Just how socially relevant is The Hunger Games? Let us count the ways.
Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet The Rite of Spring was so controversial when it debuted in 1913 that the Parisian audience couldn’t even wait for intermission to start arguing about it. Punches flew, police were called in, and Stravinsky fled the scene before the curtain fell. Critics maintain that it was the novel music and choreography that caused the mass freakout, but perhaps it was the ballet’s depiction of the ritualistic pagan sacrifice that caused the real unease, especially given the political climate in France and beyond during the slow, scary buildup to the first World War. Younger attendees, anxious over looming world affairs, may have found themselves a bit too sympathetic to the plight of the young girl being slaughtered—by tribal leaders hoping to appease vaguely explained forces and maintain the status quo.
The Hunger Games, that wildly popular young adult book and film series depicting a futuristic dystopia where a totalitarian power structure televises its brutality of young “tributes” supposedly chosen by chance as a means of preventing any uprisings, features a lead heroine in a similarly sympathetic position. Katniss Everdeen, as played by the bankable, yet relatable, Jennifer Lawrence, will again rally the masses this week as they queue up to see Mockingjay—Part 1, the near-penultimate installment in the film series that has already made more than $800 million worldwide. Among those waiting in line will be young adults increasingly voicing their own displeasure at economic, social, and environmental policies that make their futures seem doomed to be as dreary and oppressive as District 12.
While it may seem far-fetched to imagine these mainstream films and books inspiring a riot, recall that fed-up students in Thailand were recently arrested for using The Hunger Games’ three-finger salute, which in the books display solidarity against the Capitol regime, to protest their prime minister and the country’s martial law. The life-imitating-art example became even eerier when the arrested students were whisked away and held for hours at a Thai Army base, where, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, they were pressured to promise to refrain from political activities. Now, at least one major cinema chain in Thailand has pulled Mockingjay—Part 1 from its lineup.
Like all good female protagonists of YA fiction, many of Everdeen’s most complicated alliances are romantic, at least in the first two installments of the films and novels. She’s forced to leave her hunky boyfriend behind. Then, for reasons too complicated to relate here, she’s forced to pretend to be in love with one of the other (also hunky) contestants, a lie that grows far more convoluted and serious as the plot evolves. It’s probably fodder for many sleepover debates, but in addition to the #TeamPeeta #TeamGale debates, the charade has decidedly more adult overtones.
After returning (spoiler alert) as the games’ victor, Everdeen is clearly the victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, but the government, rather than help her recover, is more interested in pressuring her into maintaining an illusion of normalcy so it can use her hero status to its own exploitative ends. She only gets to stop living this lie after the government, in violation of the agreement under which she volunteered, forces her to compete in yet another game. Odds are, most of the viewers who relate to that circumstance are not teenage girls.
One of Everdeen’s valued friends is her dressmaker Cinna who, for reasons too complicated to explain, helps her look dazzling at pregame festivities. Again, this sounds like pure tween bait, but his designs for her dresses—including technological magic that makes them emulate catching fire, burning to ashes, and sprouting angel (ahem, “Mockingbird”) wings—in addition to being all like ohmygodcanyoueven, are also, within the context of the story, multi-tiered metaphors worthy of a Leonard Cohen song.
Everdeen herself has the power to incite riots within the Hunger Games universe, a fact she discovers very early into Catching Fire. Though she initially seems intrigued by her power, she comes to prefer doing almost anything to avoid violence and the subsequent horrific consequences it causes for the people she’d rather be protecting, including her beloved family. The ways in which these alliances, as well as Everdeen’s own morality and her sense of obligation to society as a whole, become increasingly complicated as they begin to conflict with each other weigh much more heavily on her mind than which boy she wants to kiss. Not a bad headspace for teenagers, or anyone else for that matter, to hang out in.
In the lead-up to Mockingjay, Everdeen discovers a way to simplify these conflicts somewhat when she has to return to the arena to compete against other past winners. Realizing, after much interpersonal conflict, that they have a common oppressor, Everdeen is able to cooperate with her would-be competitors, though they come from different backgrounds. She comes to appreciate the skills of her new allies though, perhaps because they differ so greatly from her own. These include some tech-savvy hackers, a seemingly unfeeling snob, and most definitely Mags, an older woman whose main contribution to the effort seems to be a compassionate desire to subvert a system fueled by the blood of the young. Rabble-rousing and riot-starting are as old as the forces of oppression themselves, but this feels like a genuinely new idea.
The Hunger Games is often accused of stealing its disturbing and attention-grabbing plot device—the last-kid-standing tournament in which teenagers and children are forced to brutally kill each other off—from the ’90s Japanese franchise Battle Royale, but it should surprise no one that Stephen King was there before that, in his first novel, no less. His 1979 book The Long Walk (written under the name Richard Bachman) envisions a dystopian future perhaps even crueler than that of Suzanne Collins’ imagination. This time poor teenage boys are exploited, forced to undertake the titular marathon until only one is left alive, alongside armed escorts tasked with killing any child who falls behind the grueling pace or breaks arbitrarily imposed rules. With the book’s rights secured by The Walking Dead executive producer Frank Darabont (also a frequent adapter of King’s material), it’s likely only a matter of time before The Long Walk joins the wave of popular films in The Hunger Games vein, such as this fall’s The Maze Runner, a teen-centric existential nightmare/labyrinth society flick akin to the cult horror film Cube. Even the gentler variation on this theme—the teen/child-as-warrior-to-save-mankind, like the recent Ender’s Game and Divergent—seem obsessed with forcing young adults to prove their mettle against near fatal odds, to an extent far beyond a simple metaphor on how tough it is to grow up. For those coming of age in an era when school and other mass shootings seem more and more common, while it is very disturbing to see a 12-year-old girl violently murdered onscreen (as happens in the first Hunger Games film), it should really be no more disturbing than, say, when it’s reported on the evening news.