The Hunger Games has sold 26 million copies and is the first young-adult book to sell a million copies on Kindle. When it was released in theaters on March 23, the film version broke box office records for a new non-sequel release.
People who know only the basic plot are asking why the series is so popular. The Hunger Games is, after all, a dark story set in a post-apocalyptic future, featuring 24 teenagers who are released into the wild with a mandate to kill or be killed until just one is left standing.
Like characters in reality TV, these killer teens are televised for the entertainment of an elite and pampered audience. A game master introduces dramatic elements - forest fires, mutant attack dogs - to keep the games exciting. Bets are placed on winners and losers, and sponsorships are provided for the audience's favorite teenage warriors.
These gladiatorial games are the invention of a tyrannical government that seeks to suppress any attempted uprisings within a war-ravaged North America, where the hard labor of citizens on the outskirts sustain the pampered lifestyle of the capital city.
The Hunger Games books are wildly popular - and controversial. The American Library Association ranks it fifth on the list of most banned books for 2010, mostly because of parental complaints that the books are sexually explicit and violent.
Author Suzanne Collins said she conceived of The Hunger Games one night as she flipped television channels from teenagers on a reality TV to teenagers serving in the Iraqi war. She couldn't shake this jarring juxtaposition.
So does the popularity of The Hunger Games offer good news for those of us concerned about American civilization and the younger generation? I say yes, for a few reasons.
First, The Hunger Games is a morality tale that's being devoured by a generation raised on situation ethics. The cynical citizens of the capital say, "May the odds be ever in your favor" about a game in which the odds are 24 to 1 that you will be killed. Neither Katniss Everdeen the heroine, nor Peeta Mellark, her teammate, want to take human life, and as the last two survivors, both seek an alternative to killing the other. In the end, both eschew their self-interests by helping each other.
Second, The Hunger Games celebrates the heroic efforts of a few who inspire hope for the many. Like the young Theseus in Greek mythology, who overthrew decadent political and religious powers to establish Athens, underdogs Katniss and Peeta set out to beat the system. They raise hope in the enslaved districts and concerns in the capital. President Snow warns the game master, "Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous."
Third, The Hunger Games is a searing, angry commentary that exposes our entertainment culture as a diversion from the injustices and superficiality of contemporary life. Like Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," The Hunger Games reveals the dark side of a society whose minds and consciences are numbed by amusements. Before it collapsed, the Roman Empire offered the spectacle of humans killing humans in Coliseums. Ironically The Hunger Games movie puts viewers in the stands of today's Coliseum, the movie theater, as we are amused by a story about a sick culture whose entertainment mirrors our own. As one character says, "If no one watches, then they don't have a game."
Finally, The Hunger Games is a love story for a generation trying to distinguish between love and friendship. "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and now "The Hunger Games" each feature a triangle of friends in which friendship and romance become intertwined, and the central character must make a choice for love. It's all juvenile fiction, but it makes you think. The themes are big, and dark and the stakes are high -- something like real life.