Things I Learned From… The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games just had the best ever opening weekend for a non-sequel, and the third best opening weekend of all time. I know, I know, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation (one of my pet hates about ”best ever” box office claims), but we can still usefully compare them to films released in the last few years, including the first Twilight movie. Without doubt, it’s one hell of an achievement.

What we should be asking ourselves is – why? And I don’t mean that in a snarky sense.  Even a bad movie that makes money is a cause for celebration, because it’s putting money into the industry – and The Hunger Games isn’t a bad movie. The performances are good, the differing social worlds are clearly delineated, there’s enough social satire to give the simple story of personal survival some bite, and the battle scenes manage to be disturbing without betraying the 12A rating.

But when you stop and think about it, there’s nothing enormously original and striking about it, either. It’s The Running Man with teenagers – or to quote the much-Tweeted joke, ”You know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris?  Battle Royale with cheese.” The plotting is solid but unremarkable, the love triangle is weakened by the fact that one of the lads is hundreds of miles away throughout most of the story, and Peeta the primary love interest is a little under-characterised.

(Actually, the film *is* an interesting example of how an action movie Attractor (love interest) is forced into stereotypical ”female” behaviour, like needing rescue and nurture, by the conventions of the plot – something that shows up most strongly when the Attractor is male. Notice even the spelling of his name: ending in an ”a”, which in English usually denotes a girl’s name. A blog post for another day, perhaps…)

So why is The Hunger Games such a huge hit? Brand recognition, marketing, and a strong fan base, yes – but something about the original story drew all those fans to read the book in the first place, right?

I think it’s actually a wonderful example of finding exactly the right premise for your target audience, or indeed, target audience for your premise.

Look it at it like this. A science fiction dystopia is all about the suppression of the individual, the stripping away of basic rights like social mobility and freedom of expression, and absorption into a homogenous society who are bound together by a figurehead or a ritual – the supposed chance to win extra life years in Logan’s Run, loyalty to Big Brother in 1984.

Now, assuming we’re lucky enough to live in a relatively free society, we don’t identify much with those characters, do we? We don’t know what it feels like to be them. But I’ll tell you who does – teenagers. Because, whether it’s justified or not, they feel oppressed the whole damn time. People are always telling them they shouldn’t dress like that, they shouldn’t hold that opinion, they have to obey the rules, they have to be part of society, whatever that means… If there’s anyone who should identify with a character living in a dystopia, it’s teenagers.

So put a teenage heroine in a dystopia – fighting not even for her family or her village (her mom’s pretty useless and her community seems indifferent to them), but for her helpless little sister, a loyalty that teenagers will appreciate… Add a love triangle, an solid Nemesis character, and a cute kid who needs protecting, and you have yourself a $200 million hit!

So, how can you tailor the theme of your story to your target audience?  Or, if you’re looking for a saleable concept, can you start with the concerns and feelings of  a target audience and turn that into a compelling story?

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