Despair is fashionable but ultimately boring. It's time to escape from dystopia.
“The Hunger Games,” the book, is a page-turner and the movie is gripping. Some of my colleagues, working hard to reconnect young people to nature, believe the popularity of the book and movie will, like the film "Avatar," stimulate a deeper interest in the natural world. I hope they’re right, but after leaving the movie theater on Friday (having already read the book), I was, well, ambivalent.
In this story, there are two forests. The first forest is as natural as a forest can be with an electrified fence to keep the largest carnivores out of District 12, Katniss Everdeen's starving Appalachian homeland.
At the beginning of the book (far more intellectually stimulating than the more primal movie), she describes sitting in a nook in the rocks with her hunting partner, Gale, looking out at a forest that sustains them: “From this place we are invisible but have a clear view of the valley, which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather, roots to dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight.” This forest keeps her family alive.
The second forest is where a totalitarian government stages its Hunger Games. Periodically, twenty-four teenagers are taken from their home districts and sent into this forest to murder one another. At the end of the game, one teenager remains. He or she is rewarded with riches and fame. “Survivor” meets “American Idol” meets “Gladiator.”
The domed forest is a genetically and electronically altered nightmare. In it, the government has planted “tracker jackers,” as Collins writes, killer wasps “spawned in a lab and strategically placed, like land mines, around the districts during war.” And when the game overseers want to change the odds, they drop in a few virtual hounds from hell.
Katniss does get to use her archery, hunting and tracking skills, but this second forest is an extreme-sport theme park, which, according to some outdoor industry experts, isn't far off the mark for how many Americans view nature, if they view it at all.
For many, nature is less about nurture than about danger and dystopia. “The Hunger Games” reflects that view of nature and of the future.
Ask Americans what images first come to mind, when they think about the far future, and they’ll likely describe “Blade Runner” or “Mad Max.” Dystopian fiction is the hottest genre in young adult novels, with no positive vision on the horizon. This isn’t new. Think of “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “Fahrenheit 451,” dark novels that were particularly popular when Baby Boomers were young. In that tradition, “The Hunger Games” is in a cautionary tale about the dangers of surveillance, the intrusion of technology into minds and bodies, and the denaturing of nature itself.
So I admire the book, and its exploration of social control, but days after viewing the film, I can’t shake an uneasy feeling, and I’m not the only one. Most of the unease has to do with the story's central focus, more pronounced through the visceral power of film: an orgy of teen-on-teen violence – two dozen young people hunting each other. We read so many headlines about school mass killings, and schoolyard and dorm-room bullies driving gay kids to suicide, and teenage girls strapping bombs to their chests. Yes, “The Hunger Games” can be interpreted as warning, but it could also be the kind of near-glamorization, of teen and child violence, that excites copy-cat murderers.
Another source of unease is the never-ending projection of a dystopian future. We’re in a post-apocalyptic rut, and it’s becoming tiresome and possibly self-fulfilling.
"The Hunger Games" series does hold out some hope, something that 13 year-old Miranda Andersen pointed out in a recent Children & Nature Network guest blog: "In some ways the dystopia books are good because they scare kids about what the world might look like and then scares them into doing something to make the future better. Maybe writers could also inspire them with images of a better future."
In that vein, some of us believe that a New Nature Movement is coming, or already here -- a movement of people, old and young, hungry for a new story. In that story, technology is will be balanced by nearby nature; and our homes and workplaces, neighborhoods and cities will become engines of biodiversity and human health.
People in the entertainment industry are supposed to be good at imagining alternative scenarios. Why not this one?
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS.
Photo taken on Kodiak Island, Alaska: R.L.