While studying Film and English at the University of East Anglia in the late 1980s, I witnessed a pub debate about the meaning of James Cameron’s movie Aliens (1986). ‘It’s about the family,’ one of my housemates declared confidently. ‘Oh, really?’ the other challenged. ‘I thought it was about Vietnam.’
The idea that any popular story could hold a single hidden message, and be ‘about’ only one thing, a specific allegorical code waiting to be deciphered, suddenly seemed so ridiculous that the debate segued into another round of drinks and an earnest analysis of Morrissey lyrics. We were young, and just starting to analyze media texts. But we were asking questions, and assuming that there were meanings below the surface; that a narrative could suggest multiple ideas, and stand for many things.
A couple of decades on, and The Hunger Games is the next big thing: a bestselling trilogy of novels, recently adapted into a blockbuster film. What is The Hunger Games ‘about’? This essay explores that debate in more depth and asks how it might affect the choices of future undergraduates as they consider entering the world of cultural studies.