Extreme reality TV with echoes of Greek myth and Roman history; a post-sexism world and the makings of a romantic triangle; a girl who can shoot an arrow through a squirrel’s eye and twirl prettily in her teen queen dress even while it’s on fire; a dystopian world and a (mostly) happy ending. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, a mega-selling young adult novel set to become a blockbuster film, has a lot going for it, both in surface dazzle and in its deeper hooks. Some teen girls (and their mothers) admire a stubborn heroine fighting hard for herself, her family and friends; others, as Collins notes, “zero right in on the romance.” And some love it all. If the factors fuelling The Hunger Games’ success often seem contradictory, no matter. What teenager’s life is not a mass of contradictions?
The Hunger Games are often compared to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire-romance series, reasonably enough in terms of pop cultural reach. The first Twilight film grossed $35.7 million on its 2008 opening day, while The Hunger Games has already recorded the highest ever first-day advance tickets sales for its March 23 opening. But for many critics and fans, Collins’s and Meyer’s stories are also often linked together, inevitably but wrongly, by their love triangles. For every girl furiously typing on a fan site, caps lock usually in place, “This is NOT Twilight!” there’s another at one of the film’s galas waving a sign at Josh Hutcherson (who plays Peeta, the baker’s son and one of the love interests) reading, “Is that a loaf of bread in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
But there’s nothing supernatural about The Hunger Games’ dystopian world. It’s certainly not the present-day world of Twilight, in which the romance is the story, and heroine Bella, a plucky but essentially helpless girl, has to be continually rescued from vampires of ill intent by her would-be beaus (a vampire and a werewolf). Collins’s protagonist, Katniss, is a skilled hunter who rescues more often than she’s rescued.
She’s one of 24 teens, exacted—in an echo of the Greek myth of Theseus—as tribute from outlying districts by the ruling Capitol in the future North American nation of Panem, named by Collins after the “bread” part of the Roman governing technique of “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses). The teens are thrown into an outdoor arena where they fight to the death until only one remains. The whole thing is televised—not just the fighting but every moment of flight, exhaustion, despair and temporary alliance-building. An event, in short, that the emperor Caligula might have organized if TV had been around in his day, and for the same reason Collins ascribes to the Capitol’s ruling clique: terror. (“Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.”)
A love triangle starts to emerge in The Hunger Games (although it doesn’t really get going until the next volume, Catching Fire) and it turns out to be more genuine than the one in the over-the-top vampire romance. Bella may care for the werewolf, but her heart belongs to the vampire. In Panem, where gender no longer seems to be an issue—no one questions that a girl could win the death match—Katniss’s survival-focused and compartmentalized mind isn’t much interested in plumbing her own feelings. “For some reason Gale and Peeta do not coexist well together in my thoughts,” she concludes of her two suitors, and mentally shrugs.
And that might be what Collins’s first fans—the novel was published in 2008—appreciate most about Katniss, who is both frightened and indomitable. “Some of what she does really annoys me,” says Brandi Taylor, 18. “She can be a little slow on the romance front, but I like her because I can argue with her.” (As for the story’s unsettling theme of teen survival in an adults-eating-their-children world, she adds, “That did catch my attention. Rather like sending the young off to war, isn’t it?’) Yet Taylor acknowledges she has friends who came late to the books, after the emergence of handsome young actors cast in the film roles. They too will be at the multiplex on opening night, and the reaction of both groups will determine how big a hit The Hunger Games will be.
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