Serious themes for young adults sets The Hunger Games apart

Cast – Elizabeth Banks (L-R), Liam Hemsworth, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson – and director Gary Ross at the premiere of The Hunger Games in Germany. EPA/BRITTA PEDERSEN

The film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games, will premiere nationally tomorrow. The books and film are set in a post-apocalyptic America, where teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death. The whole saga is broadcast to a television audience.

Young-adult literature expert Dr Sue Page, from the University of South Australia, explains the attraction of the series and dismisses some of the risks such content poses for young minds.

What is the readership of The Hunger Games?

Like quite a few young adult novels, it has a huge appeal for a general audience. So it’s published for a teenage audience but is actually read by a lot of adults as well.

What do you think attracts people to the themes of these books and the film?

This is the story of a powerless person put in a situation requiring her to make extraordinary decisions. She is resourceful and becomes increasingly powerful. The trilogy is also about relationships – with friends and romantic partners – and family responsibilities versus social responsibilities in a broader sense.

The Hunger Games is the first of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy. Scholastic Inc./Flickr

And there’s always the appeal of adventure, of conflict between people and the environment, and of conflict against government.

What’s more, the protagonist is conflicted within herself in terms of how she feels about people and how she feels about the prospect of having to kill somebody.

There’s a lot of drama in the stories and it’s fast moving. Dystopic settings are also very popular at present.

How do you expect people will react to the idea of teenagers fighting to the death?

I think the way the government is using teenagers is one of the appealing aspects of the story. The anti-authoritarian theme is very strong in a lot of adolescent minds.

And the fact that it’s set up as reality television show is something that readers can identify with. They see the nastiness and the game-playing on all kinds of reality television shows already and this takes it to the next level.

It’s not just about who loses the most weight or wins a cooking competition, we’re talking about ways of keeping groups within society down, so that power can be held centrally. And I think a lot of young people feel disenfranchised and that things aren’t within their control.

The story highlights how we enjoy watching other people suffer. Do you think this holds some truth?

In a general sense, that’s what a lot of reality shows are designed to do. The development of conflict provides drama to viewers.

Would you say people enjoy this sort of drama purely as entertainment or on a deeper psychological level?

I think the way in which different groups react to what’s being shown is quite important. People who live in the city, for instance, don’t have to sacrifice their children for The Hunger Games so they see it as pure entertainment. The way people in many of the provinces see it is completely different, because it affects them in a different way.

The author indirectly encourages young people to look at what happens in reality shows, and to realise that they aren’t necessarily reality. It’s all stage managed and participants don’t necessarily know that people behind the scenes set things up - change the game rules and the rest of it.

Is Suzanne Collins is trying to send a message about the construction of reality television shows?

I think all kinds of fiction make us think about society, the people around us, and the way we deal with the world. And I think science fiction does this more directly sometimes than general or contemporary fiction.

Do you think there are negative implications for younger people reading or watching The Hunger Games because of violence?

No, I don’t. Violence has been part of drama and fiction since the start of history. It’s not a new thing, and it’s not a new thing for young people either. There’s a history of books depicting violence written specifically for a young audience, such as The Outsiders (1965) by S.E Hinton, which is about gang violence.

Film poster for The Hunger Games. Film_Poster/Flickr

I don’t think there’s any concern about people reading or even possibly watching this kind of violence, which is only one aspect of the story anyway. Especially as it’s not particularly graphic in the book. A lot of the deaths we learn about with faces appearing on giant screens every night, but we don’t actually read how they took place.

I think Suzanne Collins has done a good job at giving people a bit of a barrier between what’s happening and what she’s showing. The fact that we’re seeing everything unfold through the protagonist’s eyes as opposed to the eyes of the stage managers, who would be seeking the violence, helps us participate in her revulsion of the violence. Other tools include the language used and who instigates the violence.

The Hunger Games balances out much of its violence as well – through the care shown to family and friends; the protection of other competitors and working together; and the growing knowledge about what’s actually happening and how they’re being manipulated.

All of these things well and truly counteract any possible influence of violence. I hope that the film manages to keep the tension and drama without losing the focus on other aspects.

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