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THE HUNGER GAMES: Stuck Inside Apocalypse with Dystopic Blues Again

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

“The Hunger Games,” the book, is a page-turner and the movie is gripping. Some of my colleagues, working hard to reconnect young people to nature, believe the popularity of the book and movie will, like the film “Avatar,” stimulate a deeper interest in the natural world. I hope they’re right, but after leaving the movie theater on Friday (having already read the book), I was, well, ambivalent.

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In this story, there are two forests. The first forest is as natural as a forest can be with an electrified fence to keep the largest carnivores out of District 12, Katniss Everdeen’s starving Appalachian homeland.

At the beginning of the book (far more intellectually stimulating than the more primal movie), she describes sitting in a nook in the rocks with her hunting partner, Gale, looking out at a forest that sustains them: “From this place we are invisible but have a clear view of the valley, which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather, roots to dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight.” This forest keeps her family alive.

The second forest is where a totalitarian government stages its Hunger Games. Periodically, twenty-four teenagers are taken from their home districts and sent into this forest to murder one another. At the end of the game, one teenager remains. He or she is rewarded with riches and fame. “Survivor” meets “American Idol” meets “Gladiator.”

The domed forest is a genetically and electronically altered nightmare. In it, the government has planted “tracker jackers,” as Collins writes, killer wasps “spawned in a lab and strategically placed, like land mines, around the districts during war.” And when the game overseers want to change the odds, they drop in a few virtual hounds from hell.

Katniss does get to use her archery, hunting and tracking skills, but this second forest is an extreme-sport theme park, which, according to some outdoor industry experts, isn’t far off the mark for how many Americans view nature, if they view it at all.

For many, nature is less about nurture than about danger and dystopia. “The Hunger Games” reflects that view of nature and of the future.

Ask Americans what images first come to mind, when they think about the far future, and they’ll likely describe “Blade Runner” or “Mad Max.” Dystopian fiction is the hottest genre in young adult novels, with no positive vision on the horizon. This isn’t new. Think of “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “Fahrenheit 451,” dark novels that were particularly popular when Baby Boomers were young. In that tradition, “The Hunger Games” is in a cautionary tale about the dangers of surveillance, the intrusion of technology into minds and bodies, and the denaturing of nature itself.

So I admire the book, and its exploration of social control, but days after viewing the film, I can’t shake an uneasy feeling, and I’m not the only one.  Most of the unease has to do with the story’s central focus, more pronounced through the visceral power of film: an orgy of teen-on-teen violence – two dozen young people hunting each other. We read so many headlines about school mass killings, and schoolyard and dorm-room bullies driving gay kids to suicide, and teenage girls strapping bombs to their chests. Yes, “The Hunger Games” can be interpreted as warning, but it could also be the kind of near-glamorization, of teen and child violence, that excites copy-cat murderers.

Another source of unease is the never-ending projection of a dystopian future. We’re in a post-apocalyptic rut, and it’s becoming tiresome and possibly self-fulfilling. “The Hunger Games” series does hold out some hope, something that 13 year-old Miranda Andersen pointed out in a recent C&NN guest blog: “In some ways the dystopia books are good because they scare kids about what the world might look like and then scares them into doing something to make the future better. Maybe writers could also inspire them with images of a better future.”

In that vein, some of us believe that a New Nature Movement is coming, or already here — a movement of people, old and young, hungry for a new story. In that story, technology is will be balanced by nearby nature; and our homes and workplaces, neighborhoods and cities will become engines of biodiversity and human health.

To create that future, we must first imagine it. That’s something people in the entertainment industry are supposed to be good at. Imagining alternative scenarios. It’s time to escape from dystopia.

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For another view of dystopic young adult fiction and “The Hunger Games,” see the guest blog, “Miranda and the Apocalypse” and video we recently posted from 13-year old Miranda Andersen. Please let us know what you think of the movie by posting your comments below.

A March 30 2012 New York Times op-ed by Timothy Egan on Nature-Deficit Disorder.

