the hunger games: understanding the phenomenon


The Hunger Games is a book and trilogy written by Suzanne Collins that everyone has gone crazy for lately. The first movie adaptation came out this past weekend (I haven’t gone to seen it yet) and has garnered favorable reviews from fans and critics alike. Despite being a series aimed at young adults, it’s gained a wide following from all age groups. Now at first glance, it might seem that the plot and writing style are what keep fans coming back for more. However, the plot itself is not truly original (think Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale), and the writing is simple and quite predictable. I think there’s something deeper that people are connecting with, but I’m not talking about a conspiracy. I believe The Hunger Games hits the sweet spots of blending critical elements of a story in such a way that the audience latches onto it and craves for more. Not since Harry Potter has a piece of literature connected to such a wide audience.

One of the motifs running throughout the story is the rebellion against the establishment. In this case, it’s Katniss from District 12 seeing the Games as an opportunity to rebel and drive change against the Capitol. She has a strong motivation of bringing safety and more equality to her family by surviving the ordeal, and she finds ways of showing defiance towards the Gamemakers and of showing how proud she is of her hometown District 12. The whole idea of defying the establishment really resonates with society at the moment, especially with all the “Occupy” movements and social disruption going around recently. A good majority are disgruntled with the way government has been publicly addressing or not addressing economic issues, and the impact has been felt throughout all levels of society (mostly the lower and middle classes though). This discontent has pushed a select few activists to taking drastic action to fight for their survival within our current social structure with the hopes that their efforts will influence a reformation of the banking and large corporate industries. The ideal of the masses inspiring change in the establishment is the foundation for such movements throughout history, and The Hunger Games utilizes that same ideal in its rebellion motif. Instead, the will of the masses from lower socioeconomic standing is manifested through a single character – Katniss. It’s a powerful one idea that many sympathize with, and who can resist cheering for the underdog?

Another theme that runs throughout almost every popular story that ever existed is the impossible romance. A love story is a great vehicle for driving a plot, and The Hunger Games uses this to throw in plot twists in order to push the tale in new directions. The story starts off by placing an assumed romance between Katniss and Gale at the forefront, and we assume it will develop and become confirmed as the story goes on because of Katniss’ stubbornness. However, the introduction of Peeta into the reaping and eventual Games then tests this assumption. The two contenders from District 12 put on a romantic tale for everyone watching the Games, but we learn that Peeta’s feelings are most likely genuine and unrequited. On the other hand, Katniss plays along without ill intent, but we also question her whole assessment of the situation. Surely, she can’t be that naive as to think Peeta’s words and actions are all for show? After all, he was the boy who showed sympathy towards her (and even endured punishment) as a child. Readers of this story probably find themselves hoping that the relationship develops into something more than for show, and it almost gets there by the end of the first book. It’s the anguish and frustration of an unrequited, one-sided love that so many identify with and also long for. The human condition yearns for some kind of resolution to a situation like that, so the author pushes it along and far as she can to keep the audience engaged.

While the above two motifs help drive the story in The Hunger Games, a third motif of the strong female heroine helps to make the book what it is. There are plenty of stories out there with girls as the main character, but rarely do any of them portray the character like the one of Katniss. Forget the overtly-feminine and helpless female characters found in other books. Here, we have a hardy and survivalist female lead whose name is reminiscent of the word “cat”. Cats are cunning, stealthy, strong, and survivors.  Her description and development throughout the games highlight her will to survive and instinctive reactions to dire situations. These are traits to be found in a hero, one that is usually a male lead. The author uses imaginative (though not too provocative) language when describing the violence and extremity of the Games. All this lends itself to giving Katniss more credibility as the tough, smart heroine who goes through the worst of it all and gains the respect of an entire nation. The characters of Prim and Rue also were largely influential in the development of Katniss’ character, and they further the motif of strong female characters impacting not only the lead but also leaving an impression upon the audience. Likewise, we see today’s society being more receptive to strong female leads – female governmental figures, senior executives, and single professionals are all norms and not exceptions of modern society. Reinforcement of the idea of empowering women to be heroines, I believe, is one of the biggest driving forces behind the success of this story. It provides inspiration to its target demographic and establishes a layer of complexity in the heroine’s story that is typically not present in other female-led stories. And while it might seem thatThe Hunger Games caters to a female audience, the story is one for everyone to appreciate.

Though I have not yet read the second or third books, I can see why The Hunger Games story has been such a huge hit. My thoughts above are speculation, but I’d bet they are at least a start at trying to understand why this series has garnered the enormous following that it now has.

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