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How 'The Hunger Games' Got Cool

In just over a year, the young-adult book series has become a widespread cultural touchstone.


“Hunger Games money” should show up as a rap lyric in the next 30 days or so. The second installment of everyone’s favorite children-killing-children saga, Catching Fire, made $158 million in its first three days of release, the sixth-best opening of all time, behind only money-printing franchises like Harry Potter and The Dark Knight. But what’s more notable than the overall box is this: unlike the first film, whose opening-weekend audience skewed 71 percent female, Catching Fire’s patrons were only 59 percent female, a 12 percent increase in male patronage that can’t entirely be explained by the fact that the second edition is a better-made film.

The increase in male patronage isn’t in and of itself a cause of The Hunger Games’ ascendance as a cultural touchstone, but it is a correlation. It shows that what was, before the first movie, just one of the larger, more aggressive examples of cult-beloved young-adult properties—a thing that often skews female, because girls (and, subsequently, women) actually read—has become a dominant force. It’s become Cool. When Catching Fire came out, the people I know who frenziedly, excitedly, emphatically went and saw it covered the spread of demos and genders.

Movies recognized by the Oscars are their own genre now—but at the tiny center of the Venn diagram that includes both prestige flicks and blockbusters sits Jennifer Lawrence.

So: How does a cultural franchise go from being a genre exercise to an almost hegemonic thing in just over a year? (Think about it: You probably heard about The Hunger Games for the first time just over a year ago.) Every case is different, but for this one in particular, it stems from three factors, listed from least important to most:

Movies, books, and music are like parasites. They proliferate by means of the people who see them, love them, and talk about them. Advertising and publicity efforts by studios and enthusiastic reviews by the hamstrung arbiters of taste certainly don’t hurt—in fact, because the second TheHunger Games already had a guaranteed level of buzz and generated excitement, the carpet-bombing publicity and rave reviews helped add a layer of respectability rare for most blockbusters—but in the Internet Age, or whatever the hell we call our existence now, a cultural product’s existence is borne out by what’s colloquially called “word of mouth,” even though that term doesn’t exactly scan anymore. It’s a cumulative effect: Every girl dressed up as Katniss, every GIF, every tweet and Facebook post and Tumblr post pinballs around until the whole Internet is basically filled with The Hunger Games pinballs. This is nothing unknown at this point, but TheHunger Games has done it as well as anything else. Thor2: The Thorrening might have made beaucoup money, but nobody—well, not literally nobody, but effectively nobody—anticipated or celebrated that movie with anywhere near the energy that Catching Fire received.

At the core of both The Hunger Games movies, as well as the books and the iconography of Katniss, is a savage, shocking violence. And in a cultural industry where violence has largely lost its ability to shock—take Grand Theft Auto for instance, a video game whose violence is so excessive it’s basically negated itself—the violence of The Hunger Games is shocking. America is a country where people kill kids, often en masse. And TheHunger Games movie distills that down even further: It’s a story of adults forcing kids to kill other kids. But it handles this atrocity with empathy and horror, in a way that’s far more plausible than anyone would really like it to be, as a symptom of a foundering dictatorship that, though cartoonish, could be a lot less relatable than it is. And like Harry Potter, another on-the-surface young-adult franchise that overcame these limitations, The Hunger Games builds on a proud artistic legacy of dystopia: from schoolkid classics like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies to edgier instances of absurdist tyranny like Clockwork Orange, If... and the work of Kafka to more contemporary influences like Battle Royale and Elephant. The Hunger Games has plenty of precedent in cinema and art in general, and this is where it differs from Harry Potter, which, although also part of a long tradition and legacy of magic and fantasy, bound itself by creating a world almost too insular. By the time the last Harry Potter came out, the movies and books felt like they had almost outgrown the culture. They were so big that any other works were dwarfed, whereas TheHunger Games feels like far more a part of the filmic tradition. It also helps that TheHunger Games movies have overshadowed the books at this point, whereas the Potter films were, aside from the masterpiece third installment, always in service of the literature. This has a lot to do with our last factor.

The new Hollywood is a place where Oscar-contending prestige films and industry-supporting (or industry-destroying, depending on how you look at it) blockbusters basically exist adjacent to each other, with almost zero overlap. There’s no better example of this than Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which, despite being revered by the public in general and pushing Nolan into the stratosphere of film creators in the eyes of both fans, actors, and studio suits, received zero Best Picture nominations. Even if they made up for that in spades with their box office takes, being ignored by the Academy was still a sign of disrespect. Movies recognized by the Oscars are their own genre now—but at the tiny center of the Venn diagram that includes both prestige flicks and blockbusters sits Jennifer Lawrence.

At 23 years old, Lawrence has pretty much mastered the new Hollywood. She’s already been nominated twice for acting Oscars, and won once. (The list of actresses who have accomplished this is not particularly long.) One of those wins was with auteur David O. Russell, one of the very few filmmakers who manages to make good movies that also contend for Academy Awards, and this relationship has already bred the imminent American Hustle, which could certainly net her a third nomination. At the same time, she has not only The Hunger Games but also X-Men under her franchise belt, meaning she’s set for life money-wise. And she’s not only walked the tricky line of maintaining the public’s fickle and often inscrutable adoration; she owns it in a way that no other actor/actress does. (Seriously: Disliking Jennifer Lawrence in 2013 is like being a Communist in the ’50s.)

Obviously, Lawrence owes some of her rise to The Hunger Games, but there’s no doubt that without her enormous stature as a serious actress/everyone’s BFF, Catching Fire wouldn’t have hit with the same sort of reverberations. Male proxies like Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, ambitious though they might be, do not exactly lend their franchises the weight that Lawrence does. She’s the female Downey, and I’m only putting it that way because Downey’s older; even RDJ, who topped Vulture’s list of Hollywood’s biggest stars right now, doesn’t have a statue. And although the paychecks probably have more to do with why some of the movies’ best, including Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Stanley Tucci, are in Catching Fire, Lawrence’s presence helps elevate their roles as well.

If these factors don’t convince you, think of it this way: The Hunger Games could’ve easily been Twilight. It’s not.