Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) holds a bow and arrow in the movie The Hunger Games.
Credit: Murray Close | Lionsgate
"The Hunger Games" shows a grim futuristic world where teens are forced by a totalitarian government to fight to the death on national TV. The movie has now been the top-grossing film in the U.S. for three weeks.
The story's heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a tough-as-nails 16-year-old girl who provides for and protects her family after her father's death, and fights in the survival contest. While the setting of the Hunger Games is certainly extreme, experts say that some of Katniss’ behaviors and reactions to the events of her life, along with those of her fellow fighting "tributes," are big-screen versions of the behaviors and reactions of real teens.
Here are six reasons why experts say teens' actions in the movie the movie aren't too far off from reality.
1. Sacrificing for a sibling
In the movie, Katniss' younger sister is randomly selected to take part in the deadly Hunger Games contest, but Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place.
In real life, siblings — especially those in families where parents have withdrawn from their children — often become willing to sacrifice for each other, experts say.
“Since her father died, Katniss’ mother became emotionally and psychologically removed from the family,” said Tricia East, a developmental psychologist at the University of California in San Diego.
“Usually what happens is that the oldest sibling takes on the responsibility of their mom,” East said.
“Under such circumstances, Katniss becomes a ‘surrogate mother,’” East said, so “it’s not surprising that she would give up her life for her.”
2. Protecting the family, and resenting it
Katniss not only takes care of her sister, she also hunts for food for her family. But she also seems to have animosity toward her mother, for withdrawing from the family after her father died.
In a real, single-parent household — especially homes where the parent might suffer from depression, drug and alcohol addiction, illness or is overworked — the role of the parent can sometimes fall on the child, East said.
“When the child is an adult and the adult is child, it’s definitely dysfunctional,” East said. “I can imagine a teen being angry at their parent for not providing or helping with the family.”
Despite the anger, Katniss is willing to go to any lengths to protect her family.
“Kids may be inclined to sacrifice their own feelings for their parents,” said Katherine Marshall Woods, a child and adolescent psychologist at George Washington University. “Children will sometimes put aside their own needs to help their parents.”
3. Finding inner strength
Katniss relies on her resilience and strength to survive the brutal challenges of the games. And although most of the tributes form alliances during the competition, Katniss initially chose to try to survive on her own.
“Katniss is a special case,” East said. “She is an example of someone who learned how to survive and rely on her inner strength.”
Kids who develop a strong sense of self are better able to face life’s problems, she said.
“There are children out there desperate for peer approval, but I also believe there are just as many kids who are strong and independent,” Woods said. “They feel supported and accepted by people in their lives.”
4. Forming alliances
Although only one person can survive the Hunger Games, some of the teens form alliances and make pacts to survive. Even Katniss eventually finds a friend in a 12-year-old girl named Rue, who helps her survive.
Teens form larger groups for protection all the time, according to Woods, for example, when socializing in school.
“When you’re in a stressful situation, wanting to connect with other people is natural,” Woods said. “The way you survive is to get people to like you.”
Groups may grow in size as children age.
“Kids start out on play dates with one-on-one interaction, but they develop into larger groups and more cliques by the time they reach high school,” East said.
For kids to "survive" in high school, East said it’s beneficial for them to be in a group where they can share interests and hobbies.
“It’s a safer place to be than being alone,” she said. "If you’re alone, you’re more of target.”
5. Being bullied
In one scene in the movie, Katniss encourages Peeta, a boy from her district, to show off his strengths so he wouldn’t be mocked by the other teens.
Displaying strength is one strategy teens can use to avoid being bullied, Woods said.
“It can mean strength in numbers, or support from your teachers or the principal,” she said.
In other words, a bully may stop if they see that you aren't a target for harm, that you have protection.
"Bullying comes from a learned experience,” Woods said. “It’s when a person feels like a victim themselves — they act out to make people feel how they feel.”
In the movie, gravely wounded Peeta tells Katniss to leave him to die, but she refuses. In fact, she risks her life to get him medicine.
"Traumatic experiences can sometimes bring people closer," Woods said. "When someone is experiencing extreme fear and stress, it's not unusual for people to bond and connect emotionally."