotional and psychological costs, Uglies is a story bound to resonate with teen girls and, even more, with their mothers. “I loved it when it came out,” says bookseller Bourdon-King, who recalls telling mothers, “Talk to your daughter about what it really means to be beautiful.”

James Dashner’s popular (particularly among boys) Maze Runner series deposits teen boys, their memories wiped clean, inside a maze that changes form nightly. They slowly realize they are part of an experiment, and that they are being selected for some future role on the basis of their ability to decode the maze. Last year’s Eve, by Anna Carey, has echoes of Margaret Atwood’s first dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Sixteen years after a lethal virus has wiped out 98 per cent of the human population, 18-year-old Eve is about to graduate from her orphanage when she learns the real role planned for her by the state: a mindless breeding machine.

In Matched (2010), author Ally Condie describes a world where a repressive, memory-controlling government uses complex algorithms to pair off 17-year-olds for life: so much for finding your own soul mate. Divergent, touted by many in the book trade as the next hot thing, takes place in a future Chicago where Lake Michigan is a swamp and the whole of society is as shoehorned into cliques as high school students are. Beatrice, now 16, has come to the age when, helped by an aptitude test, teens must choose which of five lifelong castes to join: Abnegation (those who help others), Amity (the peacemakers), Dauntless (the fighters), Candor (the brutally direct truth tellers) or Erudite (the intellectuals). But what if a girl has aptitude for more than one calling, what if she is, like Beatrice, brave, smart and selfless? Then she’s divergent, and as in any dystopia, that is not a good label to bear.

These stories are as much alike in their deep structure as they are varied on their surfaces. Their characters live, for the most part, in post-sexist societies; the protagonists are far more often female than in past adventure stories, and the girls all have kick-ass potential. Like Katniss, they rescue more than they are rescued. Even more remarkably, no one in the stories finds this startling—for all their other sins, in these dystopias gender equality has arrived. Often, at 16, 17 or 18, the young protagonists are forced to make a choice, a decision that will make them compete with their peers, force them into a niche, restrict their possibilities. Some resist from the beginning, while others are looking forward to their futures before an inadvertent peek behind the curtain of adult lies opens their eyes. They find their parents and teachers to be repressive or, more often, helpless; they are tossed, willy-nilly, into rebellion.

It’s teenage life writ large in an era when the prevailing concept of the future is more gloomy than not. And it’s written well, too, which is the real key to success. Teen dystopias, which always end more optimistically than their adult counterparts, are exciting and empowering stories. The stakes are usually very high indeed. Adults are the problem. And kids are the saviours. Of course the books are flying off the shelves.