I didn’t discover Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy until last year, shortly after the third book was published. I picked up the first book, was instantly gripped, and finished in one day (or, to be exact, the early hours of the next day).
I saved the remaining books, dangling carrots to be read as rewards when I completed drafts of the screenplay I was writing. I tore through Catching Fire and Mockingjay at the same pace as The Hunger Games when I allowed myself to pick them up.
For those (oh, so few) who aren’t familiar with the world of The Hunger Games, Collins creates a futuristic dystopia existing in what is now North America. The United States is long destroyed and in the new society, a vain and brutal Capitol holds sway over twelve districts who once tried to rebel. The Capitol reminds them of their terrible mistake each year by forcing tributes, a teen girl and a teen boy from each district, to enter a vast arena and fight to the death on national television.
Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old bow hunter, is thrown into the Hunger Games spotlight when she volunteers to take the place of her 12-year-old younger sister. Both tough and fragile, Katniss leaves behind her long-time friend Gale while sharing an uneasy relationship with her co-tribute, Peeta, who confesses a hidden, long-time crush on her.
The writing is strong as Katniss’ raw internal monologue draws in the reader and life and death stakes keep the action moving quickly, long before Katniss ever enters the arena.
The books have developed a fan base that rivals Harry Potter’s, so it’s no great surprise that the first film based on the trilogy, The Hunger Games, broke box office records with a $152.5 million dollar opening weekend.
As a storytellers ourselves, my husband and I have spent hours wrangling over the success of these stories. What is it that so firmly grips the hearts and imaginations of this generation of young adults … not to mention plenty of older adults, as well?
On one hand, Katniss lives in a world that many young people today know all too well: one where God appears to be ineffective or absent and good is much more difficult to find than evil. People are pawns of a powerful, out-of-control government that’s far more concerned about its own welfare than theirs. In this world, Katniss is able to succeed by making difficult, moral choices and using her wits. She relies only on herself and a very few trusted family and friends.
I write for a nonprofit organization whose mission is influencing the hearts and minds of the next generation. And one of the biggest trends we’ve seen is that more and more young adults who grew up in church are walking away from it. Increasing numbers of adults are distancing themselves from religion, and even faith.
Yet, at the same time, there’s a growing passion for social justice, for meeting the needs of people in trouble, and freeing the oppressed.
Hunger Games reflects this duality. Katniss never appears to consider or care about belief in something transcendent, but she becomes a passionate symbol of overcoming injustice even when (in the third book), she discovers it on her own side of the war. In today’s culture, even as many young adults are turning away from Christianity (at least Christianity as they’ve seen it), they are investing themselves fully in the fight against social injustice: homelessness, sex trafficking, hunger.
Whether these individuals realize it or not, this passion is close to the heart of God, and I believe it’s this drive that’s one of the biggest draws of The Hunger Games.
While Suzanne Collins leaves out any mention of God, religion, or the supernatural in her story — almost intentionally it would seem — her story still touches these deeper, universal notes. Author Madeleine L’Engle once said she believed that God often uses artists who do not know or acknowledge Him to share His story. In fact, every well-told story of transformation is, in some sense, a Christian story, a reflection of The Story that says change and transformation are possible for anyone in any circumstance.
That’s where I think The Hunger Games once again grips its audience. More than ever, this generation, all of us, are latching onto stories to help us make sense of our lives. We want to know that we matter. That our lives have some significance past our own brief span of Time. That there is something bigger worth fighting for. So when we see Katniss, who’s looked out only for herself and her family, begin making sacrificial choices to fight for others, for the oppressed districts, for freedom itself, we resonate. It gives us one more piece of the framework for organizing our own experiences into something that makes sense, something that we ultimately hope reflects a greater Story.
The trilogy closes on a solidly humanist note: that the only good we find in this world is the good that we see in each other. But while that’s an unsatisfying ending for many of us, the well-told story as a whole still hints at something deeper and more real.