"The Hunger Games" may have fit neatly into a "young adult" category in its early marketing, but this trilogy featuring a 16-year-old heroine from the future is at the leading edge of literature that is bringing the entire family together.
The story made the leap from page to screen because Hollywood producer Nina Jacobson -- hardly the target demographic -- fell in love with the story on her own. And the actress cast to play the young heroine, Jennifer Lawrence, was introduced to the futuristic world by her own mother.
Tales of multigenerational bonding over this parable of an oppressive, autocratic corporatocracy abound.
"What is amazing is the power of literature to reach beyond the boundaries that marketing sets up," says Karin Westman, an English professor at Kansas State University who has taught both "The Hunger Games" and that other successful crossover series, "Harry Potter." Because of broader access to information and the ability to share conversations more easily, she says, "we are finally reaching a point where it is typical for a book to cross boundaries, rather than for it to be seen as an anomaly."
This trilogy is particularly powerful for families to share, she says, because it relates to so many primal issues such as sibling loyalty and family survival.
Themes of family tragedy and endurance in the face of hardship are what led Maria Perez, a New Jersey public-relations executive, to bond with her 13-year-old niece, Claudia Perez, through the books. "My niece lost her mom in December 2010," she says via e-mail, adding, "She loves to read, so I thought the book would offer her some catharsis, since the main character lost her father." They plan to see the movie together when it comes out next week, she says.
The book share has worked well, says Claudia, also via e-mail.
"I like ‘The Hunger Games' because it's the perfect balance of adventure and love. The characters are ‘real,' and I can relate to them," she writes. The main character, Katniss, "is exactly like me," she adds. "She's athletic, she's a thinker, she's independent, and she has also experienced loss."
She says she likes reading the book with her aunt, because they can discuss and share ideas around it. "Even though it's a serious book, we still laugh a lot. And even though we're reading the same book, we read it differently, so we have different opinions about what it means. It's more enjoyable to read it together," she says.
Mother-daughter bonding led Boston-area marketing executive Lisa Rinkus to pick up "The Hunger Games," "so I could relate to what my daughter is so excited about," she says. She is quick to note that she and her daughter are already close, but she points out that books provide a bridge for a different kind of sharing. "They are at a funny age where on the one hand they push you away, but then she will come to me and ask if I have finished reading the book," she says.
The two of them have read all the various magazines about the upcoming film and plan to go together. The violence in the series concerns her, says Ms. Rinkus, but she sees the story as an opportunity to talk about important issues in the world. Her daughter, Elizabeth Rinkus, answered her mother's text message about reading the books together.
"I think it's a great thing that you and other parents are reading ‘The Hunger Games' and are able to see what kinds of things us younger kids are so fascinated and intrigued by," she texts. Her mother notes that this is the longest text she has ever received from her daughter, as it continues: "It's a brilliant piece of writing that would suit every age group and inspire the world to be creative and inventive with our writing."
The films are uniting other sorts of family groups as well, says Santa Barbara family therapist Jen Freed. She says that the after-school program she directs will be taking a group of mentors and teens to the film when it opens. They have done this before, she notes, but says that "The Hunger Games" is particularly powerful.
"They are not formulaic," Ms. Freed says, "and they deal with all kinds of important family issues, as well as larger moral and ethical questions." After the movie, she adds, the group will gather to discuss and share what they have gotten out of the experience.