The Hunger Games: Post-Apocalypse Now For Young Adults

The revolution will be televised. So will the post-apocalyptical fight to feed ourselves on a ruined planet.

Those are two key themes of the wildly popular YA trilogy that begins with The Hunger Games, whose movie version comes out this week. The trailer gives the key plot points:

After what seems to be a climate-driven apocalypse, Panem, “the country that rose up out of the ashes of the place it was once called North America,” is divided into a Capitol and 12 districts, who launched a failed revolution many decades earlier.

The annual Hunger Games are televised and the rules are simple:

In punishment for the uprising, each of the 12 districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes to participate. The twenty-four tributes  will be imprisoned in the vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

The winner “receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” all year round.

This is “Bread and Circuses” combined — by design — since that famous phrase comes from the Latin panem et circenses (also “bread and games”).

The books have sold some 10 million copies globally — and the author, Suzanne Collins, is the “best-selling Kindle author of all time.” They are a shrewd combination of standard YA fare — another love triangle between a girl and two boys … really? — and pop-culture riffs.  You have the extreme version of reality shows like American Idol and Survivor.  You have the young girl who reluctantly grows into a ferocious killer, which started with Buffy and Nikita (if you have to ask…) and now seems to be found in almost every other movie.

The books also had some fortunate timing for the author in terms of catching the zeitgeist, since perhaps the core theme is the 99% (the 12 districts) vs. the 1% (Capitol), the poor and underfed vs. the rich and overfed.

I try to stay on top of the latest in post-apocalypse pop culture, mainly because there has been so little of it in recent years — see Apocalypse Not: The Oscars, The Media And The Myth of ‘Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages’ on Climate. And when I heard the most popular new YA book series was built around food insecurity, I couldn’t resist. After all, as I’ve written in the journal Nature, “Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.”

The Hunger Games makes that challenge a literal and hyper-violent one. But like much (though not all) post-apocalyptic fiction, the book spends exceedingly little time actually explaining to anyone how we got in this mess.

Indeed, after reading all 3 books, I find only one sentence devoted to explaining what caused the apocalypse:

[The mayor]  tells of the history of Panem. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts…”

Sounds a lot like global warming, though the books do not flesh out what happened.

Clearly this is the distant future, given that this is the 74th Hunger Games and some of the technology is well beyond anything we could imagine today.

Somewhat oddly, though, as one fan site explains, Everdeen’s home is the “coal mining” district:

Coal Mining – This district is described as being in the area formerly known as Appalachia. The district is also pretty compact compared to some others with a population of just 8,000 people. There is one big clue to where district 12 might be, that we don’t get from reading the book, but from listening to Suzanne Collins read it. She reads Katniss with a southern accent.

Only 8,000 in Appalachia. The 99% ain’t what they used to be. Still, you’d think we’d be off of coal in the 22nd century!

Here’s one fan map:

My Hunger Games - Panem Map

Okay, well, the underwater parts don’t quite match up to plausible realities, even with melting out all the Earth’s ice and the subsequent 250-foot sea level rise. But hey, this ain’t hard science fiction.

Interestingly, the UK Telegraph wrote last week that there is a new trend in YA fiction:

The Hunger Games and the teenage craze for dystopian fiction

Wizards and vampires are out. The market in teen fiction is dominated now by societies in breakdown. And it’s girls who are lapping them up.

Many parents might feel worried on finding their teenage children addicted to grim visions of a future in which global warming has made the seas rise, the earth dry up, genetically engineered plants run riot and humans fight over the last available scraps of food. Yet with the arrival of the film of the first book of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games this month, dystopia for teenagers has hit an all-time high in public consciousness.

Well, as I’ve said, there is precious little global warming in this book. Not that a book centered around global warming would be easy to make work as fiction, since climate change plays out relatively slowly from a narrative perspective.

