Harriet Walker: The Hunger Games isn't just for teens

That these books are ring-fenced in the Young Adult genre is baffling

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Dystopian gore-fest The Hunger Games became America's fastest-selling non-sequel film on its release at the weekend. I'm not being facetious when I say I'm relieved that teenagers have ditched the vampires and wizards in favour of something a little more realistic. The premise – a futuristic totalitarian state asserts its strength by recruiting 24 children every year to fight to the death on telly – may seem far-fetched, melodramatic, even overly bloodthirsty, but it parallels the modern adolescent existence in a way that makes old farts like me only too glad to have narrowly escaped growing up in the internet age.

Constant surveillance; an emphasis on preternatural physical perfection; the need to be strong and stupid, but cunning; the ability to make people like you enough to vote for your survival... It sounds like a day in any high school, as well as an X Factor audition. And that is precisely the point.

That these books have been ring-fenced within the Young Adult genre is baffling: they may not be "high literature" but are relevant to anyone who has ever watched reality TV. And they make you think – coming of age in a society that devotes more time to The Only Way Is Essex than it does to tragedy must have done something to those impressionable little grey cells.

Conservatives would have you believe that the popularity of The Hunger Games and the abstinence-preaching Twilight franchise is because teenagers hark back to a more innocent time when life was all apple pies and square dances. US presidential contender Rick Santorum has even adopted a post-diluvian riff in his latest campaign video.

The real reason the books sell is because they deal with outsiders who buck convention. Teenagers want to break the rules, and that's not necessarily a criminal inclination any more. The Hunger Games highlights the angst, cynicism and grit of what being a teenager is really like. And it points to the fact that adolescent solipsism, bullying and a universal lack of empathy have also become signatures among grown-ups now, too.

How can we expect children to mature when we haven't really either? Instead, our culture teaches them to judge by appearance, to scorn, to triumph without talent. Dystopias don't lament the progress of liberalism, they lambast the rise of the superficial, fake and narrow-minded mediocrity that has come alongside it. Our children are not brutalised by reality TV, but our values have been. In an age where nothing is permanent or valued, one wins out only by hardening one's heart.

So. far from a shocking indictment of gruesome adolescent tastes, The Hunger Games points to a much broader and more positive sensibility. The books have now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide; the film has made £140m since Friday. Even Simon Cowell can't beat numbers like that.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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