Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the penultimate Hunger Games movie.Murray Close/Lionsgate

Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the penultimate Hunger Games movie.Murray Close/Lionsgate

Not long ago, a friend told me, he tried an online-dating service

Not long ago, a friend told me, he tried an online-dating service for the first time. His initial encounter with the lady computer-chosen for him was not going well until he mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing the first Hunger Games: Mockingjay film when it opened last month. “As soon as I said that, the whole conversation took off. We’d both read all The Hunger Games books and seen the first two movies as soon as they came out; it was as if that gave us a kind of deep access to each other’s feelings that I for one had never experienced meeting someone for the first time.”

Nothing extraordinary about that? I found it so, because my friend is in his 50s and the lady in question is in her late 30s. And Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels were labeled as “young adult” (or YA) fiction when they were published between 2008 and 2010 by Scholastic Press (of Harry Potter fame), coincidentally during the height of the Great Recession and its discontents.

These days it’s not unheard-of to see fictions bearing a narrow genre label—children’s literature, fantasy/sci-fi, and the like—break out of their ghettos into a broader market. But their authors rarely earn the mainstream respect that so-called “serious fiction” routinely gets. Despite their remarkable commercial success, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books remain firmly stuck in their vampire/romance genre. And nobody ruminates on the implications for modern society of the Harry Potter saga. But the Hunger Games books have received almost universal praise from reviewers from their first publication, as well as a readership that totally defies the demographic limits suggested by the YA rubric.

I find this all the more

surprising because Collins started in the entertainment business writing for children’s TV. Only after a subsequent decade of workmanlike success in the world of kid-lit did she take on the challenge of young-adult fiction, with absolutely unprecedented results.

If you are already familiar with the Hunger Games books and movies (and if you’ve read the books, you’ve almost certainly seen the movies, set to conclude next fall with Mockingjay Part 2), their popularity with audiences of all ages is self-explanatory. If you’ve not yet been exposed to Collins’ gritty fantasia on themes of poverty, oppression, and media exploitation, you may find it hard to understand why an audience ranging from bright 10-year-olds to their grandparents is reading such a sad, dispiriting, dystopian tale.

Set in an alternate (or future?) North America in which 12 “Districts” full of grinding poverty are ruled by a “Capitol” city of grandiose luxury and excess, the titular Games are in fact a televised battle to the death among children, one of each sex chosen by lot from each of the subject Districts. For the privileged citizens of the Capitol, the games function like those the later emperors mounted for plebes of Rome; for the Districts, they are an annual reminder of the Capitol’s power to destroy anyone moved to rebel against its dominion (hint: That’s the plot of the final movie).

It’s a curious world by any standard. The technological level of the country of Panem seems to be arrested at about the mid-19th-century: after steam and electricity, but before oil and automobiles. The districts appear to operate on a sort of Dust Bowl/Appalachia subsistence economy, each defined by the raw material they produce to feed the appetites of the sybaritic Capitol.

So far, it’s not unfamiliar dystopian terrain: a little 1984, a little Brave New World. Collins’ big innovation in the formula is the role media plays in it. The games are not only televised; the unwilling contestants are also turned into glittering primped and prepped icons, lionized on a monstrously fatuous talk-show—the creepily genial host played in the films by Stanley Tucci—before being dumped into the arena to slaughter one another. Surely this dystopia is the first to feature as a principal character the personal stylist charged with turning the scruffy 16-year-old heroine into a diva worthy of Dancing With the Stars.

That heroine, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movies), hails from the impoverished coal-mining District 12. She tells her own story in the Hunger Games books in a relentless first-person present tense that reflects her often painful and gruesome life. (The movies have had to elide much to maintain a PG-13 rating.)

The overall grimness is heightened rather than softened by the “romantic complications” of Katniss’ two male admirers; both become pawns, if not sacrifices, in the Games’ life-and-death machinations. The reader knows that Katniss isn’t going to die, since she’s the narrator. But that’s about the only concession Collins makes: The all-powerful Capitol has already crushed one rebellion, and there’s little hope for another in the second half of Mockingjay.

Hope, not faith. Collins’ books are remarkable for their complete absence of religion or any other form of spirituality. This is an iron world, where cruelty is the norm and death the only escape from it.

So why on Earth do people find it so compelling? Why have they bought over 30 million copies of the books (nearly half of those in ebook form)? Why are they on the way to spending $3-plus billion (to date) to see it realized in such faithfully disagreeable detail on film?

Every so often, a work of art strikes a note that resonates so clearly that it becomes part of the way a society thinks about itself. Sometimes, rarely, it incites demonstrable changes in the public realm. French historians trace the origins of the revolution of 1830 to performances of Auber’s 1828 grand opera La muette de Portici. Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 novel The Jungle to expose the dire conditions of immigrant labor in early 20th-century industry. Within a year the Pure Food and Drug Act, the foundation of today’s public-health law, was passed by Congress.

Similarly, Collins’ baroque parable diagnoses a national mood of privation, class resentment, and anger. Forty years of growing income inequality have perfectly primed the ire of her readers, regardless of age. Baby boomers have seen their middle-class standing slip away; millennials never knew it.

Still, The Hunger Games’ implicit call to revolution has little chance of inspiring real-world rebellion. Its world is too simplistic, its allegory too diffuse to suggest even an outline for concrete dissent. But it has already become part of the mental furniture of diverse readers and filmgoers.

Some may find parallels with the supposedly corrupt and imperial presidency of Obama; others may point to the red states’ poor white electorate, tricked by a corporate elite into voting themselves poorer. Katniss can be a heroine for both camps.

Literature in the narrow sense the Hunger

Games series is not. But a significant reflection of the zeitgeist? Unconditionally. Never mind right-wing or left-wing; don’t bother trying to identify either Bush or Obama with the Games’ villainous President Snow. Like the youths sacrificed to the Minotaur in the Greek story of Theseus and the labyrinth, the hapless children of Collins’ tale, plangent emblems of displacement and loss, stand outside mere time and place on the plane of myth.

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