BBW 2013: The Hunger Games

We’re at that time of year again where the American Library Association celebrates the indelible fact of intellectual curiosity by noting popular books which made the banned list. 2013’s list includes The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and it’s a pleasure to review it.

THG is one of those books that finds an underground audience long before it breaks out to the public eye. In this case, a network of library reading groups pushed the books into the hands of impressionable youngsters, who then realized that this was something special and showed it to their friends, who showed it to teachers and parents. (Hint: girls read. A lot.) Scholastic, not being the sort of publisher to sit on a gold mine, ran with the effort and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, the story: in the future the U.S. has become the country Panem, segmented into a nation of 13 districts surrounding a central capitol. 75 years ago, the districts revolted against the capital and lost. As a result, every year each district sends a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the capitol where they fight to the death until a single victor emerges. The contest is called The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen and lives in District 12, (somewhere in the Appalachians, as coal mining is the only industry), where life is brutal. Crushing poverty and starvation are constant companions, and Katniss’s father died in a coal mining explosion not long before, making things harsher still. Katniss’s mother fell apart, leaving her daughter to hold things together; she hunts to bring home food and to trade to the police or at the local market.

The book opens on the day of the tribute selection process, called the Reaping. Your name goes into the jar every year and it stays in the jar until you are selected or you age out. You can tweak the system for personal gain: add your name to the pile multiple times and you can receive cash, which is a survival tactic for District 12’s families. Katniss has done this a few times, like Gale, her best friend.

This year, Katniss’s 12 year old sister, Primrose, gets reaped. Katniss volunteers to take her place, which is permitted, if rare. The male tribute is Peeta Malark, a boy whose parents own a bakery and who has worshipped Katniss from afar for years. They say their goodbyes to friends and family and board a train for the Capitol.

Almost from the moment they board the train to the end of the book, life becomes a game show in a horrifyingly literal sense. Each tribute is transformed into a celebrity, and as one would expect, some weather the change better than others. Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s trainer, won the Hunger Games for District 12 years ago and has become a hostile, raging (albeit wealthy), alcoholic.

The secret to staying alive, he tells them, is to get people to like you. Yes, Katniss can hunt and survive outdoors for weeks on end but when she opens her mouth, a desperate, angry girl who’s been ravaged by personal loss and poverty comes out. But survival now means mugging for the camera, playing up her improv acting, and sucking up to an unseen but everpresent (and demanding) audience. And she is terrified. Peeta, however, proves to be a natural at it.

Then there’s etiquette, provided by Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s representative to District 12 (I think of her as the resident Political Officer), combat training, grooming, (Cinna remains my favorite character from all three books), accessorizing (outfits and weapons), the corporate spectacle as the media debut the tributes to the people of the Capitol, and finally their release into the arena.

Katniss knows the drill: she hunts for food, stays close to the water, and sleeps in trees. She knows how to evade the alliance of rich (well-fed, motivated, and buffed) tributes that sweeps the field of 13 kids in the first 8 hours. Unfortunately, Peeta is working with them, which throws Katniss into emotional turmoil. Along the way, she makes an alliance of her own with Rue, a young girl from the agricultural District 11. By working together they manage to take a bite out of the troop of favorites. Eventually she meets up with Peeta (literally by walking on him after he’s camouflaged himself), except Peeta is in bad shape. But the cameras are everywhere and they play up the star crossed lover image that Haymitch has been cultivating behind the scenes to have sponsors deliver drugs to get them back to health. It works a little too well: a rules change says that two tributes from a single district can share a victory.

Finally it comes down the last three: Katniss, Peeta, and Cato, the favorite career tribute from District 1. Cato is eaten by genetically modified wolves (don’t ask), and the rules change again to nullify the previous change. Katniss and Peeta decide to kill themselves instead of each other, and the rules change again to make good on the original change. District 12 celebrates the win, and Katniss and Peeta now need to deal with very different lives.

