Why The Hunger Games Resonates With Millennials

By any measure, “The Hunger Games” is a smash hit, breaking records for movie sales, book sales and music, all at the same time.

  • Movie:  Bloomberg/Businessweek predicts the movie will to generate $350 million at the U.S. box office, with a chance to go as high as $390 million, putting it in line to surpass the $381 million mark set by the final “Harry Potter” film.
  • Soundtrack: The movie soundtrack debuted at number one on Billboard, displacing Adele’s 21.
The movie is the first of a trilogy, so these figures are just the beginning. With games, merchandise, perhaps even a theme park in the future, the franchise is far from its peak.

Witnessing this rocket-like performance, it’s worth taking a moment to ask “what explains the phenomenon?” 

The movie defies categorization:  Survivor + Gladiator + 1984 + Coal Miner’s Daughter with a PG-13 rating.  Yet, there is more going on here than just a mash up of unlikely genres.  Like one of Katniss Everdeen’s high tech arrows, this story strikes at the heart of many Millennial-cherished values.  Here are just a few of the ways “Hunger Games” connects emotionally with its Millennial audiences:

1. Collaboration is the new competition – Although the Hunger Game competition is a fight to the death, with just one possible winner, Katniss refuses to succumb to the pressure to win at the expense of others. She repeatedly shows kindness to younger, weaker competitors and benefits from her generosity as others spare her life for sparing theirs.

2. Excess consumption is revolting – The contrast between Katniss’s dreary District 12 and the colorful, grotesquely lavish lifestyle of the dystopian capital, Panem,  makes viewers cringe.

3. Distrust power and “reality TV” – The rules of the game are arbitrary and manipulative, the rule-makers are corrupt and not to be trusted.

4. Competence is what matters –Katniss prevails because she is more disciplined, skilled, and strategic. Her competence is a powerful answer to the oft-repeated wish, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” The capable do not need luck.

5. Mentors are important to success –Katniss is willing to take the advice of her stylist and her mentor. That advice is critical to her success.

6. True love is not the end all, be all — Katniss is willing to sacrifice her life for her sister. She is motivated by family, not by romantic love.  In fact, she’s not sure she wants to marry and have children at all. She is clear-eyed about the ‘star-crossed’ lovers theme, not sentimental.

7. Be yourself –Throughout the movie, Katniss is unwilling to accommodate those who advise her to ‘be more likeable’.  She refuses to win by sacrificing who she really is.

Like an Arrow

These are some of the ways “The Hunger Games” connects with Millennial values, yet for me, the movie was uncompelling. There was little more at stake than the survival of the main characters.  Since I am aware the movie is a trilogy, Katniss’ survival is foreordained (at least until the third installment).  I liked Katniss, but I don’t relate to her or her plight.  I was more engaged in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where the stakes of the Cold War transcended the significance of the individual characters.  In the end, what does it matter who wins the Hunger Games? There seems to be little of principle at stake.

For Millennials, the more personal drama of Katniss Everdeen is compelling and important. She is a real and admirable role-model. Her fictional struggles are not that abstract to Millennials confronting a competitive world, yet trained from an early age to collaborate. Her desire to remain true to herself, and resist corruption resonate. Her lack of self-consciousness about the way she looks, her desirability to the hot guys around her and her dedication to those younger and weaker are especially poignant to young adults struggling to find their way.

Kudos to the author, publisher, movie makers and marketers who recognized the potency of this particular narrative to a generation ‘hungering’ for a heroine that fits their time.