Classics : The Hunger Games (2008)

When life is a war game, you need friends to survive

by Gordon Campbell

True, it may seem weird to try and warn teenagers about the horrors of war, by writing them a story about teenagers who kill each other in a TV reality show. Nine times out of ten, you’d end up with yet another example of our violence-soaked culture, rather than a cautionary tale about it. So all credit to author Suzanne Collins for pulling it off with The Hunger Games trilogy. The anti-war message is unmistakable, but be prepared – to make a point, Collins is not averse to killing off one or two of her best-loved characters, without any warning whatsoever.

Judging by the size of the global audience that already exists for the books, the release of the first Hunger Games film on March 23rd is almost bound to generate a cultural tsunami of Twilight-size proportions. And the only reason I’m saying ‘almost’ is because the film’s director is Gary Ross, the plonker who directed the films Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, which weren’t exactly roller coaster adrenaline rides. But since the producers wanted all along for The Hunger Games film to get a family friendly PG13 censorship rating, Ross’s blandness was probably seen to be a virtue – and as I’ve indicated, thrills and action were not Collins’ main reasons for writing this story.

To get the Twilight and Harry Potter comparisons out of the way at the start ….there are no brooding vampires or jolly japes in wizardry class this time around. This story’s central figure is a 16 year old girl called Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States called Panem. Everyday life in Panem’s high-tech Capitol – which has every medical and technological marvel known to humanity – is vastly different from the struggle for subsistence faced by nearly everyone else in the twelve Districts that are under the thumb of the Capitol. However, the wealthy 1% living in the Capitol are about to get their social order shaken up in very unexpected ways.

To underline the Capitol’s power, Panem holds an annual ritual known as the Reaping, in which two adolescents (one male, one female) are chosen at random to take part in the Hunger Games – which is a wildly popular televised reality contest in which the selected teenagers are required to fight each other to the death. Viewers can sponsor competitors and send in packages of food, medicine, tools and weapons to help their favourite contestant win the contest. To spice up the proceedings, the Capitol’s game-makers also regularly send in mutant animals, and alter the weather conditions inside the vast arena.

The first book in the trilogy is the most straightforward in that it deals with the Hunger Games itself, while the later books are about the rebellion against the Panem dictatorship. Katniss gets involved in the Hunger games only after she bravely volunteers to replace her young sister Prim, who was unexpectedly selected to represent the mining region where the Everdeen family live, in what was once the Appalachian mountains. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son selected as the male representative from the same District, has loved Katniss from afar since childhood, and once did her family a favour that has left her in his debt.

Ever since it was published in 2008, The Hunger Games has been accused of being a rip-off of the Japanese action movie Battle Royale, which also features a televised fight to the death among teenage schoolkids. At the time, Battle Royale never got an official release in the United States – partly because it came out just after the killings at Columbine had sharply reduced America’s appetite for a story about teenagers killing each other. Certainly, there are some similarities between the two stories, beyond the central game. In both cases, there is a regular roll call of the dead players, and in both stories the game-makers introduce fresh elements selectively, into certain parts of the arena.

Having said that, plenty of other stories share a similar plotline. (For example, there’s the 1987 Arnold Schwarzengger action film The Running Man, or the 2001 film Series 7, which also featured a reality TV show fight to the death among contestants chosen by lottery.) Battle Royale is set on an island, and has some elements in common with Lord of the Flies. Collins claims to have never seen or read Battle Royale before delivering the first book to her publishers. She has cited older, classical Greek influences on her work, such as the story of the Minotaur – in which seven pairs of male and female youngsters were ritually offered each year to the Beast, before it was finally killed by Theseus. Spartacus, the slave who led a rebellion against Roman rule was also, Collins claims, an inspiration for how the storyline of The Hunger Games developed in her mind. Finally, Collins told the New York Times last year that the basic premise for The Hunger Games came to her one night when she was channel-surfing, and happened to flip from a reality-television competition to news footage of the war in Iraq.

Personally, the differences to Battle Royale struck me as being far more important than the similarities. The storylines diverge in two main respects. Firstly, one of the striking things about The Hunger Games is the way it shows that even in a contest where there can be only one winner, survival is utterly dependent on the ability to form alliances, however temporary they may be. (Katniss is taught this lesson by Rue, a doomed child contestant who reminds her of her sister, Prim.) Lone wolf protagonists survive for a time – such as the contestant called Foxface in the first book – but they don’t prosper for very long. By contrast, strategic alliances provide only a fleeting and secondary aspect of the Battle Royale storyline.

Collins’ emphasis on the need for collaboration within a winner-take-all game is fascinating, because Katniss’s previous life as a hunter and archer could easily have qualified her as a lone wolf heroine. Initially, the need for collaboration is depicted as a necessary response to the power of privilege, given that some contestants from wealthier areas come to the Game possessing an unfair advantage in physical strength, education and training.(They are called “Careers” in the text.) Only co-operation among those with limited resources can offset the advantages enjoyed by the Careers. Again, this is an interesting subtext – given a real world that still tends to glorify individual achievement, and that downplays the advantages enjoyed by the children of the privileged.

The other big difference from Battle Royale is the sophistication with which The Hunger Games deals with the interactive nature of the Game. Katniss and Peeta can’t succeed strictly on their own abilities, even after they’ve begun to co-operate. They survive only through manipulating the viewing audience by role-playing a romantic relationship that delights the audience into sponsoring them – oh, how they adore those star-crossed lovers from District 12 ! Yet in the process, the romantic ruse begins to confuse Katniss as to her own real feelings about Peeta. There is nothing like this level of interplay between actors and viewers, media factoids and inner reality in the Battle Royale film. Ultimately, it is the power derived from this romantic artifice that enables Katniss to survive, and to eventually become a political threat to the regime. Yet even when Katniss does finally ally herself with the rebellion against the Capitol in book three, she quickly comes to realise that once again, it is her artificial, media-constructed identity that is of more use to the rebellion than her own, real life contributions.. There’s a quite sophisticated commentary on the interplay between real and media modulated identities running through the entire story.

