The hunger for a simpler, black-and-white world
The Hunger Games trilogy is the fictional equivalent of Occupy’s adolescent worldview. No wonder it’s a hit.
‘I don’t write about adolescence’, said Suzanne Collins, discussing her Hunger Games novels in a recent interview. ‘I write about war. For adolescents.’
Regardless of the intended audience of The Hunger Games, its appeal has been much broader. The first novel has sold an estimated 10million copies worldwide and is now as likely to be read by adults as adolescents. Following the pattern of the Harry Potter novels, respectable-looking covers have been produced so adults don’t look out of place reading the books during the daily commute. Critics gush about The Hunger Games offering ‘attractions that many grown-up novels don’t’. The film adaptation has proven to be one of the most successful films of recent years.
It’s not hard to see why. The books are fast-paced thrillers, riffing with a now extremely familiar conceit – a sci-fi dystopia where a group of people are placed in an arena to do brutal combat, with their every move being filmed for a reality TV show called ‘The Hunger Games’. It’s effectively The Running Man with hot teenagers, a made-for-Hollywood version of the Japanese hit, Battle Royale.
But far greater claims are being made for The Hunger Games than its entertainment value. Much of the praise centres around the strong female lead, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, widely lauded as a twenty-first-century feminist icon. Growing up in abject poverty with her mother and sister, and learning to hunt in the forest in order to ward off starvation, Katniss boldly volunteers as a Hunger Games ‘tribute’ to replace her younger sister, who was selected by lottery and would have faced certain death in the arena. By the third novel, she goes on to be the face of a ‘revolution’ against the oppressors in the Capitol.
Despite all of the gushing about Katniss’ emerging as a ‘revolutionary folk hero’ and a ‘great role model for girls’, one of the most striking things is the lack of subjectivity she exerts though much of the novels. She’s tough, sure, and is a whizz with a bow and arrow, able to consistently take out squirrels by firing arrows through their eyes. She proves as effective in mortal combat with other contestants too.
But good survival instincts aside, Katniss’ actions are more often than not determined almost entirely by circumstance and the will of others. From the preparations for her first Hunger Games onwards, she is told what to say, told what to wear and is usually the object of the plans of others that she lacks all but a vague awareness of. From the dramatic fiery costumes produced by designer Cinna, to her fellow tribute Peeta professing undying love to make her appear desirable to the audience, and the gifts obtained for her by mentor Haymitch, the appeal and success of this remarkably cold and sullen young girl is created by others, not herself. Her life is repeatedly saved due to the goodwill of others who see her as an important symbol, less so due to her own actions. At times Katniss struggles to understand why she has the powerful impact on others that she does. As the reader sees things from her perspective, rather than the conjured image of her that is presented on the TV screen, it can be equally hard to fathom.
Even when the rebels recognise she needs to be allowed to be spontaneous when filmed to make a convincing bit of propaganda, she still acts within carefully-staged boundaries. Where there is a broader strategy – such as the escape from the Quarter Quell in the second novel, Catching Fire, or the rebellions in the third – she seems to be kept out of the loop as much as possible. ‘Katniss the Mockingjay’ (nick-named after a hybrid bird that thrives in this dystopian world, against the intentions of the rulers) is a carefully constructed symbol of the uprisings, but fails to become a revolutionary subject herself. (She is also, it must be said, often ruthlessly instrumental in her dealings with others, to the point of appearing almost inhuman. Even her two adoring suitors, who she is decidedly uninterested in, are led to conclude that who she will ultimately choose will depend upon who she decides she ‘can’t survive without’.) Is being a pin-up – albeit a ‘revolutionary’ one – really something girls should aspire to emulate?
Not, however, that the rebellions that take place are ‘revolutionary’ in any meaningful way. Despite numerous attempts to give them credence, the politics of The Hunger Games is so crude it could even make an Occupy protester blush. In many ways, the The Hunger Games is to contemporary protest groups such as Occupy what James Cameron’s Avatar was to the environmentalist movement: a distillation of their prejudices presented in a fictional world, where the complexities of the real one don’t need to figure. It’s little surprise so many, not just adolescents, find such a simpler world appealing.
The world of The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic one, taking place in what was America after civilisation has been destroyed by climate change, ‘the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained’. Now the ‘one per cent’ and ‘99 per cent’ are dramatically polarised. There are those who live in the technologically-advanced Capitol, waited upon by servants, with ample leisure time to watch the Hunger Games, gobble themselves sick at banquets, dress up in garish attire and to modify their bodies in sometimes hideous ways. And there are those living in the districts, who have barely enough to eat, and work long hours undertaking manual labour, slaving away for a subsistence wage. Any show of insolence is brutally repressed and, to keep them in line, each district is forced to offer up two of its children each year to compete in the Hunger Games.
Given such a black-and-white set up, it speaks to what must be Collins’s inherent cynicism that when the uprising does come, it ends up a case of ‘meet the new boss same as the old boss’ (until an intervention by Katniss leads to a slightly-less-bad boss being put in its place, but even then only by chance). The rebel leaders are consistently portrayed with suspicion and are shown to be even more brutal, manipulative and ruthless than the previous rulers. And while there is talk of liberation struggles in other districts, all the reader is usually presented with is the struggle to use Katniss to produce effective propaganda that will incite and inspire the masses. There is also no development of any sense of what should replace the existing society – certainly all Katniss aspires towards is a quiet life at one with nature hunting in the woods. That the concluding comments by former games-maker Plutarch in the final book go unchallenged suggests that Collins may share a similar misanthropic worldview: ‘Collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.’
For all the talk of its strong feminist characters, and important political messages, such cynicism and misanthropy pervades the Hunger Games trilogy. It may be true, as many have claimed, that it is a political allegory for our time. But that is not necessarily a positive thing.