Like many of today’s teens, I was excited for the release of “Catching Fire,” the newest film in “The Hunger Games” trilogy. Like many of today’s teens, I’ve read and loved every book in the series. The difference is that I’m not a teen. Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, I’m a bit more “chronologically enhanced.”
I first became interested in these novels when my daughters became interested in them. I wanted to screen what they were reading. It began with the Harry Potter series, which surprisingly captured me much as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” did when I was a teen.
I then read “The Hunger Games” trilogy, followed by the first four books in the yet-to-be completed seven-part Lorien series. A movie version (filmed in the Murrysville area) of the first book, “I Am Number Four,” was released in 2011. I then read the books of the Divergent series, the first film of which will be released in March.
Reading these books, I was struck by how similar the themes were. The stories were different, but the underlying crises and responses were so much alike. Each takes place during some sort of post-apocalyptic time in which a cataclysmic war has led to dysfunctional and dystopian times. In each series, the teens live in a world where adults rule over an increasingly segregated and subjugated population.
For example, by the end of the Harry Potter series the adult-run government has collapsed, and the evil wizard Voldemort is oppressing people based on the purity of their heritage. Pureblood wizards are rounding up “halfbloods” (one parent being a non-wizard, or “muggle”) and “mudbloods” (both parents being muggles) for imprisonment or deportation. Led by Harry Potter, the teens triumph over the evil and restore the world to peace and normalcy.
In “The Hunger Games,” the world has recovered from a cataclysmic world war. America is reconstituted as Panem, a country divided into 12 districts, each one segregated according to economic function — mining, manufacturing, food, trades — and The Capitol. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12 — an impoverished mining area (perhaps Western Pennsylvania?) where people are forced to live at a subsistence level, while in The Capitol people live in carefree opulence. National peace is maintained through military repression and the distraction of annual gladiator-like battles among teens from the districts who fight to the death till one victor is crowned. The games entertain, intimidate and subjugate by demonstrating The Capitol’s power. Eventually, the teens band together to overthrow the oppressive government and create the potential for a new, diverse and united country.
The Divergent series takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago, recovering many years after America was destroyed by “purity wars” waged between the genetically pure and genetically damaged. The population is sorted according to personal genetic attributes as warriors, farmers, selfless servants, intellectuals or truth tellers. Once again, teens join across factions to rebel and restore America to a place where differences are accepted and a better world is possible.
The Lorien series is simultaneously pre- and post-apocalyptic. It follows 10 teens endowed with special powers who are the only survivors of their advanced, peaceful planet, Lorien, after it was destroyed by the Mogodorians, a destructive, greedy race from another planet. The Mogodorians pillage and rape planets for their natural resources, leaving behind polluted shells. The Mogodorians have managed to secretly infiltrate the American government, and Earth is unwittingly about to be destroyed, unless the Mogodorian and human teens band together to triumph over the adults.
Similar films and shows have proliferated recently. In the past year, a slew of other apocalyptic shows have been released, such as the films “After Earth,” “Oblivion,” “Elysium,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Pacific Rim,” “World War Z” and “Ender’s Game,” and the television shows “Revolution,” “The Walking Dead,” “Defiance” and “Falling Skies.” They all seem to be training teens and young adults to put back together the dysfunctional world they expect to inherit after the present generation of leaders moves on.
Most present a common theme: The adults are too misguided and divided to overcome the growing problems of the world. Divisiveness and selfishness have led the world to dysfunction and soon to destruction. Teens may seem insignificant, and they are powerless as individuals, but if they work together by turning each other’s differences into strengths, they can restore the world.
This theme is very different from that of popular sci-fi and fantasy books and films from my youth, where often it was the powerful individual, eschewing all compromise and cooperation, who rose up to courageously defeat evil. Today, those individuals join others, especially those who possess compatible, yet different, skills.
This younger generation of Americans has grown up in times of conflict and division, witnessing impeachments; terrorist attacks; two long, unresolved wars; natural catastrophes; economic collapse; a troubled recovery — all amidst an unending ideological division that creates more problems than it resolves. Rather than being inspired by leaders who unite to overcome obstacles, they have watched adults criticize, denigrate, bully and impede each other. They have watched our leaders pursue ideologically driven paths of purity (conservative or liberal), leaving us unable to confront our common challenges.
It’s not just that people no longer have confidence in institutions. They no longer have confidence in each other, seeing anyone with a different perspective or lifestyle as a problem to overcome, or worse, to marginalize and sequester.
What’s apparent from these teenage, apocalyptic fictions is that our young people are being trained to forge a different world once the present generation of leaders passes on. Many adults criticize them these days, complaining that they aren’t ambitious, don’t work hard enough and don’t share our values. Perhaps, but maybe they are biding their time until they can restore us to a country where people know how to work together to build a better future.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish is pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople and an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (www.ngrahamstandish.org).