Here’s your hot take for the week: We don’t understand The Hunger Games.
“But Maggie,” I hear you say, “How could we not understand The Hunger Games? It was the biggest teen movie franchise since Twilight! Don’t you remember reading about how well the movies performed commercially? Didn’t you give a presentation on the cultural impact of dystopian fiction on young adults?”
I did indeed give such a presentation, but that doesn’t debunk my claim right off the bat. There are plenty of readers and viewers of The Hunger Games who looked beyond the hype and saw the message of the story – we wouldn’t still be talking about it otherwise. But in general, our society has missed the point.
Let’s get one other thing out of the way: The Hunger Games is not my favorite book or film series, not by a long shot. If you asked me to name my top ten books of all time, I doubt it would make the list. That’s not to say it’s a bad book though! I think it’s an excellent read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to better understand young adult literature. Personally though, I’m more interested in how The Hunger Games is (or maybe was) a cultural phenomenon.
For those reading this who missed out on The Hunger Games or just did not care, here’s the premise: a futuristic and dystopian nation known as Panem holds an annual “Hunger Games” in which 24 “tributes” between the ages of 12-18 are selected to participate in a televised fight to the death. The heroine, Katniss, volunteers for the Games to take the place of her younger sister Prim. Fair warning, there will be plenty of spoilers as we keep going!
Like most books The Hunger Games has several themes, but what’s always been at the core for me is the Games themselves. To analyze any other aspect of the story, you have to always keep the Games and the violence they perpetuate in mind. In other words, while there are plenty of other topics and themes covered by the series, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the story’s central event is government-sponsored murder presented as entertainment.
But then, of course, Hollywood does what Hollywood does. The Hunger Games films are by no means bad films – in fact, in the realm of book-to-movie adaptations, they’re pretty impressive. There will always be differences between adaptations and their source material because, after all, some things just don’t translate from the page to the screen.
That being said, assuming my memory of The Hunger Games film is intact, the movie actually hits the necessary story beats in order to convey a similar, if not the same message as the book. I don’t think the Hunger Games films themselves are the problem. Instead, the crime against the story comes from the promotion and conversation that surrounded the movie’s release.
First, there’s the story’s romance. In order to survive the Games, Katniss and the male tribute from her district, Peeta, act out a romance. Or, Katniss at least is acting. The point is, their relationship allows them to both eventually emerge as victors from the Games when they refuse to kill each other. Plus, the Capitol elites in the audience eat up their love story as they watch it play out on screen.
Of course, things get complicated with the inclusion of Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend and other love interest. This was before love triangles were embarrassingly common, so we’re giving Collins a pass on this one. More to the point, the inclusion of a love triangle gave people something to talk about.
Let me explain: for the generation before mine, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was the big deal in YA fiction and teen movies. Twilight also had a love triangle, and so the question on everyone’s minds was, were you Team Edward or Team Jacob? In other words, who did you want the heroine, Bella, to end up with?
(I’m sure that’s a gross oversimplification of the Twilight saga. I haven’t read it myself, and I only mean it as an example of fandom and love triangle discourse.)
This pattern was repeated when it came to The Hunger Games. Most of my conversations with other book lovers inevitably returned to the same question: Were you Team Peeta or Team Gale? Never mind that we’re reading books about teenagers murdering each other, who’s the better boy for Katniss?
I think part of the blame rests on fandom culture, which could be a whole blog post on its own. However, I think a lot more of the blame should be on how The Hunger Games films were presented to a broader audience. This “second wave” of Hunger Games fans that were brought in by the movies were much more susceptible to falling into the same trap as the Capitol elites did in the story itself: ignoring the graphic violence between children in favor of following a love story (which is notably also between children). It’s not really their fault though, because that was the kind of mentality that the film’s promoters wanted to create.
I watched the official theatrical trailer for The Hunger Games again, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. While the trailer itself features little to nothing of the romantic subplot, there is a suspicious lack of… well, violence. There could be several reasons for this: the filmmakers didn’t want to spoil any deaths (even though a good number of tributes are killed in the first few minutes of the Games), or perhaps they wanted to keep the trailer accessible to a broad audience (even though the film is rated PG-13 in the United States).
Still, there’s something that seems… off watching this trailer. It feels like it’s just your regular action movie with a dash of romance and family drama for “depth.” We get a few hints of rebellious tendencies from Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, but otherwise the trailer makes it seem the movie is about the action. It ends just as the Games begins, making you wanting to see what happens next. A story is nothing without its tension and cliffhangers, but being manipulated into feeling excited to watch the Hunger Games take place just makes me uneasy. Why should I look forward to watching 24 young people fight to the death? If anything, shouldn’t I be horrified?
Film trailers aside, there’s also the countless merchandise that spawned because of the success of these films. Mockingjay pins get a pass because they’re symbolic. But stuff like tote bags that say “May the odds be ever in your favor” – the tongue-in-cheek slogan of the Capitol – just feel uninformed. Yes, it makes for a memorable quote, but is that what you want to remember?
Aside from all of this being a huge disservice to a story that is so much deeper than we give it credit for, what does it mean? In other words, why do we as an audience ignore the real issues presented by The Hunger Games in favor of debating our favorite love interest or talking about cool action sequences? Those conversations are still important, but if you’re talking about that without keeping the violence of the Games in mind, you’re ignoring central part of the story.
As I write all of this, I think there’s something to be said about the world we live in turning a blind eye to violence and injustice. That we’re more content to focus on stories that make us feel good at the expense of ignoring the problems that surround us, even if those stories are manufactured like the romance between Katniss and Peeta.
And yeah, we do need to have “feel good” stories from time to time. I don’t think our brains were made to take bad news constantly, and it’s important to have stories that remind us of the good in the world too. However, it’s possible to take that too far. There’s a time to rest and take care of yourself, but there’s also a time to look the problems of the world in the eye and find a way to address them. And, unfortunately, we tend to lean way too much on the side of “rest” that it becomes “ignorance.”
For a lot of young adult readers, especially female readers, Katniss was one of the first characters they were able to identify with. She lived in a screwed-up world (to say the least), but she found ways to defy what the Capitol expected of her. Maybe she didn’t plan to start a rebellion, but she did want to survive in a world that told her she should not, and that was enough to spark a movement bigger than herself.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like the Capitol, living in a bubble, ignorant of the problems that the world faces. Perhaps it’s time we stopped ignoring evil, whether it be in our books or in the real world, and instead acknowledge it for what it is and fight to overcome it.