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Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS. In coming months, he’ll be on a multi-city tour of the U.S. and Canada.

Photo taken on Kodiak Island, Alaska: R.L.

21 Comments

  1. You know something that stuck with me from reading the books though? The Mockingjay itself. They don’t explain it in the movie at all. The idea that this overbearing government genetically created the Jabberjays to use against it’s citizens and the birds not only were able to be used against them, but then bred with wild birds to produce Mockingjays. The triumph of nature over the arrogant assumption of control was something that really spoke to me.

    I also read recently that dystopian literature gains in popularity in times when our country is in crisis and right now we have the highest levels of it in decades is not something to ignore.

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  2. As a boomer rebel, I was on a path to tear down and re-build all that I saw attacking nature…the government, consumerism, overpopulation, etc. A Harvard-Yale mentor scribbled on a scrap of paper, “Youth Growing: anger, rebellion, disillusionment, hope.”

    I did not read the book, don’t do other dystopia offerings, and generally despise Hollywood, but by serendipity I ended up watching “Hunger Games.” I liked it!

    What I liked was the hope it displayed. I detected youth-generated rebellion…and a worried government. At the end of the movie the president expressed concern that too much hope was released to the masses by letting two survive…remember his comment earlier about how a little hope is more controlling than fear. Also, I liked that it portrayed a strong woman.

    I don’t know what the other books are about, and sampling error may be occurring here, but my snippet of “Hunger Games” was encouraging…hopeful!

    I raised two young adults that are the targets of this genre, and I think “Hunger Games” will afford fuel for their rebellion…and their hope. They have learned to get peace and strength from nature, and others are not deprived of the lessons of nature by “Hunger Games.” This generation will need all the fuel they can gather to save what’s left out there.

    Reply
    • Richard Louv

      Good points, Rich. You’re right. There’s that element of hope, and the president’s remark about that was powerful. Let’s hope you’re right.

      Reply
  3. Just went to see the movie this past weekend with a friend who’d grown up romping through the woods of Appalachia like me. We’d both read the books and were talking about them before the film began. I started to mention a part in the books that had stood out to me as a mistake in the author’s creation of the gaming forest and she knew immediately what I was about to say. The main character flees deep into the woods and ends up climbing a willow tree to hide from the other children. Now, the whole thing is a fantasy world- a made-up landscape full of made-up creatures- but somehow, out of everything, that just struck us both as incongruous. Willows don’t grow in the middle of the forest. It was something we didn’t know we knew, not explicitly taught or learned, but an eco-literacy we shared based on our childhood contact with the natural world. We could distinguish fact from fiction, even in the nuances. I wonder if these types of films don’t actually widen the gap between children and nature by perpetuating fantastic ideals (whether dystopian or utopian) and relegating the natural world to an emotional backdrop or a giant metaphor…

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  4. I love that you are always promoting a vision of hope. I need to remember to come and read your stuff, when I am feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Thank you!

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  5. I have not yet read The Hunger Games or seen the movie. My daughter (9) has been begging me to see it but based on what I know, she is far too young. As a parent and teacher, I think we need to be careful to not facilitate our children growing up too fast. I really think it breeds cynicism.

    What I would love to see is a more child friendly book similar to Starhawks Fifth Sacred Thing. This book is dystopian and utopian. It presents alternative possibilities and the thread of hope, the positive imaginary that is so important. This is a great book for anyone 15 and up and I would love to see more YA novels that balance the bleak images of possible futures with hopeful regenerative ones.

    http://www.starhawk.org/writings/fifth-sacred-thing.html

    Reply
  6. Wow. Your review has made me decide for sure that I do not want to see this movie.

    The desperation and violence of it ….just like the devastation in Avatar, will literally break my heart. Avatar made me cry like a baby and curse James Cameron for destroying their beautiful world.

    Earlier I contacted C&NN in hopes that you would take a moment to review my website regarding my nature based, stewardship inspiring art exhibit. An endorsement of my project by you would be a powerful statement in my grant seeking efforts.

