I find the rampant success of the Hunger Games franchise to be pretty confusing. Most blockbusters aim to be fun, and the Hunger Games movies are the exact opposite - they're all about suffering and sacrifice. Sure, the plot has some "will our plucky heroine choose boy a or boy b?" soap opera elements that are juicy, but mostly it's a heavy handed slog about a you woman who is forced to be a figurehead for a nascent revolution against a fascist government. Sure, they feature a fair amount of fantasy action sequences - but in almost all of those action scenes a teenager is being killed, so they aren't exactly escapist entertainment. Sure, the main character is played by the ever popular Jennifer Lawrence, but none of her most attractive features are present in her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, because the real Lawrence is bubbly and goofy while Katniss spends most of her time on screen crying or looking frustrated.
However, when I want to make sense of the Hunger Games' runaway success, I just have to remind myself of two facts: 1. these movies are aimed at teenagers and 2. every American teenager has spent the bulk of their life in a post 9/11 world. The Hunger Games have been successful not because they are fun, or because they are necessarily good - they are successful because they tap into (and ultimately relieve) a set of anxieties that kids who grew up in a paranoid wounded America have been internalizing for most of their lives.
I'm half a generation older than the average Hunger Games fan. When I watch Katniss wander around her rubble strewn world - and there is a lot of wandering in this movie, and seemingly endless amounts of rubble - and then go back home to brood about boys I think: well, one of these things is not like the others. But I think that someone who is younger than me might see it differently. To someone who only knows a world where the nightly news has always been dominated by updates from quagmire wars, where social media is constantly informing you about outrages every time you look at your phone, where all of the lawmakers who are in charge of fixing these troubles have devolved into dysfunctional ninnies - well, I can see how Katniss' story would appeal to you, because it's giving you permission to think about yourself for a second even as the world is falling apart. Her example is basically saying: yes, there needs to be a revolution - but getting a hot date with the right dude still matters, too.
Let's assume for a second that my thesis is correct and the unrelenting darkness of the Hunger Games franchise is directly tapping into a younger generation's collective unconscious. What does that mean? Well, for one it means that fear mongering has taken a very deep root in our culture. Most studies suggest that we live in one of the safest time periods in recorded history - but that fact is lost on people because they've grown up with a media that's fixated on placing every story against an apocalyptic backdrop. That's the only reason that I can think of that would explain why a generation that has actually known an incredible variety of creature comforts would be so attracted to a story about a person trying to juggle her selfish desires against an overwhelming obligation to an unfixable society - they might see themselves having to make that choice themselves, which I think is really sad.
I also think that the Hunger Games movies are expressing a generation's uncertainty about the idea of modern warfare. Many modern war movies try to convince you that explosions are exciting and fun - they're completely blind to consequences, since they are bloodless and attention span deprived. The Hunger Games are the exact opposite: these movies are one long bath in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, since nearly every scene has Katniss being on the verge of a breakdown. There is something defeatist about the way the Hunger Games looks at combat, since it has no interest in any of war's redeeming features like (say) the camaraderie of a band of soldiers - after all, Katniss is a loner who was drafted into the cause by others with selfish motives - but these films do have a real eye for trauma. It's a defeatism that makes sense if W's clusterfucks are the only wars you know, and as a person who is generally anti-war it tends to jibe with my worldview. But I do wonder at the schizophrenia of it all. Can these two viewpoints ever be reconciled if the right cause arises? Or are we always going to exclude the middle from all of our discussions about armed conflict? Because there has to be a middle ground between "war is a good solution to everything!" and "war is nothing but hell!" if we're going to have a coherent military policy. Are we capable of bridging that gap as a society anymore?
Of course, when you take those two points together they contradict each other, because one suggests that the belief that we're broken is false, while the other suggests that we really are at an impossible impasse. So who knows? Maybe I'm overthinking it, or projecting my own concerns on a movie that wasn't actually meant for me. Maybe it's much simpler than I'm making it out to be, and it's target audience is interested in these films because they are about a strong young woman at a time that women are woefully under-represented in cinema. Or maybe the teens just like it because it's a well marketed movie starring a popular movie star with a well curated soundtrack - you really can't rule that out. But if I am right and this movie has tapped into the zeitgeist because it depicts a young person with all the weight of an unworkable world on their shoulder and that's how young people really feel...
Well, then God help us, because over time teens become adults and as they do they have fewer boy troubles and more worldly troubles. If our younger generation is taking both those weights on themselves now when they should only be worrying about the smaller of the two concerns I can only wonder how tired they'll be when they actually inherit the weight of the world. So let's just hope I'm wrong, and that this is really about how we've all agreed to see ever Jennifer Lawrence movie, regardless of what it is. Because if the dourness of the Hunger Games really is a portrait of how people see the world - well, we an expect to see a lot more dark days ahead.