In the Telegraph piece, Amanda Craig, “novelist and children’s fiction critic,” works to explain the popularity:

… the new wave of dystopian fiction gives the perfect excuse for why, despite being desperately in love, the protagonists can’t have sex: as Meg Rosoff says, “in a survivalist love affair, you don’t have to worry about having a boyfriend or what clothes you’re wearing, because you’re saving the world”…. Imagining that you’re living in a place in which millions have starved to death (The Hunger Games), been drowned by melting ice-caps (Julie Bertagna’s Exodus), been killed off as surplus because eternal youth has been discovered (Gemma Malley’s The Declaration) or been dried up due to climate change (Moira Young’s Blood Red Road) does tend to make fears about having spots and tests less terrifying….

Katniss pretends to be in love with her fellow contestant Peeta in order to manipulate the millions watching them on TV. She fights back against the expectations of Panem’s totalitarian regime by pretending to conform. Again, my daughter and her friends find this appealing in an age in which boys’ attitudes to them have been warped by internet pornography.

Katniss is the kind of strong teenage heroine we were all waiting for,” one put it. “We had Hermione in Harry Potter and Lyra in His Dark Materials as children. If you’ve got a brain, vampires suck.” “Girls aren’t waiting to be saved any more,” Malley says. “They have strong moral compasses, and unlike male protagonists, they have insight into why they are as they are. If you go into schools now, you see teenage girls who are sparky and who think for themselves. Dystopia enables them to have big adventures but it’s also about creating strong characters whom readers care about.”

Warning to parents of tweens: These book are entertaining for sure, with a well-drawn heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who grows during the course of the books, fights against injustice, and ultimately triumphs. On the other hand, they are hyperviolent and by the end Everdeen has become a super-jaded and cold-blooded killer. Yes, Everdeen has “catness,” the 9 lives of the survivor, since she survives more attempts on her life than Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne or James Bond have. But she becomes every bit the killer that the JBs do.

Supposedly the movie will be true to the violence of the books, since they are “co-written and co-produced by Collins herself,” which means they will be quite intense. I’ll let you know.

41 Responses to The Hunger Games: Post-Apocalypse Now For Young Adults

  1. Anderlan says:

    Climate Dystopia is unavoidable. Carbon dioxide begets warming begets more carbon dioxide. With the highest level in 15 million years, we are NOT going to be able to reverse current concentrations. And we won’t stabilize them, either, because nature will continue on upward.

    Nature will not raise the concentration nearly as fast as we would have, so it’s insanity not to stop our contribution to the problem, but the inertial path toward Jurassic conditions or worse will be locked in. The only thing we’ll be able to do is geo-engineer our home, with short term or unpredictable and totally unnatural effects.

    Our world will never be what it could have had we wizened up earlier, it will be completely different!

  2. But Joe, don’t you think there’s something friggin’ wrong when young adults need to read a work of dystopian fiction to even learn something about famine and inequality?

    Why aren’t they already learning what they need to know through non-fiction sources? And will they really learn anything about how to understand or fix our current problems by watching a movie?

    — frank

  3. Gail Zawacki says:

    It’s worth watching Taylor’s Swift’s music video for the movie, Safe & Sound, and look at what the inadvertently captured is happening to the forest in the background ALREADY. A real forest, in Tennessee:

  4. Jen says:

    I’m not sure how new this phenomenon is. For what it’s worth, my dystopian heroines when I was 11 years old were Ellen Ripley, Newt and the other female characters of James Cameron’s ALIENS.

  5. fj says:

    Yes, we have our visions of dystopias and battles against impossible odds; perhaps, for a change, we might benefit from visions of utopias with intense travails exhilaratingly impossible.

  6. Ezra says:

    Why is she making the sign of the Boy Scouts?

    Also, on that map, apparently Mt Whitney, Mt Shasta, Mt Hood, and Mt Rainier are all underwater, but the states of Mississippi and Alabama are basically still fine?

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Sorry but the trailer doesn’t cut it for me. Looks a bit like a pseudo remake of Bladerunner?

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Another movie on the top of my soon to be watched list is “Take Shelter”

  9. Raul M. says:

    Would storm frequency qualify as essentially underwater?
    Severe and numerous hurricanes might be as well to not be there at all.

  10. Frank J. says:

    Theseus and the Cranes as the tribute bull dancers in Crete come to mind as archetypes.

