I’d heard that Suzanne Collins was watching TV, flipping back and forth between some reality TV show and coverage of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever we’re waging war these days. Maybe it was one night. Maybe it was over several days or weeks or months. In any case, she eventually realized that she couldn’t really tell the difference, and she started to ask, “What if they were the same? What if war was reality television?” Answer: The Hunger Games.
I enjoyed the first book. I read it in two nights, but only because I started it too late the first night. (I’m 38, which explains why I couldn’t stay up too late, and it’s also relevant to this story later.) Based on what I understood about Collins’ motivation, I actually considered the book important. Then I read Catching Fire, which I thought was okay, but not great. And based on what I experienced of the first book, I thought the second was unnecessary. Still, I read it in three nights.
My second favorite professor in college taught me that I didn’t have to finish a book I didn’t like. (Allison, Alex, and Tom – if by some miracle he’s reading this – will back me up on this.) Presumably this advice applies to trilogies, but still I read Mockingjay. Pretty sure I read it in four nights. Meh.
All that to say: I think The Hunger Games is an interesting, and maybe even important, text. It raises (not poses) a lot of interesting questions about the nature of entertainment, voyeurism, war, adolescence, objectification, etc…but lots of books do that. The Hunger Games has managed to become something other than important. It has become a cultural phenomenon.
The Hunger Games opened three weeks ago. It immediately became the number one movie in the country and hasn’t let up, having grossed over $315 million in just 21 days. That’s a lot of money in a hurry. For the first few days, Facebook was littered with status updates (including my own) offering some sort of commentary on the film. Jennifer Lawrence was all over the internets. The film itself was praised and panned by whoever decided to have an opinion about it, which was everybody.
I saw The Hunger Games with my 11 year-old fake-niece the night it opened. We got there an hour before midnight and were lucky to get a decent seat. She had a crisp $20 bill so we decided to see how much junk food and soda we could acquire. We made fun of the dummies in Team Peeta t-shirts. (Everyone knows Team Cinna is the way to go.) And we debated whether the movie would be better than the book. The lights went down and we sat patiently through 20 minutes of previews. Finally the movie. Three hours later, I was tired. (I’m 38.)
What did I think about the movie? I thought it was a movie made for teenagers based on a book written for teenagers. Was it good? Sure. Was it great? No. My fake-niece loved it. I loved that she loved it. We talked about it the whole way home. Well, she talked about it. Non-stop. At 3:00 in the morning.
To be honest, I’m not sure I have a fully formed opinion about the book or the movie. (Though I’m deliberately avoiding the word “film”.) Even if I could write some stuff, I’m not sure I would. There’s nothing I could write that hasn’t been written already. And in any case, you’re probably already committed to your opinion, whether you’ve read the book or seen the movie, or not.
You’ve probably already decided that it’s too violent. Or that it’s poorly written. Or that it’s the greatest thing since To Kill A Mockingbird. You may have declared that Katniss is great example of a post-feminist hero. Or that she’s a narcissistic sociopath. In either case, you probably think Jennifer Lawrence is a little to old too play the part and that they should have cast someone with olive skin. You might be on Team Peeta or Team Gale. You might be fundamentally opposed to literature that features children killing children. (But you still read Lord of the Flies.) Anyway, you probably already know what you think. I’m not going to change that.
I will say this. You’re almost certainly a grown-up. And the book wasn’t written for you. The movie isn’t for you either. It’s for my fake-niece. She’s read the trilogy 3-4 times. Can we agree for just a moment that the most important part of that last sentence is the verb? An 11 year-old read a book. Multiple times. Can we celebrate that for a moment?
No matter what you think The Hunger Games is about, you’re probably wrong. And it wouldn’t matter if you were right. What matters is what my fake-niece thinks and whether or not she has a safe place to think those things out loud. Whether her fake-uncle or real-mom or teacher or librarian can help her think critically about whatever the book or the movie stirs up in her. Because this particular cultural phenomenon is going to come and go. Another one will replace it, and what’s most important is that our children have the courage and the permission to engage them thoughtfully.
As grown-ups, I think we should care a lot less about The Hunger Games and a lot more about the kids for whom this is an important piece of their world. And I think we need a little bit of a gut check about how invested we are in a story that just happens to be about kids killing kids.
What if we turned our attention and our resources to the places in our world where kids are actually killing other kids? What could $315 million do then?