Breaking North American box office records and winning over audiences and critics alike last weekend was the movie adaptation of the first part of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling teen science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games. The movie has inevitably been compared with the 2000 Japanese hit movie Battle Royale, where a former high school teacher, at the behest of the Japanese government, kidnaps his former ninth grade class and forces them to kill each other on a remote island until only one is left standing.
In the dystopian The Hunger Games, after a holocaust has wiped out most of North America, the prosperous metropolis Capitol enslaves and starves 12 surrounding districts. Each year, for 75 years now, as a way to both entertain the masses as well as remind them of their failed rebellion and subjugation, the Capitol organizes the Hunger Games circus, where two teenagers from each district must compete in a “Battle Royale” last-man-standing scenario.
Some adults have observed that the Hunger Games’ immense popularity among adults and teenagers is linked in part to its publication date: 2008, when the sub-prime crisis hit and Lehman Brothers collapsed, ultimately leading to the birth of the Occupy movement. But while that helps explain its enduring appeal among adults, it doesn’t explain its appeal among teenagers.
To understand that, it’s important to note that the Hunger Games trilogy has many antecedents: the books of Roald Dahl, the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and other cultural works held deep in the hearts of children for articulating their deep distrust and disgust of the adult world’s obsession with power, and especially with what Holden Caulfield famously called “phoniness.” Indeed, in the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy (spoiler alert!), the heroine Katniss Everdeen, after having survived two battles to the death because of her purity and resolve, becomes a pawn in a power struggle that could ultimately wipe out humanity.
In many ways, the closest comparison to the Hunger Games isn’t Battle Royale, but Orson Scott Card’s science fiction series Ender’s Game, where a boy prodigy is manipulated by adults into wiping out an alien species: both are terribly written and plotted out to the angst and disgust of adults, and both capture the imagination of teenagers because it articulates in their terms their angst and disgust with adults.
And this mutual angst and disgust is natural and healthy, as Judith Rich Harris so convincingly argues in The Nurture Assumption. For decades, both psychologists and parents believed they mattered to teenagers’ development, when in fact evolution endowed teenagers with enough imagination, resilience, and empathy to survive in a world without adults as long as they had each other. It doesn’t matter if children listen to Mozart or are taken to the museum on weekends, if they’re an only child or if their parents are divorced – but it does matter to their social, intellectual, and emotional development if they are given the space to develop and maintain a close circle of friends.
And, for a variety of reasons, our children are being given less time to be children and to associate with other children. In fact, modern day parents in many parts of the world have developed a paranoia about protecting their child from other children.
The antithesis of the Hunger Games, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, so eloquently encapsulates the adult fear of the brutality of the teenage mind that it’s a pity it’s not true: If you strand a group of teenagers on an island, no matter where they came from, they would learn to help each other. In fact, psychologists have discovered that if you put a group of teenagers who don’t speak the same language together they quickly develop a new pidgin language to communicate with each other – and to do so would require a level of trust and co-operation among teenagers that, judging from the way we regulate our schools, we adults had always assumed they weren’t capable of.
The Nurture Assumption’s message to psychologists and parents is so right it’s unnerving: Leave the kids alone, and they’ll still do fine without us.
So what’s neither natural nor healthy is how across the world we adults have institutionalized supervision and control over every corner of our children’s lives that was thought neither desirable nor possible a generation ago. In both America and China, parents circle over their children as they do homework or play soccer or go on “playdates” with their carefully vetted friends, and quarrel with their teachers over their children’s grades and their coaches over playing time.
America’s version of the Hunger Games is the Ivy League admissions game, and China’s version of the Hunger Games is the national college entrance examination or gaokao system. In all these zero-sum last-man-standing games, teenagers deprive themselves of sleep, friendship, and compassion in order to please and entertain the adults who supposedly love them most, but who instead are fixated on winning bets and bragging rights within their social networks.
In the Hunger Games, the Capitol cannibalizes the youth of the surrounding districts to deprive them of the nourishment of hope and a sense of the future – the endless possibilities and the regenerative spirit that the young represent. The Capitol is both rational and honest about why it cannibalizes the world’s youth like that.
But we are neither. So now, do we begin to understand why teenagers around the world love the Hunger Games so much?