For a blockbuster teen adventure, this message in The Hunger Games is also quite subversive. The book is explicit about depicting political power as something that’s bestowed by a fickle and credulous audience – whose responses have been manipulated by a media owned by people who, in turn, can become ensnared by the rules of the media game they have created. Katniss is shown to be very conscious of her shortcomings in this respect. In the second book Catching Fire in particular, her job is to carry out actions that have meanings about which she is being deliberately kept in the dark. As her mentor Haymitch finally tells her, the rebel leadership decided that she’d do a much better job if she wasn’t made aware of the actual context for her actions. Unfortunately, this means the reader has been kept in the same boat, too. So much so that my heart sank a little near the end of Catching Fire (p.464) when Haymitch has to take Katniss aside, sit her down and tell her (and the reader) exactly what the heck has been going on for the previous 200 pages.

For fear of spoiling the story for new readers, I’ve deliberately avoided talking at length about Mockingjay, the third book in the series. Suffice to say that the rebel leadership and Coriolanus Snow, the dictator of Panem turn out to have a great deal in common, both ethically and tactically – andf this creates a whole new round of trauma and heartbreak for Katniss, however hard she tries to find a way of walking a morally acceptable line between both camps. In this dystopia – the grim second half of Mockingjay is about as much fun as the siege of Stalingrad – no one is left undamaged. Compared to what Katniss is put through in The Hunger Games, Harry Potter’s struggles with the forces of evil are a walk in the park.

So who exactly, is Suzanne Collins? The 48 year old author (pictured left with Amandla Stenberg who plays Rue in the film) spent well over a decade of her working life in creating storylines for children’s television TV shows, in everything from Clifford’s Puppy Days to Wow Wow Wubzy! Last year, Collins filled in the blank spaces in her life story during this interview with the New York Times,

She was raised, she told the NYT, as the child of a military family who moved frequently during her childhood. In her mid 20s, she began her writing career in children’s television. She has two children (a boy of 17 and a girl aged 11 who are now roughly the same ages as Katniss and Prim. Collins was 41 years old when her first book for children was published. As the NYT put it :

Collins’s move from writing about an oversize red dog to writing about weaponry and military strategy may seem unexpected, but she was falling back on years of informal schooling on the subject of war. Her grandfather was gassed in World War I, and her uncle sustained shrapnel wounds in World War II. Some of Collins’s earliest memories are of young men in uniform drilling at West Point, where her father, who later made lieutenant colonel, was on loan from the Air Force, teaching military history.

In 1968 the family moved to Indiana. It was the year Collins turned 6. It was also the year her father left to serve in Vietnam. War was a favourite topic for her father; and war, she understood at a young age, determined her family’s fate.

As the NYT noted, absent fathers has been pivotal elements in Collins’ published fiction to date. At the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss’ father has been killed a few years before in a mine explosion, leaving her to provide for the family. Collins told the NYT that her father returned from Vietnam burdened with nightmares, which dogged him for the rest of his life. As a child, she would awake to the sound of him crying out in the night. Similarly, much is made in the first book of Katniss’s nightmares, caused by her experiences during the Game.

Collins has been refreshingly upfront about her intentions. She does not encourage allegorical readings of her book – which she intends to be read as written, as a warning about the realities and the consequences of war, especially for children. As the NYT astutely concludes, “In The Lord of the Flies, the children are in an amoral free fall; [but] in The Hunger Games, young people, even murderous ones, are for the most part innocents, creations of adults’ cruelty or victims of adult weakness in the face of power.” For good reason, other characters explicitly comment (in Catching Fire, pages 259- 260 in particular) on the innocence that Katniss projects. As someone almost devoid of guile, she acts in her own defence, and in order to defend people she loves or for whom she feels compassion. Everything else about the world is still something of a mystery to her. In this and a few other respects, she’s a very convincing 16 year old.

Some fans of the book have feared this quality of naivete will be sacrificed in the film, given that 21 year old Jennifer Lawrence has been chosen for the role. They can probably relax. Lawrence is good at this sort of thing. A couple of years ago, she made her Hollywood breakthrough in the indie film Winter’s Bone, in which she played a 17 year old girl searching for her drug dealer father, amid his creepy associates in the Ozark Mountains.

In Winter’s Bone, Lawrence also played a teenager left prematurely in charge of her family, exactly the same situation faced by Katniss in The Hunger Games. Onscreen, Lawrence gave off an air of stoic innocence, and that quality seems exactly right for the role of Katniss. Her mentor Haymitch is being played by Woody Harrelson, whose brand of debauched energy was last seen onscreen in the film Zombieland. Though there are only three books, each main actor has signed on for four films. Again, this makes sense, given that Mockingjay has too much plot to fit readily into a single film.

Ultimately, what makes Katniss Everdeen an interesting culture hero – and a genuine improvement over Bella in Twilight – is that she is not the tremulous prey of a brooding male anti-hero, waiting to be bitten by the power of love and sex. Katniss is an action hero, rather than a thinker or a strategist, though her impulses often prove to be strikingly apt. Which means that in a gender role reversal, the action hero in The Hunger Games is female, while the two thinly drawn bimbos hanging around the plot and vying for the hero’s affections, are both blokes.

Not that Collins is interested in focussing all that much on the hormonal turmoil of her main characters. “I don’t write about adolescence,” she told the NYT. “I write about war. For adolescents.” With the last book in particular, one has to respect the way she’s gone about bringing the horrors of war home to her readers, young and old.