"The Hunger Games" movie had a multimillion-dollar weekend opening and seems destined to be the most successful film of the year. Which is remarkable because it's a political movie set in a not-too-distant America and expresses themes that are familiar and disturbing.
"The Hunger Games" was published in 2008, the first book of a trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. It imagines a post-apocalyptic America, "Panem," with an authoritarian central government set in "The Capitol." Inhabitants of the Capitol live a life of luxury while the rest of the citizens of Panem live in twelve slave colonies, "Districts," scattered across North America. Once a year the Capitol televises a great spectacle where two teenagers are selected by lottery from each district, brought to the Capitol, trained and groomed, and then transported to an arena for a battle where only one teenager can survive -- the games' slogan is, "May the odds be ever in your favor."
"The Hunger Games" heroine is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen who represents District 12. She supplements her family's diet by (illegal) bow hunting. Her archery talents protect her when the games begin.
"The Hunger Games" novel was targeted for young-adult readers -- there's violence but no sex -- and then crossed over to a larger audience. The "Hunger Games" movie grossed more than $155 million in its first weekend: 61 percent of moviegoers were women and 56 percent of ticketholders were over 25.
Unlike other recent blockbuster movies -- "Harry Potter," "The Dark Knight," and "Spiderman" -- "The Hunger Games" is set in a recognizable America and expresses themes from the contemporary zeitgeist.
The first is that things aren't going well. "The Hunger Games" is part of a wave of dystopian novels -- other examples are "Pure" and "Divergent" -- that are favorites with young-adult readers. The books assume an America that has been ravaged by nuclear war or an environmental calamity. This builds upon fear that the US is headed in the wrong direction -- in the most recent Gallup Poll 72 percent of respondents felt this way.
The second theme is that the central government cannot be trusted. In "The Hunger Games," President Coriolanus Snow, an autocrat, governs the Capitol, which controls the twelve districts by means of a ruthless police force. In addition to forced-labor camps, Panem utilizes extensive electronic surveillance, and during the period of the games, compulsory television viewing. This reflects the belief the US government cannot be trusted. Those on the right believe the Federal government has been usurped by "socialists" and gotten too big. Those on the left believe the Federal government has been bought by plutocrats and isn't doing anything to protect workers. Many Americans believe there is too much government intrusion into our private lives.
The third "Hunger Games" theme is that government no longer works for all the people. There's a small group that lives a life of privilege while most people struggle to fend off starvation. Collins doesn't use the terms 1 percent and 99 percent, but it's clear that those in the Capitol are members of the 1 percent and everyone in the Panem districts is part of the 99 percent.