The Hunger Games reaches full fever-pitch promotion this week — the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best-selling dystopian novel opens Thursday at midnight in most cities — just as Invisible Children's deeply flawed campaign to "Stop Kony" has exploded in an embarrassing, bewildering mess. It's a coincidence that highlights the single truth at the heart of both nightmares: Children who live in poverty are easy prey.
While it's no longer operating in Uganda, the LRA still uses child soldiers in other countries. Thomas Lubanga was convicted last week by the International Criminal Court for recruiting youth to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo; only days before, South Sudan agreed to fully release all minors from its military. And last year, just across the U.S. border, my friend and Current TV colleague Christof Putzel interviewed boys in Juarez, Mexico, who told him they couldn't wait to be old enough to work as hit men for drug cartels — because it could put food on the table for their families.
This reality — as Invisible Children's incredibly problematic yet undeniably powerful media blitz proved — may be as shocking to young Western audiences as the teen-on-teen violence of The Hunger Games is worrisome to their parents. But it is also what elevates the story above its vampy predecessors, and even above its own romantic facade. It's not about a love triangle that trips into a horror movie; it's about a young woman who has only known life under a brutally ruthless regime — and whose hand-to-mouth existence actually makes it easier for her to volunteer as a kill-or-be-killed contestant.
Yet Lionsgate chief marketing officer Tim Palen told The New York Times that to promote the film, his team had "made a rule that we would never say '23 kids get killed.'" Instead, they decided to spin the deadly Gladiator-style "games" that make up two-thirds of the story as a battle that "only one wins."
But that, of course, can only be true if — um, obvious spoiler alert — BASICALLY EVERYONE ELSE DIES. Which makes it bitterly ironic that this movie netted a PG-13 rating, when Bully — a documentary about keeping kids alive — has scored an R. (If you haven't read the book — or not lately — Vulture has assembled a handy list of Hunger Games moments that will chill you.)
Collins has said she was inspired by both brutal Greek mythology and family trips with her Air Force-veteran father to East Coast battlefields, where he would explain not just who won but why they were fighting in the first place. Underlying The Hunger Games' dysfunctional vision of North America's future is a very old tale indeed: the war memoir of a too-young soldier. It's not real — except for how it totally could be.
Shana Naomi Krochmal is a digital producer at Current TV and contributor to Out Magazine, where she was the founding editor of its culture blog, Popnography.