The Hunger Games – the latest fad in the teen fiction market or an incisive examination of our society? Jessica Blunden finds that Suzanne Collins’ world offers more than easy escapism
Panem, mockingjay, Katniss and Peeta – these words are most likely to be familiar to you by now. With a much-hyped Hollywood adaptation met with widespread acclaim and more than 30 million copies sold worldwide, Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games trilogy is set to be a publishing phenomenon.
The series consists of three novels – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Collins said she got idea for the series when watching television one night. Flipping between news coverage of the Iraq War and a reality television show, she was struck by how the two blurred and wondered how other viewers might be desensitised to this distorted reality.
The lure of fantasy often lies in escapism; the reader explores the magical eccentricities of Hogwarts castle or joins Frodo on his quest across Middle Earth. While The Hunger Games has fantastical and science fiction qualities, it is also firmly rooted in modern life. Collins casts an unforgiving and unflinching eye on the brutal aspects of our society and human nature.
The Hunger Games is set in the Panem, a nation which “rose out of the ashes” of North America, ruined by an unspecified nuclear war or environmental disaster. The dystopian society is made up of 12 districts dominated by an exploitative central city, the Capitol.
The Capitol is a decadent and hedonistic playground whose citizens bedeck themselves with garish body art and outlandish fashions. Plastic surgery has spiralled out of control and people drink purgative liquids so they can gorge in extravagant feasts. Meanwhile, outside the Capitol, the rest of Panem starves.
Katniss Everdeen, the trilogy’s central character and narrator, grows up in District 12, Panem’s mining region located in what used to be the Appalachian Mountains. She hunts illegally for years to feed her family after her father’s death, giving her a rather handy ability with a crossbow and rebellious attitude. Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place when the latter is selected in a hideous lottery-style raffle for the 74th annual Hunger Games.
Each district in Panem is required to offer two ‘tributes’ – a male and female teenager – to compete in the televised death match, as punishment for a failed rebellion that took place 75 years earlier. The Games are the yearly highlight for Capitol citizens with viewers avidly watching the action unfold and ‘sponsoring’ their favourite tributes by donating life-saving equipment and food. Think a deadly version of Big Brother.
The Hunger Games is a product of its time; it is aimed at a generation of young people who chronicle their lives on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Katniss and Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute, understand the importance of appearances and much of their focus in the arena is spent developing the façade they present to the public. Collins is making a more than a pointed dig at the modern culture of overnight fame and society’s ghoulish delight in watching a celebrity’s downfall.
Katniss is a female heroine you can truly admire. Headstrong, wilful and fiercely loyal, she leaves her impoverished rural life to become a celebrity and ultimately the face of the rebellion. She’s not a fervent idealist who is committed to toppling the Capitol and its loathsome President Snow, an inspired character who wears a genetically perfume-enhanced rose to mask the scent of blood on his breath. Instead she accepts her role with morose resignation, remaining focused on her goal of protecting her loved ones.
Crucially, as a character in the film adaptation, she also proves to Hollywood that you can have an action franchise whose main protagonist is a woman. Katniss is not defined or constrained by her gender – she looks after herself and those around her, taking decisive action when confronted with a problem. She is particularly majestic when enraged, as shown in a televised speech she gives to President Snow: ‘”You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that?” One of the cameras follows as I point to the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse across from us. The Capitol seal on a wing glows clearly through the flames. “Fire is catching!” I am shouting now, determined that he will not miss a word. “And if we burn, you burn with us!”‘
Her spontaneous reactions to situations win over the people of Panem, yet her emotions also make her a fallible character. Much of The Hunger Games‘ power lies in her physical and mental deterioration. Unlike Harry Potter, where the protagonist gets through the bloodshed and death remarkably unscathed, Collins isn’t afraid to hurt and irrevocably damage Katniss. Throughout the first games, where Katniss fights tooth and nail to protect Peeta, and in the later novels, she struggles with the realisation that, as the symbol of the rebellion, her actions will bring about more death and destruction.
Of course, there’s the love story to satisfy teenage cravings. Katniss is torn between two romantic interests – sensitive and pragmatic Peeta and hunting partner Gale, smouldering with resentment against the Capitol. Comparisons have been made with the love triangle in Twilight, but any similarities between the two series end there.
Romance comes second to Collins’ main concern in The Hunger Games – war. When Gale professes his love for her, Katniss says she has no time to even consider her feelings towards him, let alone act on them. For teen fiction Collins is uncompromisingly brazen; warfare is shown to be debilitating, arbitrary and hugely destructive. The horrors of war and its effects on the individual are portrayed in excruciating and painful detail. Katniss says: “I no longer feel allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”
This apathy of Katniss’ towards the turmoil in Panem’s society does complicate readings of her as a true female heroine. She’s politically engaged, but only because she has to be – her ultimate goal is return to District 12 for a quiet life with her family. As horrific as conditions in Panem are, it could be argued that Katniss’ ambivalence towards politics and government highlight her limitations as a true feminist heroine. However, in an age where being a WAG is seen as an admirable aspiration and celebrities build careers on leaking sex tapes, Katniss is a much-welcome and needed female character.
The Hunger Games can’t be viewed solely as a diatribe on the beast lurking inside humankind or a sanctimonious indictment of modern warfare. It’s also a rollicking good teen fiction with fast-paced action, humour, love and tear-jerking scenes. However, Collins attempts to examine human behaviour and question traditional dichotomies of good and evil and captures this perfectly in the trilogy’s conclusion.
And it’s not all hopeless; Panem, built on a devastated North America, is a deeply flawed system, but a functioning one nonetheless. There still remains the promise of hope and rebirth.
Positive reviews are flooding in about the film. The Hunger Games looks set to join Harry Potter, Twilight and His Dark Materials as franchises that have successfully made the leap from the teen fiction market to wider popular culture. Watch this space – it’s going to be big.