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The Hunger Games movies succeeded because they were perfect for millennials

Lionsgate

The Hunger Games movie franchise has come to a close. Mockingjay — Part 2, the fourth film based on Susan Collins’s trilogy of dystopian young adult novels, debuted on Friday, landing the number-one spot at the box office with just north of $100 million. Its opening-weekend performance was both impressive and disappointing, as the film handily beat its competitors while falling short of its predecessors' success (Part 1 opened at nearly $122 million in 2014).

Still, the franchise is far from finished. Following this final installment, The Hunger Games will enter a second life as entertainment experiences in a planned series of theme parks and licensed attractions around the world, the first of which is slated to open in Dubai in 2016. In time, it's possible — albeit not overwhelmingly likely — that there may be more movies as well: Lionsgate, the studio behind the massively successful films, has said that it is investigating prequel or sequel opportunities. The story may be over, at least for the moment, but the Games will go on, at least in some form.

Of course, The Hunger Games' incredible success wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. Initial efforts to adapt the books into big-budget movies were met with skepticism: The story’s unrelentingly bleak outlook and its physically and emotionally brutal depictions of violence committed both against and by children made the story a tough sell.

Yet the series became a runaway smash. In the space of just a few short years, The Hunger Games grew into a major cultural touchstone, a new pop classic rivaling, if perhaps not quite equaling, the power and influence of franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter, both of which it will now join in an eternally licensed afterlife.

At this point it seems clear that The Hunger Games' success comes not in spite of its bleakness and brutality but because of it. It's the perfect blockbuster for the millennial generation as it comes of age — an all-purpose metaphor for life as a young person in the post-recession era.

The Hunger Games' debut coincided with the economic downturn — a time when its darkness really resonated

The first book in Collins’s trilogy hit stores on September 14, 2008, just as the financial crisis was in the process of unfolding; Lehman Brothers would file for bankruptcy the very next day. The presidential election that would put Barack Obama in the White House was just six weeks away, and the worst economic turndown since the Great Depression was about to take its toll.

This was the world in which the millennial generation came of age, finishing high school, entering college, and struggling to find jobs as the economy tanked. It was in many ways a grim time to make the transition into adulthood.

The Hunger Games spoke powerfully to that darkness in both its general sensibility and its particular amalgam of the darkly familiar elements that make up its story and setting.

The series is set in a dystopian future in which North America has been divided into a dozen districts that comprise the nation of Panem. Those districts are forced to work tirelessly in what are often poverty-level conditions by rulers in the Capitol, where wealthy and powerful residents live in extreme luxury. The Capitol reinforces its authority through a form of showy barbarism called the Hunger Games, in which each of the districts is required to send two of its youths, a boy and a girl chosen annually by lottery, to participate in a televised game of death from which only one can emerge alive and victorious.

The story’s central voice and perspective helped. The trilogy follows Katniss Everdeen (played in the films by Jennifer Lawrence, in a role that made her a megastar) as she’s plucked from her grim life in District 12 and whisked away to the Capitol to participate in the Games, finds herself caught in a fraught love triangle, and eventually becomes the symbol of a secret resistance movement as it fights against the system.

The films are full of contemporary parallels

On the one hand, The Hunger Games is just a familiar reworking of the "hero’s journey" — the story of a protagonist who leaves her home, sets out on an adventure featuring an escalating series of challenges, learns something about herself, gains power, and then uses that power to vanquish a final enemy. In its broad strokes of heroism, rebellion, and revolution, it’s a remixed version of the story of Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of Rings.

But the particular combination of story elements, at once familiar and deeply twisted, give the series a powerful contemporary resonance, refracting and reflecting the interlocking anxieties of the present-day US into an unusually potent sci-fi mélange.

The ghoulish televised death match at the heart of the story owes more than a little to the reality show competitions — from Survivor to The Voice — that dominate network television programming today. And the ways in which Katniss is remade for public consumption, dressed and coached both as a participant in the Games and as a symbol of the resistance, play off concerns about corporate media manipulation as well as anxiety about the omnipresent demands for selective social media self-presentation.

The Games themselves, run by devious Gamemakers who operate according to their own rules, work as a bloody metaphor for the escalating trials of high school and the increasingly cutthroat college application process: They’re arbitrary and cruel, controlled by adults who claim to care but provide no alternative, designed to pit teenagers against one another in a merciless contest that authorities claim is for the good of both those involved and society as a whole.

Meanwhile, the abject poverty of the outer districts and their subjugation by the spectacularly wealthy elites of the Capitol recall both libertarian concerns about the power and privilege of an overreaching central government and liberal concerns about economic inequality.

And then there’s Katniss, the quintessential millennial hero. She’s earnest and self-assured, devoted and self-sacrificing, an expert bow hunter who quietly shoulders much of the burden of taking care of her family. She’s an organization kid who doesn’t wait her turn and wants to change the world.

She’s also skeptical and self-reliant, decent and kind but rarely trusting, intensely wary of any overarching ideology and keen to the ways that authority figures of all stripes — in the media, the government, elite society, or even alternative centers of power — want to exploit her for their own purposes.

How Katniss represents the millennial experience

Mockingjay — Part 2 offers frequent reminders of the ways Katniss is exploited by both sides of Panem’s civil war. Early in the movie, she visits the site of a mountain base controlled by the Capitol, one where the rebels have laid siege. As the workers exit through the only remaining tunnel, Katniss tries to convince them not to fight the rebel forces. Her message to them is one of peace and solidarity, but the undercurrent of her speech is that she refuses to be someone else’s pawn, as she was when she was forced to participate in the Games.

But a pawn is just what she is to the rebels she’s now aligned with. "You’re very valuable to us," the rebel leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) says to Katniss as she asks her to continue making propaganda films for the cause. Katniss defies Coin’s orders and sneaks out to the battlefield, but even there she cannot fully escape Coin’s reach. She’s followed by cameramen and a producer who attempts to stage-manage her every move.

Later in the movie, when it looks like Katniss has been killed, both Coin and her opposite in the Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), issue competing statements designed to transform Katniss's death into a selling point for their own side. Snow paints it as a moment of victory over the opposition; Coin turns Katniss into a martyr. The message is clear: Even in death, she’ll be dragged into their war.

The push-pull between the two sides who want to use Katniss, and her escalating struggle to escape both, is the central conflict of Mockingjay — Part 2, and it serves as a stand-in for all sorts of cultural tugs of war: the battles between mothers and fathers, between liberals and conservatives, between powerful insiders and the outsiders who threaten them.

In the end, what Katniss really wants is to not have to choose a side, to not have to fight others' battles and play their games. She wants to leave everything behind, escaping the endless and unwinnable conflicts and power struggles of the older generation. She wants to build her own life on her own terms.

It’s an apt metaphor for the millennial struggle to shrug off the darkness and baggage of the world that’s been left to them, and remake it into something less poisoned by the past — or at least something their own.

In the long run, that may be the key to the franchise’s staying power. The Hunger Games caught on because of all the ways it captures the bleakness of the current era. It will stay with us because it offers hope that those who make it through that bleakness can escape, and make something better out of whatever comes next.