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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The most chilling moment for this dad watching The Hunger Games?

When that gang of cackling teens struts away from their murder scene, mocking how their victim begged for mercy. They’re the ultimate joy-riding cool kids. They have the looks, the money, and the weapons. If you’re not in the clique, you’re either hiding or dead. It’s true of most high schools, but Suzanne Collins literalized it.

You could argue that The Hunger Games is just a further step down the devolutionary ladder from Lord of the Flies or Clockwork Orange. Without parents to control them, kids are monsters. But Collins’ truth is even uglier truth. The monsters are the grown-ups.

There are only two kinds of parents in the Collins universe. Absent or malicious. Katniss’ are the first. Dad is dead and Mom is emotionally checked out. They may be blameless, even sympathetic, but they’re not admirable. Katniss is her sister’s only mother. It’s a harsh truth—shot by director Gary Ross in jarringly hand-held close-ups—but one that literature’s orphaned heroes and heroines have been rising to for centuries.

The real problem is Donald Sutherland. He’s the school principal. Uber-Patriarch. The man ultimately responsible for those joy-riding thugs.  Unlike that dead pilot rotting in his parachute in Lord of the Flies, Sutherland really is in control. He and his society of entertainment-obsessed adults are always watching. The games are for them.

The teen sadism doesn’t come from the teens. It’s not the joy-riders’ true animal selves escaping when the adults lose control. It’s not even a byproduct of the power vacuum. There is no power vacuum. The adults are paying for the show, filming it, costuming it, plotting it. The game turns children into animals. (The novel’s even more literal: the designers morph the faces of the dead children onto the bodies of the mutant dogs.) Sadism is the teenagers’ survival strategy to the meticulously crafted environment they’re forced to live in. Except, unlike in most high schools, only the valedictorian gets to graduate.

Teen sex is adult-mandated too. Most adolescent plots revolve around the irrepressible teen id fighting to break out. The animals escape again. But Katniss doesn’t have time for hormonal nonsense, either in the games or back home in parent-decimated Appalachia. Her appetite isn’t carnal. The sex plot is for the grown-ups watching on TV.

Katniss’ mother never explains the birds and the bees to her. In the Collins universe, birds are cross-bred mockingjays and the bees genetically engineered killer wasps. Sex is just another survival tool. The message from the adult world is literal: kiss the boy or the boy dies.

My improbable heart went out most to Glimmer, one of those joy-riding cool kids. Yes, she’s a monster, but literally a man-made one. The actress Leven Rambin played a similar character on the Terminator TV series a few years ago. There another adult plucked her from another hopeless future world to use her as expendable bait. The fight sequences are a little different, but it’s the same ending. She dies. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a broken neck or killer bees.

Meanwhile, the adult world sits and watches. Collins gives a brutal indictment of American adolescence. Parents are powerless to protect their children from other children.  Worse, the adults who are in charge—it’s as if they’re TRYING to torture them. It’s as if we have concocted an educational system that takes children away from their homes and forces them to battle each other in an artificial environment. To survive high school, you either join a killer clique, or you run and hide. Those are the only options the grown-ups in charge allow.

By the end, even the pack leader, the meanest jock of them all, is crying. He doesn’t want to be there either. He didn’t make this world. And he knows his power—the looks, the money, the weapons—is meaningless. He’s not the one pressing the buttons.

Kids compete when they’re made to compete, physically, sexually, you name it. Raise the stakes, raise the brutality. But don’t kid yourself. Our children aren’t the animals.

Adolescence is the front line of culture. And The Hunger Games shouts our culture’s most consistent command to our teen soldiers.

Grow up or die.

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