    I promise you will be enchanted! http://www.mechanted.com

    To see Children enjoying our precious woods, also see my blog called “Nature Nurtures” A home schooling outdoor group recently visited us.
    The story is halfway down this page: http://mylovelylife.tumblr.com/page/6

    Thanks Richard, I know you are going to be happy about what I’m working on.

    I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Melissa
    706-255-8528

    Reply
  7. I wonder why no one in any reviews of the Hunger Games makes any mention of the classic “Lord of the Flies”. A controvesial story of the inheirent competative drive and bloodlust of humans, bubbling up through children the same age or younger as those in the “Hunger Games”. An isolated tropical island with limited resources is the setting, placing the characters back in nature where understanding and adaptation to environement as well as the formation or two communal schemes, determines the tension and outcome. It is only at the end, with the arrival of adults on the island that a “civilized” structure is reinstated.
    By placing kids in nature, not a visitors, but participants again, they realize the struggle that all life carries out everyday. Competition for scarce resources develops community for survival and in increasing scarcity the growth of tensions and if extreme enough, violence. Violence is understood by those that must exercise it as a waste of precious energy that was hard sought and won in the natural world, and only in communities of abundance does it become a voyueristic pasttime. Those that have not, really know what it is to have.

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  8. I haven’t quite connected with the notion that the book promotes the connection to nature either (and I am in love with the books!), but I definitely feel moved by all the implications of power and the extent to which people can be exploited in the pursuit of resources. As I was reading the books and seeing the movie, I also was (and still am) part of a project on my campus wherein faculty are charged to bring sustainability and the natural connection into courses in which it would traditionally not be a logical fit. Anyway… we had a discussion the other day about a company that is trying to bring fracking to the Shenandoah Valley. Our little town told the company absolutely no; however, there were a series of “strange” messages that followed including a “reminder” that they are allowed to frack in at least two locations within 10-12 miles of our town. Those in opposition were told that we would be able to see the success happening just down the road, yet not be able to have the economic benefit from it ourselves. Simultaneously, people realized we would also be subject to the negative aspects of fracking, but not have the “benefit” of a closer affiliation with the company to help address things like the water supply and the benefit of the supposed contribution to the economy. It was a very strange and disturbing power dynamic that – in our small town experience – felt very much like the power dynamic in the Hunger Games. And of course, we just happen to be in what would be considered District 12 in the book.
    That’s probably a long and slightly confusing way to say – the book and movie helped frame a troubling situation our town is facing. It is so important that we understand these power dynamics and how to protect what we value. The soil and water in the Valley are so important to our way of life, to the traditions, the farming, the wandering in the woods… and the people who live here.
    A final note… I think you mentioned that the fences were erected to keep the wild animals out. They were actually erected in the book to keep the people in… to make sure they were dependent on the government for rations and not able to wander in the woods and find the resources they need to be self-sufficient. Interesting, huh?
    If you haven’t ready the second book yet, I highly recommend it. The power and the oppression of people in order to secure their resources is really explored and makes you sit back with a big giant, “Hmmmm….”
    Thanks for your thoughtful post and for the others who have commented. My brain has been playing with all these thoughts…

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  9. While I think the books are extremely well written I found the movie shallow, with very little, if any, character development. I do think that the violence in the movie was toned down from that of the books. I would not recommend the book for all children. It is not for my nine year old, yet, but my twelve year old enjoyed the books, much more than the movie.
    I keep thinking about Dan Brown and the reaction to the DaVinci Code among other books of his. I realized that people would not be happy, I did not realize Brown would create a cottage industry of people writing to refute his novels. But there is a key work here, NOVEL. Lets tell our children about what a NOVEL is, let them read some good stuff, then kick them out in the garden and tell them to find lunch. Perhaps our children know better than we do not to make such a BIG DEAL out of everything that comes down the pike.

