Even if you’re not much of a reader or moviegoer, you’ve heard of The Hunger Games. It’s up there with Harry Potter and Twilight as one of the most successful books of the past decade. The movie has been a hit as well, having earned–at a staggering $67.3 million–the highest single day gross for a non-sequel film ever.
That’s $67.3 million in one day, folks. Better than most films do in a year. The film’s opening weekend gross, domestically, was $152.5 million, the third-largest opening weekend of all time after The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part II. Not to mention the book has sold millions of copies and was translated into 26 languages.
Here are what I consider to be the five main reasons for the story’s success.
1. Katniss is an extremely sympathetic character who manages to be compassionate without being weak. We humans are naturally attracted to individuals strong enough to survive under the most grueling conditions, yet compassionate enough to help those who need it. We feel we can depend on them should things get really bad. Katniss is one of those people. She risks execution so she can hunt for meat, and adds her name in exchange for “tesserae,” thus increasing her chances of being selected for the Reaping, all so she can feed her starving family. When her little sister gets selected instead, Katniss volunteers to take her place, virtually ensuring a gruesome death for herself. And yet she never complains or tries to escape her suffering through denial, like her mother, who zoned out after her husband’s death and left Katniss with all the responsibility for the family.
2. The story uses the “arena” model. If you’re a fan of sports, or enjoyed the movie Gladiator, this should make perfect sense. The Hunger Games is based on a premise that is incredibly easy to grasp. A bunch of kids are put into an arena and forced to kill each other until one is left standing. It’s one of the most basic forms of entertainment, going back to the Ancient Romans and beyond. Violent arena battles have always appealed to the masses, even now with sporting events like the Superbowl. It’s even better when you have a team to root for, or a hero that you care about, like Katniss (see #1).
3. The political theme of the underdog. Class oppression is a major theme in THG, and Katniss is the picture-perfect underdog; she’s poor, starving, responsible for a family that can’t take care of itself. Her necessity forces her to add her name to the Reaping several times in exchange for tesserae, something the wealthier families don’t have to do. Not to mention the bureaucrats in the Capitol that keep the revolutionary fervor of their citizens down by forcing their kids to kill each other on TV. It’s terrifying stuff. After all of this background is revealed, we’re practically begging for an underdog to come along and stick it to the man. And that’s exactly what happens.
4. There is a powerful love story beneath all that blood. Katniss is highly desirable, as we can see from the intensity of Gale and Peeta’s devotion toward her. Within the games themselves, Peeta becomes her boyfriend and the two of them nearly commit lovers’ suicide to avoid having to kill each other. As we all know from the success of Romeo and Juliet, there is nothing more romantic than two enamored teenagers contemplating suicide so they won’t have to give each other up. The romance also adds an element of loyalty and friendship that provides welcome relief from the non-stop violence of the arena. (Another relationship that adds this kind of relief is the bond between Katniss and Rue). The Hunger Games would not have been as successful without these heartwarming elements because otherwise half the book/movie is nothing but people slaughtering each other. This is probably the reason Battle Royale, predecessor to The Hunger Games, was not as successful in the US.
5. A happy ending. No, I won’t give away the ending (for those of you who haven’t read the book, haven’t seen the movie, and haven’t left your parents’ basement for the past three years). But I will say that The Hunger Games, both the movie and the book, have extremely satisfying, albeit predictable, endings that leave enough unresolved plot threads to warrant one or more sequels (which is exactly what happened. See Catching Fire and Mockingjay). I do not think THG, especially the film version, would be enjoying such widespread popularity if Katniss had died a heroic death at the end while cursing the oppressive government of Panem (though that would have been cool, too, in its own way).
What do you think?