  11. EDpeak says:

    “But Joe, don’t you think there’s something friggin’ wrong when young adults need to read a work of dystopian fiction to even learn something about famine and inequality? Why aren’t they already learning what they need to know through non-fiction sources?”

    Well put, but let’s broaden the point. To his credit we have Romm’s “Warning to parents of tweens” but why isn’t it “Warning to all human beings not already completely jaded and numbed by the ever-present violence in our world and in our media”?

    So let’s broaden’s Frank’s question, why, if the goals are positive things like promotign climate awareness and independence from authority and from gender/cultural mores, why then is the films to watch or make or, frankly, to be featured on this blog, one which is of this nature: “hyperviolent and by the end Everdeen has become a super-jaded and cold-blooded killer”? We have all lost our minds, our morals, our compass, we are a civilization gone mad, and even the progressive contrarians to this mad culture of violence find themselves blogging to promote, a film whose “heros” and whose “feminism” and “rebellion” against authority turn out to be being a cold-blooded killer? Dog Bites Man story, dime a dozen film, find the rare exception that makes the case without adding to the cultural degeneration. “oh you purist!” I can hear the response, “we can’t pick and choose what’s available, there are few if any films that don’t have cold blooded killer heros” But that is not much of an excuse for promoting it.

    Indeed the comment that in this film “You have the extreme version of reality shows like American Idol and Survivor” could have easily added that Survivor and its genre are themselves merely accented versions of what our “Music Chairs” style economy is about: human beings that relate to one another via antagonism rather than cooperation (“competition” is a euphemism for this antagonism) along with cold calculating attempts to dominate and out-power and “Win” against fellow human beings, part of a “warrior” militaristic culture that denigrates and makes fun of “soft” things like caring, empathy, solidarity, if you want to have feminism empowerment, fight against that denigration of those sane and healthy parts of human nature, instead of us environmentalists going along for the ride of this culture promoting Killing, Domination Over, Power Over Other (rather than Power With as others have pointed out), which is exactly part of the capitalistic-and-cultural military-industrial-media complex we are trying to replace with something saner.

    I know this comment will not be received well; I’m too much of a purist, ya got to break some eggs to make a…Maybe not owning a TV (or watching mainstream films) for some years and then peeking in will wake people up but otherwise, most of us will sit like the frog in the water slowly boiling, barely noticing the “slow” but ever increasing level of brutality and violence. What will shock or at least repel people these days? Cold blooded killing? Obviously not. Cold blooded killing of children (under 18s)? Apparently not.

    At this rate in another 5 or 10 years we’ll have a blog post for a similar movie only it will be smashing babies skulls against the wall, swinging them them by their feet. There will be a warning at the end to “parents of tweens” about this baby killing, but still quote the sentiment that “is the kind of strong teenage heroine we were all waiting for” and this is a film for those of us who are concerned about climate chaos to be happy that it’s released?

    Do films with such plots make the world a better place or do more harm than good, and keep the cultural psyche’s flywheel with the same or higher momentum towards destructive ways of thinking and relating to one another as human beings?

  12. BillD says:

    My wife is a librarian, so I ended up reading all three books. It’s a good story. Interesting map above of the districts.

  13. Brooks Bridges says:

    I read the first “Hunger Games” and found it interesting enough to keep me up a couple of nights.

    Dystopian futures do seem to be “in the air”. I’ve just finished “Ready Player One”, which has its own version in which people escape their very grim reality via a believably advanced immersive computer reality. It mentions climate degradation but put blame for economic collapse on a failure to transition to renewable energy. An intriguing plot also involving exceptional teens, this time on a quest in the computer reality that can lead to riches in the real world. Mainly a romp through 1980’s(quest involves knowledge of the 1980’s) popular and video gaming culture but with some very thought provoking ideas.

  14. Joe Romm says:

    No, it’s not anything like Bladerunner. A tiny bit like Running Man.

  15. owlbrudder says:

    keep the cultural psyche’s flywheel with the same or higher momentum towards destructive ways of thinking

    The future course of AGW might make these imaginary futures semm tame by comparison. How do we sensitise our children and grandchildren to the violence we are bringing upon them? Perhaps books and movies like this characterise the future as something to be feared and armed against, in which case the subliminal message might achieve what the plot cannot.