I don’t agree with the criticism that THG is a rip-off of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Yes, the stories are similar, but the Last Man Standing trope is not exactly a new thing. (Remember The Running Man and The Long Walk by “Richard Bachman”? I sure do.) BR has a wholly different character from THG, for one thing. The BR event the future Japanese government creates is a wholly punitive measure, for example, seen only by government officials and soldiers, not a game show. Worse, the characters act out their various high school dramas as they try to kill each other.  The rule in BR is simple: either one student lives, or the whole class dies together.

THG, in contrast, contains cultural baggage which could only have written by an American. In THG, the show is the only thing that matters, even while the only reality is death for all but one tribute. The Game Master is charged with the President’s orders to make it look good. The GM’s control booth looks like something out of Johnson Space Center and assure complete control of the arena, enabling his crew to herd players toward each other with forest fires and livening the action if things get too dull. The commercialization of violence and the spectacle of ritual murder is very clearly meant to be commentary on specific realities within the American way of life. Ratings determine how well you do and literally enable you to survive the rough patches.

Besides that, the messages of the two books are very different: THG says, “fight.” BR says, “run.”

he reasons most often cited include anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitivity, offensive language, occult/satanic, violence. Let’s take these one at a time.

Violence: well, duh. It is a violent book. Lots of kids get killed, sometimes in particularly gruesome ways (killer wasps, mutant dogs, and bloody, bloody murder, to name three). The violence is frequent but never gratuitous. There are no long drawn out scenes of torture, for instance.

Anti-ethnic: this is interesting, considering that one of the weirdest reactions to the movie was the racism that erupted online when some fans found out that Rue was black. In fact a lot of the folks from District 11 were black and it was an agricultural district. Hmm. Anti-ethnic, or a not so gentle reminder of an ugly part of American history? You decide.

Anti-family: I don’t see this at all; the only thing in Katniss’s mind most of the time is her family. Seriously, she volunteers to take Prim’s place in the game because she knows her sister is not cut out for gladiatorial combat.  Maybe someone got offended when Katniss insisted she’d never have kids. I couldn’t say.

Insensitivity and Offensive Language: it takes enormous energy and vision to write a series of books like THG. It takes none of either to take umbrage at it. Just say you don’t like it and be done with it. That’s at least honest.

Occult/Satanic: Well, the worship of power is Satanic, at least in the Anton LaVey sense, and a major theme of the series is the misuse of power by those who have it, so in a way . . . nah. The folks who use these terms most often tend to lump Satanists, Catholics, Pagans, Muslims, and Jews into the same category. So, no.

Something that’s not often noted is the way Collins’ description of her Capitol and its relationship to the surrounding districts reminded me of the way Rome related to its provinces as the empire deteriorated. Everything becomes entertainment after a certain point. Spectacle is the ends as well as the means of social engineering one’s country, combined with capitalism’s drive for more, faster, better sooner. Penam’s relations with other countries is never touched upon properly in the series, which is a shame, because it would be interesting to see how far along Collins would have taken the analogy with modern day life.

I’m going to stop short of looking at Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the second and third book in the trilogy respectively, because if I did, we’d be here all day. I might review them for next year’s BBW, if only because we’ll have two more movies to look at between now and then and the differences between the first film and the first book are fascinating.

I am going to say that I think that Collins has unearthed a particularly ugly but illustrative tidbit about our society: when we denounce the human sacrifice of the Aztecs and the decadence of Imperial Rome we don’t usually think of those who died to perpetuate their civilizations as human beings who lived in centuries past so much as we do images from a documentary or paragraphs in a history book. And when we reduce the people we now share the world with to abstractions and measure their worth to us by their entertainment value, we have nowhere to go but down.

Drop me a comment and let me know what you think. Best comment gets a free copy of the book!

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Comments

  1. Fantastic thoughts here Jon! I must have missed the “racism” card played in the Hunger Games banning… I almost choked when I read that part of your post… seriously? Good grief people. Thansk again for being a part of the Banned!!! :)