Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How The Hunger Games changed the world

with 5 comments

The massive opening weekend of The Hunger Games, while impressive in itself, is also the clearest sign yet of a seismic shift in our popular culture, the effects of which will be felt in ways we can only begin to guess. Let’s start with the numbers. Like many movie nerds, I’ve been an avid consumer of box office data for most of my life, and a glance at the top opening weekends of all time—which is usually the least interesting of all movie lists, since it’s more about marketing excitement than true staying power—reveals some fascinating patterns. The first, obviously, is the dominance of sequels and established franchises, which doesn’t come as a surprise: if you throw out The Passion of the Christ as a marginal case, the largest opening weekend for a movie with an original story belongs to Avatar, all the way down at number 39. And although The Hunger Games is based on an existing property, the fact that a series of books that most readers hadn’t even heard of two years ago has generated such excitement is nothing less than remarkable.

Yet this list reveals another, more important trend: the gradual but inexorable replacement of science fiction and comic book properties with those based on young adult novels. A few years ago, the list of top opening weekends—which, again, is less a measure of staying power than a sort of index for cultural excitement over particular franchises—would have been dominated by Spider-Man, Batman, and the Star Wars movies. Today, it’s Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, which will undoubtedly fill three more slots on the list before long. And while this may seem like a case of Tweedle-Dum giving way to Tweedle-Dee, it’s actually a generational shift that has implications not just for the movies, but for all forms of popular storytelling. A list like this is the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the narrative forces shaping the inner lives of children and teenagers, and by extension the rest of the world. And the transition from comics to young adult novels is arguably the most significant cultural change of the last twenty years.

It’s no surprise that Hollywood has always looked to young people to construct their tentpole franchises. Not only are kids more likely to see a movie on opening weekend, but their tastes, in general, tend toward the monolithic: as we grow older, we break off into Mad Men-watching splinter factions, but until high school, kids usually like more or less the same stuff. (The difference in magnitude can be roughly understood as the disparity between the opening weekends of The Hunger Games and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) From a marketing perspective, this is very helpful: it allows expensive films to be pitched to the widest possible audience. Around the time of Tim Burton’s Batman, the studios realized that comic books were the most valuable properties for exciting the youngest quadrants, although it took the massive success of Spider-Man and the latest revolution in computer-generated effects for this trend to reach its culmination. In the end, Marvel went from being a niche provider of superhero fantasies to a central part of mass culture, to the point where the comics themselves became incidental to the multimedia studio to which they provided raw material.

And yet that moment appears to be passing. The explosion of young adult fiction in the past decade has allowed kids to get their pop culture satisfactions in other ways. As a result, comic book sales have been suffering for a long time, as existing companies struggle to interest younger readers in characters who were around before their parents were born. (To the extent that kids today care about these characters, it’s because of their movie incarnations, not the comics that inspired them.) And new heroes aren’t being created to take their place. Hence the efforts to repeatedly renew the few viable properties (The Amazing Spider-Man) or to launch franchises that palpably lack the fan enthusiasm to justify a movie (Green Lantern). It may not be long before a movie based on a big comic franchise will feel like John Carter: an attempt to drum up excitement for a hero who looks like a relic, while The Hunger Games is fresh and new. Which also means that a publisher like Scholastic, which can generate new properties in a way that Marvel cannot, will soon find itself in a similar position: a formerly tiny company that can move our entire culture. Farfetched? Maybe. But it’s happening before our eyes.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2012 at 10:38 am

5 Responses

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  1. I see the Hunger Games as a work of art. That it is political and it’s creator has stated that she wrote in reaction to our present day lust for reality TV.
    That one statement raises the bar, places the book in another category other than teen fiction.
    Though I do like how you can expound upon an idea and carry it through to the end. As far as scholastic, which has produced some of the most idiotic reading, that does bother me like knowing that USA Today is written so that a 4th grader could read it, which wouldn’t be a problem if it were marketed for them.

    tocksin

    March 26, 2012 at 10:51 am

  2. I think our mass culture will always be pitched, for better or worse, to the level of twelve-year-olds. And I’m especially curious to see how Suzanne Collins’s message about the dangers of reality television will hold up in a world where kids can buy their own Hunger Games action figures.

    nevalalee

    March 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

  3. Good Point

    tocksin

    March 26, 2012 at 11:58 am

  4. Fast Five at #29?? That must have been a slow weekend.

    Nat

    March 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

  5. I’m not going to lie, though: I loved that movie.

    nevalalee

    March 26, 2012 at 10:58 pm


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