  16. Spira says:

    That’s not why these books are being read. People weren’t reading vampire boks or Harry Potter to learn about vampires and wizards. It’s just the setting that has to change, even if the story is the same.

  17. Spira says:

    Pretty sure there were 3 fingers. Maybe for district three

  18. From Peru says:

    You are absolutely right. Competition and violence in the real world is more than enough.

    I almost do not read fiction books (almost all I read are scientific or historical articles, papers and books)and in TV (I go to cinema just a few times a year)I like science fiction. Unfortunately, the few shows I used to watch (Star Trek, Sliders,Babylon 5, Power Rangers, etc.)are almost all cancelled in Latin America TV cable channels.

    (that few shows had a great deal of solidarity, struggle for justice, and in some Star Trek scenes there are clear references to socialism for the ones that know what socialism actually is)

    I agree that these distopic stories that mix sexual themes and violence are really disgusting,specially if the origins of the represented mess are NOT explicitly explained and condemnded in first place, as JR admitted: “Indeed, after reading all 3 books, I find only one sentence devoted to explaining what caused the apocalypse”.

    Personally, I see or read a fictional story I have a desire of justice and hope, but without justifiyng crimes and abuses as means to defeat the enemy.

    History tell us that when one gives up moral principles all is lost, even when the “evil power” is defeated, because the victorious hero becomes the new villain (see the Christian Church after becoming the head of the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Jacobins after the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution,etc).

    An exception to this are stories that show those evil things to CONDEMN it.

    EDpeak I share your disgust for this literature and art being sold as a commercial product in a capitalistic society, and I hope you share my desire of justice and hope.

    I give to you this link:

    L’INTERNATIONALE (original frech version before being altered by Leninists and Stalinists)

    The song is about the struggle of the workers for justice and freedom and hope for the future, totally different from the brutal regime that the Leninist “heros” created, a regime that was worse than the exploiting oppressive regime against they revolted.

    Closing I hope there are more “purist” like you out there!

  19. From Peru says:


    Why my comment is not being shown?

    (could be again the spam filter?)

  20. Joe Romm says:

    Got caught in spam filter. Possibly due to the links.

  21. Raul M. says:

    sequel could be the reverence discovered for the individuals who have the green thumb and can grow food?

  22. Susanna K. says:

    Speaking of dystopian YA series, what do you think of the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld? It’s a different kind of biological disaster (genetic engineering gone awry) and a different kind of evil regime the kids have to fight against (enforced conformity), but it’s a really, really good story and, I think, also relevant for today.

  23. Mark E says:

    Except for the stiff elbow, that still-shot in the clip shows the girl making the Boy Scout salute.

  24. Well, I do sense some sort of suggestion that the books might be useful to get people into thinking about famine and inequality. And that sucks.

    — frank

  25. Well put, EDpeak and From Peru.

    Another thing I’d like to point out about the quote from Amanda Craig’s review which you spotted:

    “Katniss is the kind of strong teenage heroine we were all waiting for,” one put it. […] “Girls aren’t waiting to be saved any more,” Malley says. “[…] Dystopia enables them to have big adventures but it’s also about creating strong characters whom readers care about.”

    I suppose, with the right guidance, The Hunger Games might become a useful vehicle for exploring moral and practical dilemmas of the same kind as those we face right now.

    But what Amanda Craig is saying, as quoted by Romm, is that young adults are reading these books so that they can imagine themselves to be superheroes … and that this is OK.

    Why exactly are these ‘commentators’ celebrating the creation of a culture of stupid? What exactly is there to celebrate here?

    — frank

  26. John E. says:

    The 3 finger salute is explained in the first book as a regional (District 12) gesture. “It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” It is most often seen at funerals.

