On The Hunger Games as dystopia, and so forth

Wednesday’s Indian Express carries this piece on The Hunger Games by me. I have felt quite lukewarm towards the series from the beginning – I love the potential for political revolution that this setting offers, and I love Katniss herself, but I’ve also been very frustrated by how little the story does with the potential it has. I think the first book is the best in the series, yet it lets me down in many ways. It chooses to neglect the political history of this world in favour of the characters, yet even for the characters things are made too easy. Katniss never really has to face the possibility of killing someone she likes, for example; the book disposes of or saves everyone in the arena with whom she might have that kind of connection. In my Indian Express piece, therefore, my major complaint is that the books are too safe. A version of that piece is below.

 

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This month sees the release of the first of a series of movies to be made from Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy. These books are set in a far-future America in which twelve districts are forced each year to send two ‘tributes’, children above the age of eleven, to the city of Panem. Here the children battle for survival in a gruesome televised competition that ends when only one tribute is left alive. In The Hunger Games, the first of the trilogy, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film) volunteers to be the female tribute from her district in order to protect her younger sister from the same fate. She is joined by Peeta, a boy from her district for whom she may have warmer feelings than she has realised. The bulk of the story focuses on Katniss’ experiences in the arena, forging and breaking alliances, coming to terms with the fact that she may have to kill a friend, and putting on a good show for the audience.

The Hunger Games is the most prominent of a number of dystopic novels aimed at young adults that have been released in recent years. It’s always a little ridiculous to come up with grand, overarching theories about trends in fiction – I defy anyone to come up with a watertight explanation for vampire romances – but it is tempting to consider what might be behind this recent flood of grim, post-apocalyptic future fictions.

The dystopian novel is not particularly new (see 1984) and if the dystopian young adult novel is, that is more likely because Young Adult (or YA) fiction has only comparatively recently emerged as a publishing category. What is new, or at least constantly changing, is the specific form that these dystopias take at different points of time. Most of the books in the genre are or draw from science fiction, and science fiction has historically reflected the concerns of its contemporary society.

So what are the concerns that create these fictional worlds? The Hunger Games gives us very little information about the events that turned present day North America into the world of the books, though we know that “rebellions” of some sort were involved. There are hints that global warming triggered the enormous changes in the world – an earlier generation of books would have nuclear holocaust in this role. Climate change appears over and over again in this genre – it is the motivating factor behind Saci Lloyd’s two Carbon Diaries books, as well as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road. Yet the process that led to the creation of this world is never the focus of The Hunger Games as it is of so many of these books. Instead, the series takes as its central conflict another feature of many dystopian novels; the totalitarian state.

In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books and Ally Condie’s Matched, the government exerts an abnormal degree of control over the bodies of its citizens; Westerfeld’s teenage characters are made to undergo mandatory plastic surgery, while Condie’s have their partners chosen for them by the government. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (an earlier novel, published in 1993) depicts a society in which all emotions are suppressed by the use of pills. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother has as its villain a surveillance state.

The seat of power in the Hunger Games universe is called Panem, from the Latin “Panem et Circenses”, or “bread and circuses”. It is clear from this that the real purpose of the games in the trilogy is as a form of distraction – the people want food, the government give them spectator sports. Hunger versus games. It’s impossible in this context not to mention Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, in which, again, the spectacle of children killing each other is used as a means of state control. The Hunger Games is frequently dismissed as being derivative of Battle Royale, though  apparently Collins had not previously read the book.

Yet, as with the hints of almost apocalyptic climate change, the reality television aspect of the games often seems mere furnishing. The Hunger Games chooses instead to focus almost entirely on the struggle of its protagonists to retain their sense of self in the face of a state that tries to treat them as pawns.  Katniss thinks, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”

It cannot surprise anyone that so many teenaged readers should be drawn to books about young people asserting their individuality in the face of authority. In a way, the trilogy’s willingness to ignore all the political fodder that the genre makes available renders the books toothless and rather too safe. But it also taps into a story that is universal and never stale.

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This evening (a few hours after that Indian Express piece was published) I watched the Hunger Games movie at a special screening. I doubt I’ll get around to thinking things out and doing a proper review, but preliminary thoughts are on twitter and recorded here for posterity (sorry, posterity).

Edit: Abigail Nussbaum has a fine post here that both gets at some of the things I liked about the movie and explains my problems with the book (at least, what I said above about it being too safe)

4 Responses to “On The Hunger Games as dystopia, and so forth”

  1. Posterity thanks you! And yes, yes, yes. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta? Worst. Casting. Decision. Ever. I don’t know if this is something to do with having read the book beforehand, because friends who hadn’t thought Hutcherson was perfectly fine, but every time he appeared on-screen I wanted to fall asleep. I don’t mean to be quite so … mean, but you know? Especially in contrast with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, who had so much *presence*. And the Peeta of my imagination was an ordinary guy, certainly, and perhaps a little dull, but with a little bit of that rough-and-tumble charm that (I mean, bouts of self-deprecating humour have to count for something?) But Hutcherson gave us nothing — wide eyes and slicked back hair do not a memorable character make.

    • I can’t decide whether I sort of like Peeta’s blandness because it’s so unusual for your big hit movie to have the woman doing all the work and keeping things together. I think it’s really interesting how Peeta is portrayed wrt Katniss – breadmaker versus hunter (and isn’t there some sort of linguistic connection between the gender roles and those two specific occupations? I need to look it up), good at decorating cakes of all things. Add to that a mostly female audience for the books, and you have a situation in which he’s very much playing the role that women have occupied in a lot of books and films; he has a nice body, and he loves her, and she will protect him.

      But in the books it works better than in the movie – and I think that is partly because in the movie we get more Gale. One of the thingsit gets right for me is the Gale-Katniss relationship at the beginning. There’s something very solid and equal there, I think, and given that the actor cast as Gale is more conventionally good looking *and* is frequently shown staring at the screen as Katniss kisses Peeta … well. (Although it would be nice if we could also see him looking concerned at points where she nearly died, maybe?)

  2. I think the problem with film-Gale (the seeming lack of concern at the points where she nearly died, like you mentioned) comes down to the acting, as well. Jennifer Lawrence is pretty great; the two actors who played Gale and Peeta are… not. I’m not sure if they were somehow hemmed in by the film’s direction. But I found the supporting actors (the girl who played Clove, and even the one who played Foxface – if I remember the name right – as well as Rue) a lot more compelling. And these two guys, they’re important to Katniss and the story, and in the film they left no trace of a presence. I mean, there was no there there. (Sorry, Gertrude Stein.)

    I totally get your point about Peeta, which is why I really liked what I’d seen of him so far in the first book. And precisely for those reasons you mentioned, too, which would be interesting if that’s an angle that’s developed further in the later books. I don’t think it was, in the first one, and there was a weird subtext going on with the whole “be-a-good-girl-and-be-a-good-couple” thing. (Hence the blog post.) So I guess my problem is with Peeta, the film character. But I think I’m in the minority – the people I was with, even the guys, thought film-Peeta was “so sweet and honest”. Yeesh. But okay.

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