Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of “The Hunger Games” trilogy. Written by Suzanne Collins, it is a series of young adult dystopian novels, set in an Orwellian future society. In the novel, the government sponsors a public spectacle, in which children battle to the death for survival. It is also, in my opinion, a fantastic way to introduce teens to a number of adult themes, particularly those pertaining to powers of government and the media, and their potentials for abuse. It also examines the aftereffects of surviving traumatic situations in a realistic way. (Please note- this review also contains mild spoilers.)
The idea behind The Hunger Games is not unique. For example, the novel (and movie) Battle Royale has many similar themes, depicting school-age children randomly selected and forced to fight to the death on an island for “research purposes.” The movie “Series 7” involves adults forced to participate in a reality show where they kill each other until one is remaining. However, this is a relatively old story. The execution- and popularity- of The Hunger Games has made it a cultural phenomenon.
The heroine, Katniss, and her family live in a mining district rife with poverty and starvation, the likes of which many U.S. teens are unfamiliar with. And yet Katniss uses her skills and her smarts to provide for her mother and younger sister Prim. When Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead, essentially giving up her life for the sake of her family (as opposed to, say, for the sake of a vampire.)
In young Rue’s district, inhabitants perform agricultural slave labor under the threat of corporal punishment or death. And yet even in the wealthy districts there is no joy. Katniss is appalled by their focus on appearances, competition, and instant gratification. Eventually Katniss learns that even the popular celebrities are living under pain and duress. The government threatens their families and loved ones unless they submit to its demands, whether touting a party line or providing sexual favors for VIPs.
It’s important for young adults to understand that the government depicted in the Hunger Games is not fantasy. Panem does not exist, but equivalent abuses have happened in the past and are happening currently, in places like China, Zimbabwe, Iran, India, North Korea, and Uganda; our next generation needs to be aware of this, not only for better knowledge of our world, but so we can keep watch for hints of similar abuses in our own government.
Another issue which The Hunger Games addresses is manipulation of the media. We all know that “reality shows” aren’t real. However, many teens aren’t aware of the extent to which a government can manipulate its media. (For example, my mother grew up in South Africa during the 1950s and 60s, and had literally no clue about any of the apartheid-related events occurring outside her small town- because the government controlled the newspapers.)
Unlike many adventure stories where characters emerge from trials strengthened and even revitalized, Ms. Collins gives Katniss a whopping dose of PTSD. The depiction of Katniss’s struggles with flashbacks, nightmares, and disabling depression are a fairly accurate look at the real effects of surviving trauma. I’ve always been annoyed with stories where our hero or heroine lives through the worst tribulations possible and yet ends up the same person they’ve always been, except with more skills. War, killing, and witnessing violence change a person, and the changes in Katniss reflect how these effects can be mitigated, but never obliterated.
The Hunger Games does not pull punches, and it’s a violent book. Characters are killed, tortured, brainwashed, starved, and disfigured. You’ll need to gauge your teen’s maturity level before getting them this book. However, I believe that it’s great way to learn some political lessons. And beside that, it’s a really good read.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. If your teen hasn’t read it, perhaps you two can read it together, and discuss it from your separate perspectives.
If you have read The Hunger Games, what did you think of it? Would you encourage your teen to read it?