Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hunger Games Week: Turning a Bestseller Into a Phenomenon

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FIRST
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What makes a bestselling novel into a cultural phenomenon?
It. Was. Mobbed.
Suzanne and me (and 600 other fans) at the Mockingjay signing

It started with Harry Potter.
Then came Twilight.
And now Hunger Games.
(If you have any doubt that Hunger Games is the next cultural phenomenon, then you haven't read the books. It's coming. It is, in fact, already here.)

You don't have to be a rabid fan of kidlit (like me) to know that these books (and movies) have a world-wide impact on popular culture. Lots of comparisons are being made between the books/movies (Ava Jae has a wonderful analysis of what makes a bestseller), but I think there are several ingredients that go into elevating a bestselling book to phenomenon status.

Ingredient #1: Fun for the Whole Family
These books all cross generations. Harry Potter reaches even the littlest kids, donning their cloaks and waving their wizarding wands, and sets the gold standard for cross-generational appeal. Twilight and Hunger Games are a little too steamy and/or violent for the little kids, but they manage to gather up everyone from adolescents (and sometimes pre-adolescents) up to 80 year old grandmas in their cultural nets.

Ingredient #2: Internet Generation
I don't think it's a coincidence that the Harry Potter phenomenon grew up in a time that the internet was becoming integrated in our lives. Beginning with the first book, an entire fandom found each other online, writing fanfiction and bonding over their love of Hermoine, Harry, and Ron (not to mention Snape and Draco - have you SEEN the fanfic for Draco? *whew* *fans self*). The first novel came out in 1997, the first movie in 2001. The worldwideweb was a mere five years old in 1997, and Web 2.0 was still a misty eyed dream. But these tools enabled Ingredient #3 to happen.

Ingredient #3: Shared Experience
There is a buzz of shared experience that sweeps through our lives now, in the post-2000 years, that didn't happen before the change of the millenium hurtled us all into the future. Whether it's a viral dog video or a crazy talented Canadian drummer, the world bonds over these shared experiences at the speed of electrons. Kidlit books/movies provide an infrastructure for a shared experience that has tremendous depth and staying power. They give you compelling conflicts (Hunger Games) and aching love stories (Twilight) and richly imagined universes (Harry Potter) that create an imaginary playground that we can all romp through together. The rolling thunder of word-of-mouth gains an amplitude that was difficult to attain before the world was quite so connected.

Star Wars and Star Trek missed this buzz creation, because they were born too soon. Which doesn't mean that their fandoms don't endure (they do), but the younger fans came to the worlds long after they were created. My kids are huge fans of Star Trek, although they've only seen a couple of the movies and a few episodes. They play Star Trek Online, and have stuffed tribbles that vibrate across the table, and imagine what Borg Tribble would look like. Star Trek has reinvented itself for the new generation, which is great for merchandising dollars, but it's old news for those who were there the first time around (the adults).

So while I enjoy watching them rediscover the awesomeness that is Captain Picard and I will be eternally grateful to J.J. Abrams for Star Trek The Reboot, the buzz isn't there in the same way as when I discovered Star Trek for the first time. It's only the post-internet-enabled phenomenons that manage to sweep through the world all at once, capturing generations across the globe in one wildfire of excitement. And sharing that excitement with my 13 yo Dark Omen, as we discover the awesomeness of Hunger Games together, is what makes it special.


Katniss is indeed the Girl on Fire, and the Hunger Games is far from burning out.

May the Odds Ever Be in Your Favor.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting! I think buzz these days is a huge factor in how something becomes a cultural phenomenon. Like you say, it wasn't possible even ten years ago - at least, not so quickly.

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  2. I think you nailed it with number one. The Hunger Games is the only series every person in our family has read (mom won't read HP for some reason - no idea why). Madison, the youngest, was the last to get around to it, but she has become an absolute fanatic. I love it. There is nothing more fun than being able to be entertained as a family, as a whole.

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  3. Susan, I tried reading Harry Potter, and I tried reading Twilight. I couldn't get into either. Even the movies didn't excite me. Then came along THE HUNGER GAMES!

    Oh. My. Good. Ness!

    ...that's all I have to say.

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  4. Ingredient #4: Movies - bridging the divide to the illiterate. :)

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  5. It's very true that the internet plays a huge role in both buzz creation and the growing of the audience. What starts as a little word of mouth can very quickly build to a phenomenon thanks to the right ingredients, including the internet.

    Also, thanks for linking to my post!

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  6. I never thought about the internet's role in creating these lit phenoms, but it's so true. The internet can spread WOM at lightning speed. HP also blew open the YA doors, allowing the genre to grow and reach mass awareness. Those who read the books as kids are now adults, and they don't discriminate between adult fiction and YA.

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    1. An excellent point! These things don't exist in a vacuum, but build upon each other. Great comment!

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  7. So true about buzz! I think during the fledgling days of Harry Potter novels, it was teachers (and librarians) as much as kids who picked up these books and helped to promote them. But today I think word of mouth and sharing paper copies of books is just as effective as it used to be. That hasn't changed. But the ability to share the experience online with others is certainly invaluable marketing, even if its source isn't authorized or official. Thought provoking topic, thanks, Susan!

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  8. Great post! I have often wondered how franchises like Star Wars would have been different if the internet had been around then. Imagine Gone with the Wind during the internet era. Think of the memes! :)

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  9. Certainly the internet has helped with cultural phenomena - but Star Wars and Grease and Dirty Dancing were phenomena from my teens, in some ways I almost feel like there was more bonding with these pre-internet. The Internet has opened us up to so much more information, that in a way it has diluted the field, too.

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  10. Great post. I do think the internet helps these days...people can talk to other fans much faster, and it spreads the word about these books faster too. I think fandoms are great though. It brings people together and when they involve books, they get people reading more!! :)

    -lauren

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