'Hunger Games' fandom: Can it become a force for good?

'The Hunger Games' is filled with themes of social justice, but efforts to motivate the fandom to fight hunger and join other causes have faltered. The films could change that. 

Murray Close/Lionsgate/AP
Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from 'The Hunger Games.'

Themes of poverty, injustice, oppression – and yes, hunger – feature prominently in the story line of “The Hunger Games,” the film franchise launching this weekend. 

Now, those issues are migrating off the page and silver screen into the real world. Fans of the dystopian world depicted by author Suzanne Collins are being urged to get involved with social-justice issues, such as fighting hunger.

The series is tailor-made for this sort of fiction-to-real world translation, says Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “The film has a powerful line” when Katniss, the 16-year-old heroine sent to battle for her family’s survival, “addresses the control and manipulation of the food source, proclaiming: 'I refuse to play your game,' " she says in an e-mail.

These words are particularly appealing to the film's young adult audience, says Professor Wilson, who studies social movements. This is “an audience raised on the importance of community service and finding creative solutions to complex social problems."

In February, the World Food Programme of the UN and Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, co-created a video to involve "Hunger Games" fans in ending hunger.  World Vision, a Christian charity, has more than 100,000 teen “Hunger” fans lined up for an April 27 fast to end hunger. 

In another social-action campaign dubbed, “Hunger is not a game,” a project of the Harry Potter alliance (HPA) called "Imagine Better" aims to tap “Hunger” fans to support Oxfam’s “Grow” campaign, a five point, antihunger initiative aimed at specific Department of Agriculture legislation now being revised in Congress. Moviegoers this weekend are being urged to sign a petition and contact their local representatives. 

This move from the couch into the body politic is relatively new for the "Hunger Games" fan base, says Savanna New, a 20-something French teacher from Florida who hosts a weekly podcast on the trilogy.

“It’s a natural fit, but pretty new for most of us,” she says. She notes that she was part of a group trying to help raise money for African famine victims in 2011, “but we didn’t get anywhere near the kind of support we had hoped.”

This time, she says, the movie and the growing momentum around various partners will make a difference. “I am sort of the ambassador to the ‘Games’ fandom,” she says, working to bring the focus and scope of more experienced nonprofits such as Oxfam and even the HPA to her fan world.

“It’s so important that we invest in the energy and passion of young people,” says HPA founder Andrew Slack. 

This partnership with “Hunger” fans is the first step away from the group’s founding focus around the Harry Potter stories, he says, but he views it as a natural  progression for what is being called “nomadic fandoms.” These are groups that form around an initial shared passion, then migrate the structure and the social-media interconnectedness into the next compelling narrative.

The progression from making a difference in the world based on principles gleaned from the Potter books is a natural fit. “These groups love complexity and nuance,” he says, “and they are invested in online activism and connection. They get it way more than adults do,” he adds.

This push through online connections into the offline world speaks to the way the next generation will be interacting with the politics of tomorrow, says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington’s Sociology Department. His 20-year-old daughter is headed to a midnight screening of “The Hunger Games” on Thursday, and he says, she intends to sign the Oxfam petition.

“How long can you keep the injustices of the world hidden now that they have an international fan base?” he adds. 

Real-world activism flows naturally from the book’s themes and characters, adds George Dunn, editor of a new book on the philosophy of "The Hunger Games," and a philosophy instructor at the University of Indianapolis. “The heroes of the series are just ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances,” he says.

Characters find within themselves the courage and resources to make the world better. As the books move people to take action, he adds, “it gives you hope about the future of literature when we realize the power it can have.”

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