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The appeal of The Hunger Games to our generation is curious. At first blush, the story that is full of adventure and fantasy seems a natural fit for a generation raised on Harry Potter. The romantic subplot is, on the surface, reminiscent of another teen craze, the Twilight books. But upon reading, The Hunger Games novels are different. The world is grimmer than Harry Potter, the love story unsatisfying and dark, even disturbing. Since we’re not usually fans of morally gray stories and hopeless worlds, something else must explain the resonance of The Hunger Games.

One fascinating stab at an explanation is offered by theologian and author Mark D. Roberts on His thesis is that the series almost unconsciously reminds some young people of their own lives. Rather than living in a dystopia of meager means and oppressive government, many college-bound young people live in a world of constant competition for academic and extracurricular achievements — a world where you must compete from early childhood for the honors and positions that look good on a resume or college application.

Crucially, this competition is not chosen by young people. Instead, it’s forced upon them by their parents, their schools and the established order. In many cases the life of a high school student — in the never-ending shuffle from SUV to school to SUV to sports practice, to SUV to tutoring — repeated daily without respite, resembles nothing more than the planned and regimented existence of the tributes in The Hunger Games novels, who are shuttled from their homes to beauty and fighting preparation and then into the arena to compete to the death with their peers.

This may sound familiar to many college students, and it’s this familiarity that almost unconsciously may account for much of the popularity of The Hunger Games series. We identify with the young protagonists because at some level, we’ve been there.

And it doesn’t stop at 18, like in The Hunger Games. For us, the competition continues for internships and grades, for graduate school acceptances, for great jobs and promotions and spouses. We’re always competing and it never stops. Little wonder, then, that young people report ever-increasing levels of stress, according to millennial generation researcher Jean Twenge.

If young people live in this ordered, planned and stifling world, it’s no wonder that the words of the male hero of The Hunger Games, Peeta, on the night before he enters the arena have such resonance: “Only I wish I could … show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.” This longing for authenticity, this desire to be yourself above all else is perhaps, more than anything, what appeals to young people about The Hunger Games trilogy.

When your life is as planned as ours often seem, authenticity looks more and more like an idyllic wish rather than a real possibility. The poignancy of The Hunger Games series is in the moments of doomed rebellion, where the heroes of the novels in gestures large and small, demonstrate their independence from the system that tries to break them.

It’s not yet clear what political or sociological form this feeling will take, but for now, it’s fascinating to notice how strong that feeling appears to be.

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