The Hunger Games can be described in many ways. It’s captivating. It’s haunting. It’s affecting. It’s terrifying.
It’s also unquestionably American.
According to Entertainment Weekly, “Internationally, The Hunger Games isn’t yet the franchise-launching blockbuster that it is Stateside.” As of last weekend (April 15), the film had grossed $337.1 million domestically but had yet to pass the $200 million mark internationally.
This disparity can be attributed to many causes, but I think it all boils down to one point: The Hunger Games is a distinctly American story. It reflects the uniquely American mythology of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Lucas’s Star Wars. While Suzanne Collins surely meant for her novel to be enjoyed and analyzed by an international audience, she speaks directly to Americans with every turn of the page.
The basic premise of The Hunger Games points directly to two American obsessions: violence and youth. Never before have these two quintessentially American fascinations been linked in such a brutally direct way.
We are a country that is enamored with violence. We were born as a nation through the violence of war, and the right to bear arms is part of our Constitution. As a culture, we worship superheroes and the vigilante lawmen of old Westerns—two character types that are known for their use of violent force to serve justice.
We are also getting more and more desensitized to violence in our media, which is something that Collins directly critiques in The Hunger Games*. Like Fitzgerald did with Gatsby, Collins uses her novel to hold up a mirror to American society, and what’s reflected back isn’t pretty. This story resonates so strongly with Americans because we can see just how quickly we could slip from the society we have now to the society of Panem. The Hunger Games makes us reflect on how easily our love for TV shows like Fear Factor could descend into the mindset that makes the Games possible—a mindset that puts entertainment over empathy.
The Hunger Games is a story about violence, but it’s also a story about the most basic of all American desires: the innocence of youth. America as a nation is fixated on all that is new. Age and experience are seen as less valuable in America than youth and innocence. Our national mythology is filled with young heroes—from Huckleberry Finn to Luke Skywalker. We are still a young country, and, as such, we see our national identity reflected in the purity of these young heroes.
The Hunger Games depicts children stripped of their innocence, forced to kill one another as the rest of the nation watches. This would be a horrifying premise for people in any country, but it strikes a unique chord in America, a nation that reveres innocence so deeply. Collins imagines a future in which we have fallen so far as a nation that we feel no horror in seeing children not only lose their lives but lose their innocence by taking each other’s lives; in fact, we cheer and celebrate over this loss of innocence. The Hunger Games uses America’s obsession with youth to criticize our national appetite for spectacle and violence. Collins’s story would not have resonated with us so strongly nor disturbed us so greatly if it were adults fighting in the Hunger Games rather than children.
The death scenes for all of the young Tributes in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games perfectly encapsulate the interplay between innocence and violence in Collins’s story. This is especially true of the opening bloodbath at the Cornucopia, which director Gary Ross shot with a genius mixture of restraint and realism.
The most fascinating death scene in the film – in terms of what it says about children and violence in The Hunger Games – belongs to the Tribute Cato. This teenager is part of the Careers, Tributes that are trained from an early age to become brutal killers in the hope of winning the Hunger Games and bringing pride to their district. During the Games, the audience sees Cato as a villain, slaughtering many of the other children in the arena. Cato’s death could have felt like a cause for celebration as Peeta and Katniss are seemingly left as the victors after his demise, but the script poignantly reminds viewers that Cato is simply another child whose innocence was taken from him by the Capitol along with his life:
“I can still do this. One more kill. It’s the only thing I know how to do, bring pride to my district. Not that it matters.”
Cato was a child that was turned into a killing machine in order to bring pride to his family and his district. He was only a boy who was literally raised for the slaughter and to cause the deaths of other children along the way. The society of Panem is guilty of more than just killing children for entertainment. Cato’s story shows us that it’s also guilty of killing the innocence of children by turning them into murderers before they die at each other’s hands. In the American literary tradition, there is no greater crime than the destruction of innocence, and this scene makes such destruction real, visceral, and horrifying.
Every culture has their own mythology, their own stories of heroes to pass from one generation to the next. In America, those heroes are defined by certain characteristics unique to our national cultural identity: They are fundamentally new types of people in their society; they come from nothing to achieve success; they are at home in nature or open space; and they are loners until they find a cause or group of people to fight for.
Katniss Everdeen is a truly American hero. She is a new breed of Tribute in the Hunger Games, one who isn’t willing to play by the Capitol’s rules, one who beats the system that is supposed to break her. Katniss’s rise to power and prominence comes straight from the pages of a Horatio Alger novel; she was born into brutal poverty in District 12 and suddenly becomes a celebrity after she volunteers for her sister at the Reaping. However, Katniss despises playing the prim and proper Cinderella figure in the Capitol. She hates the city and longs for the wilderness. Katniss is a child of the woods, the “fresh green breast of a new world,” that Fitzgerald wrote about in Gatsby.
Katniss does not go on a heroic quest like the heroes of other cultures’ myths. She only wants to stay alive and to keep those closest to her safe. She is an ordinary girl thrust into the role of hero simply by being herself; she is no “Chosen One” like Harry Potter. Katniss is simply a poor girl who stands up to a corrupt society, and that is very much an American heroic archetype as old as the Revolutionary War itself.
The Hunger Games is a film and a book that is meant to resonate with all people, but there is no denying that it directly reflects the culture and values of the country that it came from. Through its disturbing mixture of children, violence, and the media, it is meant to strike a very specific chord with its American audience. Katniss is a hero straight out of our literary past; Panem is a frightening look at what could be our future. The Hunger Games goes straight to the heart of America’s cultural identity to scare us, to shock us, and to make us think.
It’s an American story, and America is listening.
*For the purpose of this post, I will only be talking about the first book/film in the series. Stay tuned for more thoughts on the rest of the series because I have lots of them!