This week is spring break for the public schools in New Hanover County, NC, and at some point during her time off our eldest daughter, the high school math teacher, will be taking me to see The Hunger Games. In preparation for this event, I read the book. The only thing I did not like was that it was written in the present tense, old-school past-tense guy that I am. The story itself was every bit as good as its reputation.
For those of you who have somehow missed the Hunger Games phenomenon, the Wikipedia article gives a fair summary of the first novel. Haven't read volumes two and three, so I don't know how accurate the other wiki articles are.
Some critics have dismissed the hoopla surrounding the movie's release as "hype," but they're missing the point. Suzanne Collins' trilogy became popular on its own merits long before the movie promotions - and with a broad spectrum of readers. The first copy of Catching Fire I saw was being read by a US Marine sergeant while we were waiting outside traffic court. These books have captured imaginations the way Harry Potter did a decade and a half ago, and for many of the same reasons. That they are well written has a lot to do with their appeal, of course, but it's the universal nature of their stories that enables readers to connect, to become personally invested in events.
At this point you may be objecting that you've never been a wizard nor have you fought twenty-three of your peers to the death on global television - how can these be universal? We'll get back to that.
Elsewhere I have reported that I became a reader during a long convalescence the autumn I turned twelve. I resisted at first, but alone in a room with no TV I eventually gave into the pressure of my own boredom and looked at the stack of books my mother had brought from the library. She had asked the librarian for stories a boy might like and though I don't think I ever knew that worthy's name, I owe her a debt of gratitude; she gave my mother a stack of Robert Heinlein "juveniles" - the sub-genre now called young adult. I have always called the first Heinlein book I read the gateway novel to my addiction to science fiction - but in fact it's responsible for luring me into a lifetime of reading: Have Space Suit - Will Travel. Over the past half century I've outgrown Heinlein's politics and his theories about religion, psychology, culture, or language, but I am still a fan of the novels he wrote for "young readers" - from Rocket Ship Galileo (1948) through Podkayne of Mars (1963). Heinlein had more respect for his preteen and teenage readers than most writers of the era - he addressed self-doubt, tragic consequences, doing all you can in the face of problems that could not be solved, and struggling with ethical choices. None of Heinlein's heroines or heroes ever approached anything like the popularity of Katniss or Harry, but the family resemblance is clear.
The Hunger Games trilogy, like the Harry Potter saga of the 1990s, is aimed at the young adult market, but they've had an impact on readers of all ages; that universal nature I mentioned. It's simplest to say what makes these stories universal is that they are all coming of age stories; tales of personal journeys as adolescent protagonists discover who they are and what they are capable of as they grow into their destinies. But it's more complex than that. Forgettable coming of age novels and movies are legion. What gives the works of Rowling and Collins power are thoroughly realized characters facing well delineated obstacles or adversaries and believably rising above themselves to triumph. These writers respect their characters and respect the readers who follow them on their journey (and will put themselves in the story). In Hunger Games teen Katniss Everdeen does what she can to live and take care of the ones she loves in a world over which she has no control. Like most high schoolers she spends a lot of time worrying about how what she does appears to others, trying to figure out what other people are thinking or why they do the things they do, and completely misunderstanding the thought processes and motives of peers of the opposite sex. (To my mind, one advantage she has over Harry Potter is Katniss doesn't inherit any special abilities and doesn't have a phalanx of supporters; she worked hard to master every skill she has and the only person she can rely on is herself.)
Will the Hunger Games trilogy spawn a swarm of imitators? Of course. Will they be worth reading? In most cases probably not. Because most imitative writers will focus on the superficial trappings of the stories - heroic struggles against dystopia, angst-laden love, cool fight scenes, and discovering hidden talents or reserves of inner strength. But even if we never write for the young adult market, we can learn from Collins and Rowling. Find what is universal in your story - the chord with which others can resonate - then nurture and build on that element, that theme, that journey, with respect. And give that same respect to your readers.