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Unless you’ve been living in isolation without Internet access, you’ve probably seen posters and magazine covers everywhere, plastered with the unequivocally beautiful face of Jennifer Lawrence. The much anticipated film in which Lawrence stars, The Hunger Games, opened on March 23, earned over $150 million, in its first weekend, broke records, and blew up Tumblr with graphics and GIFs galore. The highly successful film franchise is based on the New York Times best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins—but you probably knew that as well.
Still, The Hunger Games is evidence that the life of a book can now extend from words on the page, beyond even a film, into a worldwide obsession. The 10-year span of the Harry Potter phenomenon created not only a successful book series but also a record-breaking film franchise that earned $6 billion in ticket sales—and that’s aside from its merchandising goldmine. The potential for rampant excitement over a book series has revamped the significance of the young adult novel, with Twilight following suit: The self-proclaimed “saga” of sparkling vampires has earned $2 billion from tween girls’ piggy banks. With the recent success and media proliferation following The Hunger Games, the emerging trend in popular literature poses the question: What makes a young adult book a smash success? And what does it say about our culture that a book is no longer enough entertainment?
Professor Alfred Guy, the director of the Yale College Writing Center and assistant dean of academic affairs, argues that The Hunger Games would not have reached its current level of success without Harry Potter’s influence. According to Guy, “If The Hunger Games had come out before Harry Potter, you probably wouldn’t have heard of it because Harry Potter changed the way people pay attention to young adult literature.” That franchise opened up a wider audience to young adult literature, as J.K. Rowling created “a landscape where people are looking to young adult literature as a place for teenagers and adults to have some narrative experience in common,” Guy says. Thanks to Harry Potter, adults became aware that young adult literature was no longer limited to The Baby-sitters Club.
The assumption that such best-selling books will become blockbusters is now expected. Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games films were released within three to four years of the books’ initial publications. Margaret Kaminski, a senior at Barnard and intern at Scholastic, claims this trend comes from those seeking to fill the void left by Harry Potter. “We’re all looking to relive the Harry Potter experience,” she says nostalgically. The magic that came from reading those books—which then became an entire world on screen—is ingrained in our generation’s minds, causing us to clamor for a new phenomenon.
It’s certainly interesting to note that the consumers of the gritty Hunger Games trilogy, the war-ridden Harry Potter series, and the less-than-feminist Twilight are both teens and adults—but Lauren Tarshis, a writer for children and an editor at Scholastic who graduated from Barnard in 1985, is hesitant to group the three series together, despite the seeming commonalities in their level of public appeal: “Twilight is sort of limited to women and girls, but what I think is so amazing about Harry Potter and The Hunger Games is how they cross gender lines and age lines.” Despite their respective fantasy or dystopian settings, Tarshis says, “these books have almost unbelievable universal appeal.”
The public reaction to The Hunger Games series has surprised many due to the books’ gruesome subject matter—but, in fact, the scathing social commentary of The Hunger Games was inspired by our own media-infused society. Collins was struck with the idea when flipping through the channels on her TV and seeing “images of reality television where young people were competing for a million dollars, and I was seeing footage of the Iraq war. These two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way,” she told Scholastic.
Despite—or perhaps because of—this disturbing premise, The Hunger Games books have garnered a huge following of all ages. Tarshis marvels at the success of these books, which comes “despite an uncompromisingly grim perspective on the deca- dence of our culture and war.” Guy argues that The Hunger Games exposes a sentiment that we have all had: a nagging sense that our society isn’t headed in the right direction. “By putting [media exposure] on such a grand, violent, political scale, Collins really tapped into some feeling that you had—you just haven’t seen it represented in this way,” he says. In this way, the series allows adults to live out their fears of our media-saturated generation. “Seeing teenagers caught up in [the violent games] is a way for us to experience our anxieties about you in a nar- rative form,” Guy says.
It’s clear that this series contains not only an endearing—if schmaltzy—love story but also a scath- ing perspective on our media-centered world. Don’t be fooled by the tweens sparring over “Team Peeta versus Team Gale” just as they did over Jacob and Edward of Twilight. The Hunger Games actually presents a more profound and melancholy outlook on modern society than Meyer’s.
Ironically, the Capitolism that is so reviled in the book is feeding its success in the real world. As an information-hungry generation yearning to fill the Harry Potter void, consumers of young adult literature now desire more: “In turning one of these books into a movie, there is just so much more information that you can get,” says Kaminski. “Once the book is done, it’s done. The fact that you can know more, do more, and read more relating to these fictional worlds is a unique experience to our generation.”
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