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  10. I grew up reading dystopian fiction and really enjoyed it. The White Mountains trilogy, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World…I loved them all. Yet, when I was not immersed in a book, I spent nearly all of my time outside playing in the woods or down on the shore. I never at all felt that those types of books disengaged me in any way from my roots in nature. In fact, I felt more appreciative. As a teacher, I chose to read The Hunger Games with my 5th and 7th grade students. I teach in a one-room schoolhouse, so finding literature that can bridge the age gap is difficult, and this group of five kids happen to be all boys, so I’m constantly looking for compelling reads with a strong female lead. My students are spending their childhoods the way I did…out building forts and romping around the woods, free of adult supervision. We all loved the book(s)…imagine having kids so excited about a book that they go out and spend their lobstering money on the sequels…and had very pointed discussions about things like Katniss’s development as a character, the control of the Capitol and the disparate levels of wealth and freedom. What the kids still take from it is that Katniss had a connection to the natural world that allowed her to survive. She was skilled with bow and arrow, traps, identifying poisonous and edible plants. I see this book and movie as an instigator for more self-sufficiency and connection with the natural world. The kids saw those people from the Capitol as freaks of nature, with their crazily died bodies and gluttonous ways. They didn’t want to be that (the caricature of our own society) at all…they wanted to be like Gale and Katniss. Just like Wall*e showed us where we can go in a most perverse way…this can do the same. Yes, you might see a lot of strange false blue lashes coming out of this, but you might have a lot of girls braiding their hair, taking up their bows, and heading into the forest. Oh, and as per the willow comment…seriously…anyone who has ever shot a bow knows you can’t hold the string back on a recurve unless it’s such a low poundage it couldn’t even take down a mouse.

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  11. I am becoming more and more convinced that movies are destroying our culture. There’s just too much violence, too much reflection back to the viewer of the worst kinds of human behavior and experience. When I was a kid, I was never afraid of the woods. Now I’m afraid. It’s not the bugs that scare me either–it’s the people I might encounter there. The movies make me think they are there. And the media makes sure I know that there are people out there that act out some of the unbelievably horrible stuff, like the awful murder that just happened in beautiful Barnet Vermont where I own with my husband some wilderness I want to protect. And now the Supreme Court passed a law that anyone can be stripped searched because everyone’s so dangerous. What happened to all the trust?

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  12. I haven’t seen the movie, I haven’t read the book, however… The point might be how we enjoy this type of entertainment and what role parents/schools/society play in distinguishing between reality, fiction, guidance and principle. We all need to promote a responsible society and as Rich demonstrates, this movie has provoked responsible thought. We need this to be a natural reaction in children and society so that there is a platform for distinguishing right from wrong.
    What I fear happens too readily is that there is a divorce from reality for a great many who live in a world where nature doesn’t feature, nor it is a guiding principle. Therefore there are no historic roots bound in earth to level the fictional playing field, so immediate reaction and thought might be/is wildly unchecked. A potential tsunami for a real life value system.

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  13. Without seeing the movie or reading the book, just having heard about this movie, and the book…..you have taken the words (and thoughts) right out of my month!! I do wish all parents would read this before allowing their children to see this. It’s amazing how marketing ANYTHING, whether it be good or bad for us, can lead a nation???? I am so connected to all of you who share these beliefs and who are truly concerned for our children’s (and our) future. With hope and gratitude.

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  14. I have read the book and have also seen the movie. For me it reminded me of a more modern day Lord of the Files, which also happens to be one of my favorite books from childhood. I am almost a recent graduate with a Master in Enviro Ed- emphasis on early childhood and believe that movie doesn’t do the book justice in the how it portrays Katniss’s bond with nature. Though the the second forest is highly manipulated she stills knows how to find beauty in it. In reality nature is beautiful but also fierce, unpredictable and mysterious. Shouldn’t children know both sides? Shouldn’t we teach them how to navigate the wilderness so that even when it is scary or dangerous they can still see the elegance and beauty in it?

