At the promptings of my 12-year-old granddaughter, I read Suzanne Collins' best selling trilogy and have seen the movie based on her first book: "The Hunger Games." A quick summary: the book is a young adult novel; its chief character is 16-year-old, street smart Katniss Everdeen. She lives in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem where the United States once existed. The Capitol is a prosperous metropolis, which holds absolute power over the rest of Panem.
The Hunger Games are an annual event in which a teenaged boy and girl from each of the 11 districts surrounding and supporting the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol are picked by lottery to compete in violent, deadly contests. Only one contestant can survive - and the Games, like The Olympic Games, are televised for all the districts to watch. These teenaged boys and girls are called tributes. Their battle to death is in retaliation for the districts' previous rebellion against the oppressive Capitol.
Despite the violence, I found the books captivating with several layered levels of meaning. Collins writes skillfully and her books are masterfully paced. The books are suspenseful and - even for most adults - hard to put down. They have been translated into 26 different languages. The first book is richer and better than the movie, which has shattered all attendance records for a non-sequel film.
The movie reviews are mixed. All agree on the excellent acting of Jenifer Lawrence as Katniss; Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Katniss' chief love interest; Donald Sutherland as the Capitol's President Snow; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta's washed-up, alcoholic mentor; and Elizabeth Banks as Effie, their eccentric escort to the Games.
Some of the themes of "The Hunger Games" reflect real aspects of today's society. One theme is the great divide between rich and poor. Think about the Occupy Wall Street protests. The young tributes are from the poor and working class. They are from the 99 percent. The rich and pampered citizens of the Capitol are the 1 percent.
Another theme in the books and movie is America's obsession with celebrities and fame. As Danna Kagan wrote in the Huffington Post, "I found myself finding a lot of similarities between the Hunger Games contestants and those on shows like 'American Idol' and 'The Voice.' Both have stylists that dress them up to make them look more dazzling and attractive and both have mentors that help guide them through the process."
The book's most telling metaphor, however, is the absolute stupidity of war. We send our young to fight and die. We teach them how to kill. We dress them up in distinctive uniforms and idolize them as heroes. If they themselves are killed, we welcome their flag-draped coffins home and bury them with pageantry and honor. This, of course, is the absolute lunacy of war. War is crazy, senseless and bizarre.
A further theme in the books is feminism. Although she is a teenager girl, Katniss is a model for women leaders. She is a strong and confident. She is resourceful. She stands up to the men in the books. It is she who controls the relationship with her male love interests. These are important messages for all teenaged girls and women.
And, of course, there is romance. Katniss is attracted to both Peeta, her fellow tribute, and also to Gale, her once hunting partner back in her poor district. I suspect the love story in the books is a major attraction for many teenaged readers.
"The Hunger Games" can teach us much: the great divide of wealth in our society; our obsession with celebrities, the need for strong female leaders in our nation's life; and most of all the outrageous folly of war. "The Hunger Games" is a thought-provoking read and a decent movie.
Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, "The Living Spirit" is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com.