The movie version of Suzanne Collins' 2008 book (the first in a trilogy of novels about a long counterinsurgency campaign, the costs it exacts, its moral traps, and the political use of violence) just hit theaters this weekend.
"Hunger Games" tells the story of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a country called Panem. She is a resident of District 12, the poor coal-mining remnant of Appalachia. There used to be a District 13, but it and its residents were destroyed 74 years ago after the districts rebelled against the central government in the Capitol. As punishment, each district has since then been required to send a girl and a boy every year to the Capitol city as “tributes.” The tributes are dressed up, paraded, and put in the "games", where they are forced to kill the other participants to ensure their survival. All money and luxury has been centralized in the Capitol, so winning the game (aside from survival) is important for getting more resources for your district. The children’s participation in the killing is designed to reinforce both the powerlessness of the districts and their role in supporting the central government.
In a New Yorker piece by Amy Davidson, Collins is quoted as saying she got the idea for the books from switching channels and seeing images of both the Iraq war and reality shows. Indeed, a fair number of the characters are broken by their own violent acts.
But aside from the various elements that make the books popular among adolescents, Davidson sees a larger social context at play. America has been at war for a decade now; is it really a coincidence that the biggest movie of the year is the first in a trilogy in which torture, terror, asymmetric warfare, and the manipulation of public opinion all play a role?