CNN: 'Hunger Games,' a mirror of America's inequality


(CNN) -- The latest installment of the epic "Hunger Games" series hit theaters this Friday, and it promises to be the year's biggest blockbuster yet.

You can chalk up a lot of these films' popularity to the star power of leading actress Jennifer Lawrence. Certainly, the great action scenes and special effects do not hurt, either. But the real reason "Hunger Games" has captured public imagination is that its fictional world of Panem is, in so many ways, an extreme version of our own America.

For those who have not seen the movies or read the books, the "Hunger Games" tells the story of a young woman -- Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen -- and her defiance of her society's wealthy, exploitative ruling elite. These elite, the dastardly "Capitol," reinforce their power by making the children of oppressed regions battle to the death in what are called "Hunger Games."

It is a far-fetched fairy tale. But if you get caught up in the details of the story, you might miss themes -- crushing inequality, unaccountable governance, violence against children -- that resonate with the daily lives of millions of Americans.

These books and films are not popular because we want to escape to Katniss Everdeen's world. They are a phenomenon because we suspect her world is our own.

In the world of the "Hunger Games," the Capitol lives a life of extravagant wealth and consumption. Meanwhile, out in the "districts," millions of people work dangerous jobs with low pay. As the Capitol wallows in excess, the districts can barely afford to feed their children.

To put it another way, the year's biggest box-office blockbuster is a more sweeping indictment of inequality than an Elizabeth Warren speech.

It is a tale of how the worst of the 1% pull up the ladders of opportunity behind them, and hoard wealth to such a degree that all of society is poorer for it. It is Occupy's "We are the 99%," on Hollywood's big screen.

When Americans look around and see the top 25 hedge fund managers raking in $21 billion while their own paychecks get smaller and smaller, the imaginary world of Panem does not seem so far away. Is it any wonder that some striking workers at Walmart and McDonald's have adopted the Hunger Games symbol of resistance, the three-finger salute? Or that people have begun sharing their own stories of economic distress with the #MyHungerGames hashtag on Twitter?

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