It seems like almost every year, there’s a novel geared toward young adults that hits the “grown-up,” mainstream sector of literature and starts selling like crazy. Critical accolades (and groans) quickly emerge, controversial opinions fly, and movie deals are signed. So has been the case with the Harry Potter epic, the Twlight catastrophes, and, perhaps less so, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This year, the Young Adult series to reach that success is The Hunger Games, a dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s an addicting, literally-can’t-put-it-down piece of pop fiction.
In the story, the nation of Panem occupies the land formerly held by the United States, which by now has been ravaged by natural disaster and war that’s too unimportant in this alternative world to merit much discussion. Panem was once divided into 13 districts and centrally organized around the Capitol, the wealthiest sector of Panem. The districts banded together and tried to revolt against the Capitol, but the districts were defeated, and District 13 was entirely decimated. As retribution, each of the remaining twelve districts must send one boy and one girl every year to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised competition that’s basically a fight to the death. For one of the “tributes,” winning means riches and fame. But to win, they have to outlast all 23 of the other tributes. It’s like a fucked-up, way-too-serious edition of Survivor. Oh, and by the way, all of the tributes are in the 12-18 age range. Not age-inappropriate at all.
The Games are controlled by the Gamemakers, who throw the contestants curveball after curveball whenever they feel like the action’s not entertaining enough for the viewing public—which shouldn’t matter, really, since a lot of the Games are required, mandated viewing for the citizens of Panem. The mysterious Gamemakers (who, apparently, we learn more about in the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) control every aspect of the Arena, catalyzing the competitors into action and making things more difficult when the tributes finally get their bearings.
Collins’ work has been criticized for too closely resembling some other books, and others have fought over whether this is teen lit focusing on a contrived love triangle or a serious, political thriller with substance. But this piece isn’t about whether or not The Hunger Games is good (although, of course, it is).
Rather, I was struck by just how violent the book was—which was probably an idiotic thing to be surprised by, given that it’s about a no-holds-barred death match. Nearly half of the kids are killed off in the first few minutes of the Games in a hand-to-hand fight for supplies. A young girl is staked through the heart and left to die. And one tribute is slowly eaten alive by mutant wolves. This is not your average Avada Kedavra, no-blood-in-sight bullshit.
And yet, the violence in this story is crucial to one of its key purposes: that a totalitarian government allowed to rule with ultimate power can manipulate its citizens into doing anything. The Panem people must compete in the Games, and the 24 tributes chosen must kill in order to save their own lives. By airing it as a reality show, the viewers are distanced from the horrors that are actually taking place, and the violence becomes second-nature, understood as something that they should support, that is the answer to many of the world’s problems. The Hunger Games unite the country, after all, like a bloodier, more nationalistic version of the Olympics. There’s much hub-bub over the opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies, and the whole thing is very pageant-like, with the tributes and districts putting their best face forward.
The Games, therefore, are a microcosm of the Capitol’s relationship with its people. The Gamemakers, analogous to Panem’s president and government, can control the tributes and turn their world upside down, just as the the government can clearly control the population of the districts, who submit to the commands. The government decides what is permissible, what is not, and what the appropriate punishments are for each transgression, with no consideration afforded for public opinion. I’m fascinated to learn more about Panem’s history and see if Collins ever gives more details about what happened when the 13 districts rebelled, and why they couldn’t overtake the Capitol. Until then, I view the book, especially the victor’s last action in the Games, which is basically a big “fuck you!” to the Capitol, as a message that people should stand up to a corrupt government when they fundamentally disagree, regardless of history, wealth, and how significantly the odds are stacked against you.
Not that any of that will matter to the MPAA when the book is converted to a movie (shooting starts this Spring). I don’t know how the hell the filmmakers are going to get off with a PG-13 rating, or if they really should even try. The violence in this story may be too essential to excise for the sake of the censors.