The Hunger Games movies have been a huge hit with millions of teenagers, along with no small number of adults who were seduced by Suzanne Collins’ series of dystopian page-turners, too.
It’s not exactly an entertaining premise—the spectacle of a bunch of adolescents fighting to the death in a state-sponsored gladiatorial contest—and if it was badly done could be grossly voyeuristic. But the books are intelligently drawn, and the young heroine, Katniss, is a winning combination of courageous and vulnerable, talented and imperfect.
Collins offers a dark, fun-house critique of our culture of instant celebrity, the beauty industry, and the now-familiar narrative arc of reality programming, from Survivor to America’s Next Top Model. And she makes the contest about all the things that count: humanity, loyalty, honesty, authenticity.
The emotional world of adolescence
But The Hunger Games books and films are also a great opportunity for parents to experience the teenage emotional world, where the competition often feels brutal, the outcome of tomorrow’s test life-or-death, and the adults are anything but trustworthy.
It’s no coincidence that young adult science fiction is so often set in a bleak futuristic world in which kids fight to resist or subvert a repressive regime. The battles for personal expression and individuality in these popular books — the Hunger Games trilogy has sold more than 26 million copies — mirror the challenges teenagers face: to figure out who they are and want to be, what and who they care about.
I hesitate to compare the brutal authorities in The Hunger Games, who force teenagers to slaughter each other for televised holiday entertainment, to your average high school principal or set of parents. But kids feel deeply, as their abilities develop, the limits they increasingly find themselves pushing up against.
And if the spectacle of blood sport in a post-apocalyptic world of extreme haves and have-nots seems a little, well, extreme, that too reflects the intensity of adolescent emotion. Developmentally, these are the years in which the emotional regions of the brain have raced ahead of regions involving judgment and regulation, resulting not only in classic risky behavior but overwhelming and sometimes blinding emotion—the reason we need to worry when teenagers get depressed.
As Lev Grossman writes in Time magazine, “Whether it’s because we have more perspective or we’re just jaded, nothing is that big a deal to us. But you need to tear down the entire planet to match what goes on in a teenager’s interior universe. The apocalypse is where they live.”
Jennifer Lawrence gets high marks for playing Katniss, which is great, because strong female protagonists couldn’t be more valuable to our teenagers. Katniss is appealing in part because she’s not completely idealized: As Katie Roiphe put it, approvingly, “Katniss is bossy, moody, bratty, demanding, prickly. In short, she belongs to a recent tribe of popular heroines: the small, difficult teenage girl who manifests enormous physical and moral strength. She is both murderer and victim, somehow representing female strength and female vulnerability all mingled and entwined, dangerously, ambiguously, into one.”
Consider the message that Katniss doesn’t triumph because she’s been given superpowers, but rather because she developed skill by years of practicing. And Katniss may be lethal with a bow and arrow, but when it comes to romance, which of course it does, she is anything but skilled. Her two love interests cause her as much confusion as they do yearning, again a telling reflection of the romantic experiences of many adolescents.
Of course, we all know — courtesy of Pat Benatar — that “Love Is a Battlefield.” But for those parents who may have forgotten their own adolescence, Hunger Games is a reminder that adolescence is a battlefield, too, and it helps if you can stand in your children’s shoes and take a look at the view. Because kids, like Katniss, have no choice but to feel the way they feel and do what they do.