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  15. Miranda and Patty Andersen

    First I have to tell you how much I liked the book. The movie was not as good. I read the book when I was 11 and could’t put it down. I am 12 now. I think you did a very good job of summarizing the whole dystopia aspect of the movie. Still after all this it’s hard for me to comprehend whether or not books like this are a good influence or not in terms of helping to make kids get outside. There is definitely very good aspects about nature that they describe in the book and things like tracker jackers that kids might become afraid of even though they aren’t real they might think those kinds of things exist in the woods.

    I think that, as your colleagues said, this book can make you think about certain things that you’d like to discover and are out there in nature and for that reason I do think that books like these make kids want to get out in nature more.The problem is we have to explain to kids how to “use” or work with nature rather than abuse it.

    I think the comparison between the two forests are good examples of something that is natural and beautiful that we need to protect and the other forest is something we don’t want to wish for – it’s a nightmare! Not because it’s not real and full of dangers but because it is put there for bad reasons that have nothing to do with nature.

    I agree that a lot of people probably look at nature as a “fun sport” and they look at nature as something to tear down, conquer and they don’t understand how important it is. It’s kind of like they’ve run out of other “sports” and so now they are trying to get their kicks from nature in all the wrong ways. Talk about denaturing nature.

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree with your copycat comments.
    Throughout the whole book Katniss was thinking about how terrible and inhumane the hunger games are and how those people involved (controlling the games) are really sick and doing it for their own entertainment (disguised as social control). Suzanne Collins creates this whole image of how bad the games are – I don’t think people would be going against what she says they would be going with it so I don’t think people would copy that at all. Her writing makes you believe it – that’s why the books are so good. So most people would agree with Katniss’ perspective.

    I think it would stop people from doing anything even close to the hunger games after seeing Katniss’ point of view.

    I think that if writers always wrote about how good the future could be I think kids would think that’s what it would look like so they wouldn’t care about the global issues because they think it’s going to be a happy ending no matter what. They need to see the bad possibilities because if they think it’s going to be something good they think they don’t need to do anything differently. They need to know it could turn out like the hunger games or something like it unless they change their ways.

    I was already a huge reader before this book came out and it caused me to read so many more books in this genre. That’s a good thing! My brother just finished the series and he couldn’t put them down either. Isn’t that what books are supposed to do? Along the way we get educated and learn to make the difference between fantasy and reality and what is wrong and what is right and trust me – we know the difference! Books help us form opinions and find our interests. They also let us escape for short periods and that’s what being entertained can be about too. I spend a lot of time in and near nature reading books – and that’s the best of both worlds.

    Reply
    • Richard Louv

      Wonderful comments, Miranda. And especially important, and impressive, because you’re 13. Hope folks read your recent guest blog.

      Reply
  16. Yes, this book is punchy and violent and action-filled. Unlike many films and books, though, Hunger Games encourages discussion of the causes of violence and oppression. Yes, it’s important that we be able to envision a better future, but we also need to be able to discuss what’s going wrong here now. Hunger Games may be set in the future but I feel that, thematically, it’s about the present (reality tv, violence, dependence on a system that separates us from our food source, etc).

    While the forest of the Games was not a real, natural forest, I did feel like it was – to some extent – a friendly environment for Katniss. Had the Games been set in the rubble of a destroyed city, for example, she never would have survived. Even though the environment was rigged against her, the fact that she knew the forest and could escape up into the trees gave her a chance.

    I disagree with the charge of glamorization of violence. Ultimately, what I took away from this book was Katniss’ ability to make choices with integrity – to maintain her humanity – despite the horrific situation she was placed in.

    Reply
  17. The problem with a lot of science fiction is that no one is painting an inspirational picture of the future. All that is popular is distopian (zombies, climate destruction, rampant inequality, nuclear destruction). It wasn’t always that way either.
    We need more positive messages, and visions of society worth aspiring to or the fiction will become reality because that’s all people can picture.
    there are a few ted talks and writers speaking on this very subject . So when i see yet another dystopian narrative, i just sigh, and add it to the pile.

    Reply

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