"What's the appropriate soundtrack for kids killing kids?" Entertainment Weekly asks in regard to the soundtrack for the highly-anticipated movie The Hunger Games that premieres in the U.S. on Friday, March 23. If you're a grown-up, maybe you're appalled by that question. And maybe you'll be even more appalled to know that millions of young people are so excited about the premiere that they've already made the movie one of the top-selling films ever on Fandango.
But before you choose to be appalled by a work of fiction or by a film adaptation, it's probably good to know that the concept that fuels The Hunger Games is both unthinkable and ever-thinkable, since it's a story that seems to get told over and over again. Equal parts dystopian classics like 1984 and Brave New World and pop-culture barnburners like Death Race 2000, The Running Man, and the Japanese kid-slaughter Battle Royale, The Hunger Games reflects our secret and not-so-secret fears, which helps explain why it has captured more young readers than any recent books that don't feature Harry Potter or sparkly vampires -- 16 million books in print, 133 weeks and counting on the USA Today bestseller list.
What does all this popularity mean? In my work as a cultural critic, I am often asking that overarching question: Why do so many people get drawn to a particular artifact of culture at a given time? Setting aside whether something is good or not so good (Twilight in my estimation is not so good, and yet there are screaming audiences for it), people are often drawn to a work at a given moment because it exudes a peculiar relevance for them and in their culture. Aside from universal themes -- the things William Faulkner said all writers addressed -- there are three big topical themes that help explain why Publishers Weekly called The Hunger Games "the right book at the right time."
The Hunger Games is a powerful metaphor for the Great Recession, for this moment when even younger readers may be aware that their parents or older siblings are struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly dog-eat-dog economy. It's only a slightly-exaggerated look at our "reality TV" culture (what I call today's "bread and circuses" culture in the book I'm finishing on post 9/11 America). And it reflects our long-running military adventures and our subsequent losses of freedom and totalitarian excesses: surveillance, rendition, torture, preemptive war, and a tiny percentage of citizens who suffers while the vast majority watch it all on TV.
Some of the early reviews from England tell us what the book and the previews have already shown us: that, as The Guardian put it, "the America of The Hunger Games looks a lot like the 30s Depression." And that vision of economic hardship is as it should be -- a narrative that shows young people competing to the death against each other so that those they love can have enough to eat is just a more-violent version of the Ayn Randian laissez-faire capitalism shaping our economic life now.
When you listen to the Republican debates, what we often hear audiences and candidates saying is that we are all on our own. If we're fast enough, tough enough, work hard enough -- and don't befall some accident in the woods -- we should be just fine.
But God help anybody who falls under the wheels, because nobody else will.
Panem, the nation where The Hunger Games takes place, is the Latin word for "bread," and clearly related to the Latin phrase "panem et circenses" -- "bread and circuses." Author Suzanne Collins intended that The Hunger Games satirize our culture, where we watch "real life" on television and are thus distracted from our own real lives. As the Romans knew, if the people are entertained, they are less likely to rise up (as the people of Panem did in the not-too-distant past), and we've bought into this entertainment paradigm too. The spectacle of kids killing kids is only slightly more awful than the spectacle of Snooki with a kid. As The Hollywood Reporter notes in its review, "contemporary reality shows and televised competitions differ from this extravaganza only in their lower mortality rate."
So long as we are distracted -- and even, God help us, entertained -- we may forget for a moment about our own lives, our own hunger. We may forget that we live in a nation that is less free than it was a decade ago, a nation with fewer societal safety nets, a nation with fewer opportunities for young people. We should be outraged -- and yet most of us manage to sleep at night, thanks to The Bachelor and America's Got Talent.
The great irony of even a powerful dystopian story like The Hunger Games is that, if we're not careful, it could serve the same function in our lives as it does to those debased viewers of the Games. If we allow the story of The Hunger Games to do what it should -- that is, if it provokes us to ask hard questions and demand change -- then it is a valuable cultural artifact, despite its central concept. But if it only anesthetizes its audiences to watch quietly and demand the next installment, then it's a cruel joke.
The Guardian's review tells us that the lesson of The Hunger Games is "the game is rigged and the banker always wins." Let's hope that after watching this film, we'll remember that lesson -- and demand a fair deal for ourselves and all who hunger the next time we sit down at the table.