Here's a pop math quiz: “The Hunger Games,” a best-selling novel by Suzanne Collins about children killing children, is recommended for readers 12 and older. The “Hunger Games” movie, which shows kids killing kids, is angling for a PG-13 rating when it hits theaters Friday. To complicate matters, many readers under the age of 12 are dying to see the movie. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence, the film's star, is 21. She got the book at the behest of her mother, a reader and fan.
So who is the audience for “The Hunger Games?” A tense and gritty critique of media culture with violence as entertainment, it could be a movie squarely aimed at grown-ups. Or a family film that works on different levels for older and younger viewers, the way Pixar releases do. Or it could be the next “Twilight,” another smash young-adult-novel-to-teen-movie adaptation with a similarly vexing (if less prominent) love triangle.
The open question reflects the book's audience. In recent years a wave of popular young-adult novels has generated a happy convergence of readers who are young, readers who are young adults and readers who are, well, old adults. These best sellers may have caught Hollywood's attention, and led to major deals. But that doesn't make even a blockbuster like “The Hunger Games,” which has sold more than 11 million copies in the United States since it came out in 2008, a sure box office hit.
“There were a lot of ways this could become a movie that didn't honor what the book was about,” said one of the film's producers, Nina Jacobson, who described herself as obsessed with the novel, and who optioned “The Hunger Games” immediately after reading it. She made a passionate case to the author, promising to respect the book's fans without pandering to a teenage audience. But Jacobson assured Collins she wouldn't dilute the story by aging the characters up or by glamorizing its violence. “I loved the book as an adult,” Jacobson said firmly. “I don't think it's a Y.A. novel.”
One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult.
And “The Hunger Games” is very much a young-adult novel. The story takes place in a postapocalyptic version of North America called Panem, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen assumes the place of her younger sister in a televised battle to the death known as the Hunger Games.
The games are retribution for an earlier rebellion against the Capitol, which starves and represses the 12 remaining districts under its rule. Every year 24 children, a boy and girl from each district, must murder one another until one winner remains, an event relentlessly promoted to the entire nation. The ensuing action is similarly relentless — brutal, bloody and heartbreaking.
Gary Ross, the film's director, is no stranger to the pressures of major book-to-screen adaptations. He brought both “Seabiscuit,” Laura Hillenbrand's adult nonfiction book, and “The Tale of Despereaux,” a children's book by Kate DiCamillo, to film. He also brings rare experience with the book world to Hollywood.
As the president of the Los Angeles Public Library in the early 1990s, Ross oversaw a major expansion of its young adult collection. The parent of 16-year-old twins, he is steeped in the genre. And he is an author himself. His first children's book, what he calls an “epic poem” called “Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind,” will be published in November.
He argues that “The Hunger Games” both embodies and transcends the young-adult genre.
“Because teenagers are on the cusp of adulthood, they're grappling with a lot of issues that in adult books are resolved but teenagers are still beginning to explore,” he said. “It's that nascent element that makes `The Hunger Games' feel so urgent. It's innocent and aspirational and engaging.” And, he argued, it is no less so for an adult than for a teenager.
“I was enthralled,” he said. “Not many books on this scope have the kind of intimacy of `The Hunger Games.’ It was subtle but urgent, and Katniss Everdeen was complicated.”