  27. elisabeth says:

    You mention that you like to keep track of the latest in post-apocalypse pop culture…and note that this book, like others, spends “exceedingly little time actually explaining to anyone how we got in this mess.” I wondered if you had read The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd and its sequel Carbon Diaries 2017? These books take place SOON — there is mention of a huge hurricane that wiped out a lot of the East Coast of the US, although the books take place in the UK, where flooding is also a problem. Everyone has a carbon card — once you’ve used up your carbon for the year, that’s it. The teens in the book try to deal with all this (and face the crumbling lives of their parents as well).

  28. Joe Romm says:

    I’ll have to take a look at those books.

  29. From Peru says:

    Young Adults or adolescents?

    The term seems to me being disturbingly ambiguous. “Young Adult”(YA) make me think of people between 18 and 25 years old, but I seee the term YA being used even as young as children aged 11 or 13.I find this to be contradictory, to say the least.

    Frankly, these kind of stories, where the heros behave similar to villains, could be disturbing to mentally vulnerable people(like people that suffer from anxiety disorders,that are estimated to affect 20% of world population).

    To anyone interested, I would warn him of searching what the story is about before watching or reading it. Double warning for children and adolescents.

  30. C.J. Nesbitt says:

    Correction: “the core theme is the 99% (the 12 districts) vs. the 1% (Panem)”

    Good idea there with the 99 vs 1%, but Panem isn’t the 1%. Panem is the whole country, the Capitol is the 1%.

  31. Joe Romm says:

    Good catch.

  32. Joe Romm says:

    I don’t think this is for tweens, but I know they are reading it.

  33. From Peru says:


    I think than saying “this isn’t for tweens” is not enough.

    After a brief google search, I found that the so called young adult(YA)literature includes representations of extreme violence and sex.

    YA is defined as literature for people aged 10-20 according to wikipedia. In other words, adolescents.Despite the name, is classified together with children’s literature.

    Actually, this themes seem like stuff that is destined to adults.Some adolescents that are already mentally mature(there is extreme variability between person and person) could read it also if they want, but what I find odd is that this stuff is being sold as A PRODUCT MAINLY FOR TEENAGERS.

  34. Robert In New Orleans says:

    I will reserve judgement and wait for the Hunger Games to appear on on Netflix, in the mean time I am waiting for Prometheus (my kind of dystopian sci-fi).

  35. Sebastian Lawhorne says:

    There is a concept called “performativity”, where talking about something as if it is inevitable will make that thing inevitable. If you keep talking about something bad, the worse it will be; same for something good. I get the feeling that the more people are preoccupied with a coming dystopia in the climate crisis, the more a dystopia will be a reality. That’s why I keep reading books like Paul Gilding’s “Great Disruption”, which Joe recommended; I think more people need to exposed to that book’s vision of a just post-climate society.

  36. Change first appears in the imagination. If the collective imagination is starting to become aware of the problem, then the potential for realization is there. Fantasy is as important as our dreams, visions, fears, hopes, they compose the symbols of our awareness. People who might otherwise deny a difficult reality can come to terms with it through fantasy.

  37. Joe Romm says:

    Well, Gilding expects things to become utterly catastrophic before they get ‘better’.

  38. Interesting Times says:

    I see one major problem with the visuals in this movie:

    Everyone looks far too well-fed :/

  39. jyyh says:

    I’ll drop in to mention Margaret Atwoods’ ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’ in the same genre, though these are even less climate related. Specially liked the latter one, not *too* dystopic like the first.

  40. Thanks for this comment. One of the things I’ve always felt about the TV show Survivor (I saw two episodes) and its copycats is that its emphasis on THE ONE is ridiculous. Humans didn’t make it this far as rugged individuals, all of whom were trying to kill one another.

    Humans survived prehistoric conditions because of cooperation, teamwork. And that cooperation is based on more than mere “enlightened self interest” on the part of each team member. It’s based on love of kin, love of fellow.

    True, teams have been at war with each other forever, and humanity’s job is to outgrow ethnocentrism before it destroys us. But we — I mean the citizens of the USA — really need to outgrow this Rambo culture of ours. Look where it gets us.

  41. Ernest says:

    It seems the psyche has a fascination and need to explore it’s own “dark side”, perhaps as a way to prepare itself for “how bad it can get”. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Living it may be another matter. It will probably be slow, painful, undramatic, and boring.