Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
The Hicks household now boasts a newly minted teenage daughter. Those of us in similar demographic circumstances have spent most of the last couple years hearing about a book series (and much anticipated movie) called The Hunger Games. I confess to having not paid much attention to the phenomenon, imagining it would be as mercifully transient as the Bieber haircut. In truth I am far more interested in my newly 13-year-old’s algebra homework than I am her extracurricular reading. I now attend to both.
For this first teenage birthday, my wife and a friend treated their two daughters to the midnight premier of the movie. My wife shocked me with a 3:00 A.M. text message proclaiming the movie was well worth staying up for. She was not alone, and it seems as many as one out of every 200 Americans watched it on opening night. I am no movie aficionado, and think the industry took a turn for the worse after Casablanca, so cannot speak to the movie itself. However, the buzz among kids was enough to compel my 11-year-old boy to sacrifice a day of spring break video game bacchanalia to read the book (that is Mrs. Hicks' precondition for watching the movie).
What has kept me in a three-week state of shock is the message on values our kids are getting from this work. The story takes place in a dystopian America of captive states from which, each year, one boy and girl are chosen by lottery to fight to the death for the televised pleasure of prosperous city dwellers. The story borrows liberally from literature and history that few teens now recognize. Our teens do understand enslaved gladiators fighting in a reality show for TV audiences.
Throughout the book I wondered if I was reading something Ayn Rand might have written if she were a better writer. It is a scathing depiction of big government (and big Hollywood). More importantly the book offers a moral dimension about love, sacrifice and loyalty that is absent in the missives of Libertarianism. The protagonists in The Hunger Games would not recognize the unbridled caricature of self-interest that animates Rand's philosophy. The Hunger Games celebrates humanity under the most difficult of circumstances. It is powerful stuff. But what will this mean?
At least two more movies will extend this franchise. So, for the first time in half a century, a strong, successful and lasting message from popular culture is confidently delivering a very different story about personal freedom and responsibility than we have been accustomed to. Yet, it is thoroughly modern in its tastes; the center of strength and courage is a poor, young Appalachian girl. I do not know the politics of author Suzanne Collins, and hope she will not try to craft a new philosophy like Rand. Rather I hope she simply writes more books about the beauty of freedom, love and sacrifice. These are matters about which we all need more frequent reminding.