It’s simple: Readers of the book have put themselves in the story.
It’s a gripping first-person narrative that prods the reader to wonder, “What would I do in this situation?” again and again. And it’s a fight for liberty—personal and collective—that is relatable.
Like many enduring tales, The Hunger Games features everyday individuals fighting evil against all odds. In their country of Panem, entertainment and oppression have melded into a frightening mutation (or, to use a term coined by author Suzanne Collins, “muttation”). The iron-fisted Capitol keeps the districts (the states of Panem) down by pitting them against each other in a televised annual spectacle, the Hunger Games. Each district must send one male and one female “tribute” between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a fight to the death. The winner is lavished with wealth and food, which is scarce for most.
The Capitol is a gluttonous place where citizens’ needs are more than met, giving them time to fixate on adorning their bodies and seeking entertainment. They are the main audience for the Hunger Games, though the impoverished people in the districts are forced to watch as well.
While the Capitol could be a metaphor for Americans’ obsession with entertainment, desensitization to violence, and voyeuristic pleasure in “reality” TV, the notion of a government with absolute control—and citizens struggling for their freedom—extends from the American Revolution to the tea parties of recent years.
“We’re thankfully a very faint shadow of Panem in the United States, but increasingly we live at the mercy of politicians irrespective of party,” writes John Tamny in Forbes. “If this is doubted, try to evade your taxes, and when you get a letter from the IRS asking for them, ignore the letter.”
Tamny calls the novel “a boisterous comment about the certain horrors of big government.” And though Panem is an overblown caricature, the theme resonates. The government dictates the work citizens are allowed to do, the places they’re allowed to go, and the tribute they must pay to the Capitol. There is little hope because there is no prospect of freedom. There is no opportunity for individual achievement or innovation, and many turn to the black market—the closest thing they have to a free market—just to obtain food.
Author John Eldredge, who says “We’ve lost the fact that reality is a story,” has written at length about the power of a narrative that draws us in and makes us feel like we are part of a greater cause.
“In Algebra you can say, ‘I understand that!’ But in a great story you say, ‘I want to live like that,’” Eldredge says.
This is the reason the story of The Hunger Games inspires—the timeless truth that freedom is worth fighting for.