The Hunger Games and Adolescence

We’re discussing Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in my class “Foundations for Youth Ministry” this week.  The book is a classic example of both young adult and dystopian fiction.  It is currently in the top ten list of Amazon’s bestsellers, and has the potential to follow in the footsteps of both Harry Potter and Twilight as a literary juggernaut and (soon-coming, in the case of The Hunger Games) box-office blockbuster.

Having painfully struggled through the Twilight series (books and movies), I can honestly say that The Hunger Games is a superior piece of young adult fiction and, based on the movie trailer, looks to be a much more engaging film.  I assigned the book for my class not because I liked it so much, but rather because its rising popularity and ability to offer insights into the world of adolescents mark it as a key text in which to engage in some practical theological reflection.

But first, some background.  The Hunger Games is set on the North American continent at some unknown point in the future.  The world as we know it is gone, replaced by the land of Panem and consisting 12 “districts” that mostly labor in poverty in order to serve the needs of the central “Capitol.”  The sending districts rebelled at some point in the past, but were brutally repressed by the Capitol.  In an effort to remind them of their subjugated state and keep them in line, the Capital (a decadent, media-obsessed city) decrees that each year two teenagers (male and female) be chosen at random from each of the districts and forced to fight to the death in a wilderness arena while the whole of Panem watches on television.  The lone survivor is declared the winner and gets to retire in comfort.  The rest of the districts mourn their losses and move on.

The hero of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteers for the games after her 12 year old sister is chosen in the lottery.  Her emotional journey through the novel–and the Hunger Games themselves–make for compelling reading.  (For more, please check out the Wikipedia description or, better yet, buy the book!)

On Monday, the question for in-class discussion was: “Where are we?”  In other words, what does this book (both by its popularity and literary insight) tell us about our world today?  In the same way, what does it tell us about adolescence?

*Some of our thoughts:

  • The world of The Hunger Games is one of great inequity, reminiscent of many aspects of our world today.  Ask the Occupiers.
  • In the midst of the arena of battle, the 24 teenage Tributes are forced into a position of “every man for themselves,” a kind of cold individualism.  Katniss and a few others resist this by choosing to work together, thus attempting to defeat the system.  It is the same system that keeps each of the districts separate and weak but which could be overcome through cooperation.
  • The institution of the Games themselves seem to smack of a kind of ill-thought-out hubris.  A kind of peace for the Capitol, yes.  But only peace at the edge of a sword.
  • As one point, I asked my students to describe the characteristics of the society of Panem.  These included: confusion, “peace,” a desensitized culture, class warfare, barriers erected to keep people from uniting, corruption, the contrast between the petty concerns of the haves and the life-and-death situations faced by the have nots.  I asked my students this question:  “What is Panem?”  The answer, I think:  it’s us.  It is the West and the rest of the world.  We Americans are the Capitol.  But, like them, we don’t realize it.

Regarding themes of adolescence:

  • Insecurity and a sense of fighting to stay on top.  Katniss and each of the teenagers selected as “Tributes” face this in all its immediacy.  High school really can feel like a battle to the death when in the throes of adolescence and yet many adults (just like Katniss’s upbeat and empty handler Effie Trinket) simply pat them on the head and send them on their way.
  • The Hunger Gamesis a coming-of-age story in some sense for Katniss, but at the same time inverts the whole idea.  As a teenage girl whose father died in a coal mining accident and whose mother slipped into a debilitating depression not long after, Katniss years before the Games was forced to grow up on her own.  Much like, I think, many adolescents today.  By the time their societally-sanctioned rites of passage arrive, they have already grown up much more than we know.

    Effie & Katniss

  • The adults in this book are almost uniformly absent or failed human beings.  Katniss’s father is dead, and appears only in flashback.  Her mother is a shell of a woman that has little impact on her life.  Her advisor from the Capitol, Effie Trinket, is profoundly superficial and oblivious to the world around her.  Her coach, Haymitch Abernathy, is an alcoholic veteran of the Games who very often treats her poorly.  In the wake of these retrograde examples of adulthood, Katniss the adolescent is often forced to make her own way and create a world divorced from the adults around her…much like so many young people.
  • Speaking of adults and adolescents, what does it mean that the major solution to the problems of the adult world of Panem must be solved by forcing their children to fight?  Just as adolescents today are often (sadly) pawns in the machinations of adults, so too Katniss is in many ways not her own.  Her fight in the arena, as much as it is to survive, is also to “stick it to the man” who has been trying to co-opt her agency as a human being.  Powerful stuff.

On Thursday I’ll post the results of our classroom conversation about the following question:  “Where is God?”  We’ll be looking at theological themes and questions raised by The Hunger Games.  In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

*At least some of my discussion leadership (and these blog posts) derived from the book The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy by Leah Wilson.


2 comments on “The Hunger Games and Adolescence

  1. Great post, Josh. I have been enjoying your blog thus far. I strongly agree with your assessment of the generational gap as allegory in a sense. This feels to me the closest relation point of the books, many of the young in our culture today feel very little respect for the generation(s) before them. We often in the church treat this as not a systemic problem but as an isolated one spontaneously generated in them. Where our youth strongly connect is in the idea of being placed in a broken world they did not create, and forced to continue many flawed systems they do not want. While the metaphor is not complete and I don’t feel the total ineptitude/absence of leadership/parents that exists in the book, many students most likely due. We have the highest divorce rate (although it has come down fractionally as of late), highest level of political mismanagement, and murkiest pool of role models in modern history. I am sure many teens relate Katniss position of being alone and forced mature before their time. Thanks Josh, and Go Katniss!

    • Thanks, Brian. I like what you have to say here. The analogy, like most, is of course incomplete. But powerful. Another thought I have that I’ll be mentioning tomorrow: what does it say about their society that Katniss has to basically lie through her teeth to have any hope of survival?

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