Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy speaks to a generation of teenage readers like no other literary creation - but what’s the big message?

Without the culture and conflicts of the 2000s, The Hunger Games might never have come into being, yet its origins can be found in the war in Vietnam

The idea for The Hunger Games famously came to Suzanne Collins as she was channel-hopping at home in Connecticut, late one evening in the mid-2000s. She found herself flicking back and forth between a reality TV contest and footage of the war in Iraq, musing on that uncomfortable juxtaposition, and on the desensitising effect of the modern media. “I was tired,” Collins recalled later, “and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”

The story was set in a dystopian North America ruled by a despotic regime, which once a year plucks several teenagers from their impoverished provincial towns, corrals them in a hostile arena with a selection of weapons, and then forces them to fight each other to the death on live television. Its protagonist was Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the titular Hunger Games, and proves more than a match for her male rivals, who tend to suffer violent deaths at her hand or others’. Collins thought of her heroine as “a futuristic Theseus”, sent to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, but instead emerging from the Labyrinth alive.

Katniss doesn’t waste time pining after dreamy vampire boyfriends; for her, romance comes a distant second to survival. And for that reason and more, male readers who would never touch a Twilight novel have embraced Collins’s books – as have adults and critics. In 2011, The Atlantic called Katniss “the most important female character in recent pop culture history”. Michael Cart, an author and expert in young adult fiction, says, “People conversant with young adult literature have been calling for more strong female protagonists for years, and we now have one in Katniss. She is a role model for a new generation of young women.”

Ever since Harry Potter was republished with alternative dust jackets for grown-ups, young adult fiction has been a boom sector. Remarkably, its largest market is not teens, but 19 to 44-year-olds, which has earned the genre another tag: “new adult”. Collins earned $55m (£34m) last year, which puts her in the same income bracket as J K Rowling and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.

That success has carried over to the box office, where the 2012 film version of the 2008 Hunger Games novel grossed almost $700m worldwide and made Jennifer Lawrence a megastar. Its sequel, Catching Fire, was released today, and promises to break box-office records. Collins’ creation has been followed to the screen by several more adaptations of dystopian teen novels, including the bestselling Divergent trilogy by US author Veronica Roth, which also features a feisty female lead.

Without the culture and conflicts of the 2000s, The Hunger Games might never have come into being, nor have touched such a nerve with readers. Yet its origins can be found in a war fought a generation earlier. Collins’ father, an officer in the US air force, was sent to serve in Vietnam in 1968, around the time she turned six. “Even though my mom tried to protect us … sometimes the TV would be on, and I would see footage from the war zone,” Collins has said. “I was little, but I would hear them say ‘Vietnam’, and I knew my dad was there, and it was very frightening.”

The experience had such an effect on Collins that her latest book, Year of the Jungle, is an illustrated memoir of that period aimed at readers of around the age she was when her father was away fighting overseas. Its narrator, a young schoolgirl named Suzy, is confused to hear that her father has been sent to a “place called Viet Nam” to participate in “something called a war”. Collins Snr returned safe, though he suffered nightmares. In the early 1970s, the air force posted him and his family to Brussels, where he would take his four children on regular and comprehensive tours of the local battlefields. Collins learned that her grandfather had been gassed during the First World War, her uncle wounded by shrapnel in the Second. Her father had previously taught history to cadets at the West Point military academy. He had a gift for storytelling, his daughter thought, and a “sense of exactly how much a child could handle, which is quite a bit”.

Collins’ work could, therefore, be seen as an attempt to continue her father’s project, of teaching young people about the horrors of war. Her first book series, before Year of the Jungle or The Hunger Games, was The Underland Chronicles, in which two children tumble through a vent in their basement to find a fantasy world torn apart by a conflict between species. (Though many children die in the course of The Hunger Games trilogy, the books are decidedly anti-violence, so there is an awful irony to the fact that Collins and her family live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, the site of a horrifying act of violence against children.)

Katniss Everdeen’s signature skill is archery, which she has learned as a child to hunt for food for her family’s table. That, too, is an echo from Collins’ father, who grew up during the Depression, hunting and foraging for food that his family could not otherwise afford.

Collins’ childhood was comfortable, in spite of that difficult year without him, and by the mid-1980s she was a theatre and telecommunications student at the University of Indiana, where she met her husband, the actor Charles “Cap” Pryor. After graduating, the pair moved to New York, and in 1991 Collins began her career as a children’s television writer, including a stint on Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart as a feisty, precocious teenager struggling through adolescence. Though Clarissa’s circumstances were somewhat less violent than Katniss’s, she was nonetheless a groundbreaker: the Nickelodeon network’s first female protagonist.

It wasn’t until after she turned 40 that Collins published her first book, inspired by a meeting with the children’s writer James Proimos, who would later illustrate Year of the Jungle.

The first of five Underland Chronicles, Gregor the Overlander, was published in 2003. The series was successful, but not so successful that its author could give up her day job, so she juggled the writing of The Hunger Games with work on a Nickelodeon show for preschool children, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!.

The Hunger Games was published in September 2008 and went on to spend 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, where it was joined by Catching Fire the following year, and the final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, in 2010. Chris Shoemaker, the president-elect of the US Young Adult Library Services Association, explains its appeal to its core audience, saying, “The Hunger Games speaks to teenagers, to that outsider feeling they have that the world is organised against them. In The Hunger Games world, it really is organised against them.”

Collins has adapted the books for the screen personally. Last year, Amazon revealed that she was the best-selling Kindle author of all time. Yet she remains an elusive media presence, presumably suspicious of the sensationalism that her novels satirise. She rarely, if ever, grants on-camera interviews. Like Katniss, she is a reluctant celebrity – but, also like Katniss, an increasingly powerful one.

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