We drove up to the movie theater this weekend, my pre-teen in the passenger seat, this long-awaited date night to the Hunger Games becoming a reality. I've never seen more cars in the theater's parking lot. My eldest son is ironically who introduced me to the popular series. "You have to read these books, Mom. You have to read them." Juvenile fiction? I'll pass. I read big-girl books, thank you very much. He continued to beg. When my firstborn son said, "Mom, I'll babysit for you while you read the books" I quickly rethought my position. Free babysitting and book reading in the middle of the day? Surely I could force myself to make it through these books with such an attractive offer on the table.
Surprisingly, there was no forcing my way through the series. A few chapters in I was hooked. Teeth brushing, house cleaning, dinner? I could only vaguely remember what it was like to care about those daily parts of life once I was introduced to Katniss and Peeta.
I can't tell you how much sick enjoyment I get when people ask me what the books are about. "Oh you know...kids living in poverty, fighting to the death on a reality TV show for entertainment purposes. It's fantastic! You should read them!" Sounds horrifying, doesn't it? And it is. It definitely would be if kids killing kids is really what the books are about, but they aren't, and that's what makes this series brilliant. The deeper messages and how well they have been received are also what fill me with a lot of hope as a parent. As I read the books, Aaron would check on me every once in awhile. I hadn't brushed my hair in a week, so he mostly kept his distance, but when he would check in, I'd look up from my book and say something profound like, "Suzanne Collins is a freakin' genius."
After I finished reading the series, we sat around the dinner table one night. I asked our oldest son what he thought Collins is really trying to say in her books. What's the deeper messages? His response? "These are books about the rich using the poor for their own entertainment and greed." Aaron's jaw dropped. We were stunned when Anson began explaining how this is sort of like, "You know...fair trade chocolate, Mom. How we want cheap chocolate even if that means children are being abused, enslaved, and dying."
Only a literary work of art can use themes of violence and oppression to cause the reader to despise violence and oppression. Suzanne Collins does this beautifully in her books.
Last night we arrived at the movie theater an hour early. We bought our tickets days in advance. The line to get in the theater wrapped around the building. Arriving an hour early with tickets in our hands, 18 hours after the movie debuted, we found ourselves forced to sit on the fourth row of the theater. Standing in line and sitting in the packed theater, I felt too hopeful for my son's generation to be irritated about the wait or my neck ache.
Uncountable young people (and old people) will stand in line to watch The Hunger Games this weekend. The story of Katniss and Peeta will stir deep disgust towards The Capitol of Panem, a system of government built on fear, greed, intimidation, and lies. The audience will join Collins in mocking the residents of the Capitol, who are caught up in the latest, odd fashions, dressing their pets in people clothes, living wasteful lives, completely removed and unaware that outside their city the rest of the world suffers and barely survives. Readers and movie watchers will resent the Capitol residents for their flippant disregard for the struggles and pain of the people outside their city. My son, along with millions of American teenagers will feel intense anger towards the Capitol residents who coldly oppress and exploit the poor in order to maintain their lush lifestyle. The audience will root for Katniss and Peeta. They will cheer when these children of poverty and slavery rise up and tell their oppressors, "We will be free. You. Do. Not. Own. Us."
I've heard the Hunger Game haters say these books are vile and send a horrible message to young people. They are uncomfortable with the society Collins depicts. "It won't be long and this world could be as evil and inhumane as the world in the Hunger Games," they argue. To this I say, as long as innocent children are kidnapped and enslaved to make our chocolate and eight year olds are killing other eight year olds so that we can wear shiny rocks on our fingers, we are already living in the world of the Hunger Games. Welcome to Panem.
The plot of the Hunger Games is so moving, and the characters so easy to fall in love with (or hate), that Collins allows us to see ourselves in both the underdogs and the oppressors. Since these difficult topics are wrapped in well-written fiction, we feel safe and can explore these subjects without shame or judgement. Without shame, we are free to be open-minded about who we are in the story.
I have to believe our love for this series is rooted in the truth that we were created to hate oppression and love freedom. We were created to care deeply about human life, to love others like we love ourselves. Collins touches something human and deeply spiritual in each of us as we root for a world where Katniss and Peeta can live safe and free.
That long line of "young people" wrapped around the movie theater, waiting hours to get in to celebrate this story of peace, freedom, and justice may be one of the most hopeful moments I've had for my son's generation.