Catching Fire and Adolescence

index**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Catching Fire.**

Two years after my initial classroom discussion of youth ministry and the popular young adult novel/movie The Hunger Games, the series is back with its second installment.  Having triumphed over the dangers of her dystopian world in the first book, Catching Fire forces teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen back to the arena to fight for her life.  While the novels have been around for a few years, this week marks the premiere of the sequel to the 2012 movie.

As I did two years ago, I’ll be thinking through relevant themes from the book in my course Foundations for Youth and Family Ministries.  My students and I will also be going to attend the film this coming weekend.  Before all that though, I wanted to begin commenting here about Catching Fire‘s connection to adolescence, God, and youth ministry.

As a story about adolescents that is also popular with adolescents, Catching Fire stands as a signpost and driver of aspects of teenage culture.  While many themes and ideas inherent to the whole trilogy may already have been discussed in my first treatment, some of the unique themes I see inherent in this book are as follows:

  • Lack of Agency:  One of the things that is very clear in Catching Fire is that the adult world is not yet done using Katniss.  Having manipulated her to fight its battles once before, it is now forcing her to do so again.  While there are some facets of her life that remain her own, a significant part of her existence is being dictated to her, thus limiting her “agency” or ability to act.  She doesn’t want to do any of this and yet she has no choice.  This boundedness is often felt by adolescents who feel they have grown to their own place of perceived adulthood yet find themselves chafing at the restraints placed by school, parents, and/or society.  Katniss’s ability to work against the machinations of these outside forces even as she plays the game is almost then an adolescent fantasy of sorts, if not an actual descriptor of the way many teens think they operate.katniss-peeta-catching-fire
  • Emotional Awakening: Katniss Everdeen may very well be one of the prototypical female adolescent protagonists of our time.  In addition to her strength and determination, she is also in a stage of life where she’s discovering a lot about herself.  One of these things is her potential for romantic love.  Here I think author Suzanne Collin’s portrayal of the confused yet honest feelings Katniss processes are helpful in gaining a window into a process that is neither uniform nor sure, even if it is deeply felt.  Sorting through such intense emotions while feeling like your life is on the line is not foreign to many in this stage of life, whether male or female.
  • Survival: If sacrifice is one of these key themes of The Hunger Games, the idea of survival cannot be ignored here.  Indeed, without Katniss’s survival there would be no more story.  The world of Panem–like the teenage world today–is a frightening place that constantly seeks to destroy identity, autonomy, and existence itself.  So many die in the arena of the Hunger Games.  So many lives are on the brink of being simply snuffed out.  Metaphorical or not, this is how the teenage years can feel at times.  Whatever else is going on, the questions that swirl around surviving this maelstrom of pain, despair, and chaos is not far from the being of many in their teenage years.  Today’s adolescents may not face the Hunger Games, but they do go to high school.
  • Idealism/Cynicism: As the very title of Catching Fire suggests, one of the themes of the trilogy’s second novel is the growing political resistance to the autocratic ways of the oppressive government of Panem.  As this movement “catches fire,” it drew and draws its strength from the actions of Katniss in the-hunger-games-catching-fire-trailerfighting the system in the first film and beyond.  Her small acts of defiance inspire a mass movement that wants to change everything.  This is all fine and good, and this kind of idealistic crusade is indeed part and parcel of what adolescence can sometimes feel like.  Think of the youth culture of the 1960s, for instance.  What is interesting here, though, is that Katniss herself is not particularly caught up in the exciting dream of a free society; she just sees a lot of bloodshed and wants her family and friends to be safe.  The revolution might work, but is it worth fighting at the risk of life itself?  This realism–perhaps even cynicism–at the possibilities for change may also be a sign of our times.  The way in which teens are not so hopeful that things will change or worried about disrupting whatever equilibrium (healthy or not) they might have right now. Holding themselves and their worlds together may be enough for them.

Obviously, there is more at work here than just these brief reflections.  I look forward to hearing about your thoughts and more.  Come back tomorrow for a discussion of “Catching Fire and God!”

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