When my 12-year-old daughter introduced me to The Hunger Games last year, I was immediately hooked. Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy has been a huge bestseller for tweens, teens, and their parents; critics and fans alike are already predicting that the movies will be the next Twilight or Harry Potter. And unlike those two series, at its core is an unapologetically powerful female hero.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone), like some futuristic Artemis the Huntress,
is a moral and ethical teaching tool on swift, muscular legs. The
consequences of the tough decisions she is constantly weighing are often
dire. Katniss is drafted by her oppressive government to “entertain”
her fellow citizens in a kill-or-be-killed Survivor-style
spectacle … starring children. For 16-year-old Katniss, life isn’t a
Disney teen chewy of peer pressure and meet-cute crushes. Since her
widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and her sister, Prim (Willow Shields),
depend on her for their survival, she can’t afford a shred of
narcissism. The movie does have some disturbing violence, it’s true, but
it also yields a number of strong lessons for kids — and their
parents. Such as …
Sisterhood Sometimes Requires Strength and Sacrifice
of Katniss’s finest actions are set into motion to protect her younger
sister from pain and hardship. As anyone who has seen the trailer knows
— much less avid readers — the Capitol selects fragile youngster Prim
to join the other 23 youthful “Tributes” selected for the big televised
battle. Katniss immediately volunteers, trading her life for that of her
sister. The cost? Potentially death. At best, she’s going to have to
kill a lot of strangers to survive.
Loyalty Can Be Hard
true in word and deed seems clear-cut enough in theory: Don’t sell out
your mother, your brother, your best friend, your … fill in the blank.
The challenge is prioritizing loyalties in difficult times (see Sophie’s Choice).
Katniss has conflicting loyalties — at home, because her mother had an
emotional collapse after her father died in a coal mine, Katniss has
become the primary caregiver in the family. At times, in order to
safeguard Prim, and because she is angry at the way this shortchanges
her own youth, Katniss makes choices between her mother and her sister
that sacrifice her mother. Similarly, she wants to be loyal to her best
friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Last Song), but in the arena she is thrown in with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right),
and only by playing a game of “star-crossed lovers” does the pair have
any chance of returning home alive. To Gale, it seems like a breach of
loyalty, and even Katniss suffers from the apparent betrayal — but she
makes a choice and acts on it.
consistently takes responsibility for her actions. She never blames
Prim for her decision to become a Tribute. She poaches outside their
district’s electrified fence to feed her family, knowing that she alone
will be punished for breaking the law. When she takes a younger tribute,
Rue (Amandla Stenberg, Colombiana),
under her wing during the games and her plan endangers the weaker
competitor, Katniss feels remorse that she put Rue in harm’s way. One of
Katniss’s challenges, having provided for her nuclear family for so
long, is learning when to share responsibility. When do we own our
situation, and when do we need to work as a team? In life, we are
constantly shifting between personal responsibility and teamwork — that
is, those of us who aren’t shirking or procrastinating or hoping
someone else will do the right thing.
One clear lesson that emerges from The Hunger Games
— a lesson learned by our grandparents and great-grandparents during
the Depression and by the survivors of last year’s Japanese tsunami —
is that hard times build character. Difficult choices (stepping up to
save your sister; pretending to love one boy because that will save your
lives, even though it will hurt your true love; protecting and
comforting a younger Tribute who can only survive if you don’t) define
Katniss as a character and, to some extent, all of us as human beings.
What I want to discuss with my daughter after taking her to see The Hunger Games is the central message that our
actions define us. The reason that Katniss emerges as a role model is
not because she has superpowers but because she struggles to do the
right thing, for herself and for those she loves. Even when Katniss fails, she stumbles her way to the right actions. And
that’s a critical lesson in real-world survival that a mother can share
with her daughter — and still appreciate as an adult.