In 2008, Scholastic published a young-adult novel called The Hunger Games by screenwriter Suzanne Collins. Buzz for the book was intense even before it hit the shelves, and only intensified further in 2009 and 2010 when the sequels appeared. Now, with a movie version opening Friday, the buzz is a roar. The three novels were one, two, and three in book sales last year, across all ages and genres—a true publishing phenomenon.
Christian parents may wonder, first, what the fuss is about, and second, if their kids should read these books—especially after hearing the premise. Which is: In the distant future, North American civilization has rebuilt itself (after the inevitable collapse) into 12 districts controlled by a tyrannical central government. Every year the Capitol stages the "Hunger Games," wherein each district sends two teenagers chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a controlled environment. (For a more detailed analysis of the Hunger Games trilogy, see my review at the RedeemedReader.com.) Such a stark scenario in the hands of a skillful writer could hardly fail, and Collins delivers. I'd like to know how many copies are soggy from readers taking them to the shower because they couldn't put them down.
I also wonder if the books have any effect on teens' view of the future. Yes, I know—it's just a story. But powerful stories shape the way we think about intangibles like the future. For example, in 1887 Edward Bellamy published a utopian novel titled Looking Backward that inspired scores of "Bellamy Clubs" dedicated to realizing his depiction of better living through socialism. Nobody would want to realize Suzanne Collins' world, but it's safe to say that the unease felt by many adults is rubbing off on their children—who, if tradition holds, will blame the older generation for the lousy world they inherited. But why? In an age of unprecedented plenty, do the kids feel that deprived? With communication and creative capacities beyond the imagination of teens just two generations ago, do they feel that powerless?
To the degree that they think about it, I would say, yes. Their pessimism may be even deeper than ours, as church and family crumble and government swells and media benumbs them. The world of The Hunger Games shows one logical outcome of this state of affairs. Families still exist—but barely. The church appears to be dead and the state appears to be all-powerful. It's not giving too much away to say that the districts will eventually revolt, but the result is less than satisfying.
The good news is, some readers are thinking. Is government the answer? In this scenario, it's the problem, and the media its willing servant. Will a return to stable families save us? Not without an ideal of what a stable family looks like. Missing the transcendent law of a transcendent God, people don't know up from down. Key characters in The Hunger Games agonize over what's right and what's real. Those are the questions of youth: "Who will show us some good?" (Psalm 4:8). We know who can—and questions raised by the books and movie may open opportunities to point the way to Him.