The book The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has become a top best-seller in the last couple of years. Ranking consistently high in both Amazon.com and the New York Times, it has already made its way into a movie coming out later this month.
Written for teens and young adults, it appeals to all ages (I guess at bottom the book’s popularity suggests we all actually are young-at-heart). Categorized in the fantasy and science fiction genres, it still is a page turner that grabs you early on and builds to a climax at the end. At least I saw it as a page-turner and that seemed to be the reaction of dozens of reviewers on the Internet, many of whom claimed they don’t usually like young adult or fantasy/science fiction books.
The author is a great writer – the plot development and character development made the story believable and the characters ones we could relate to. That was my first impression, that it was a good story.
However, any popular book achieves this kind of popularity only when it touches a nerve of the public. People flock to books that are well written of course, but also because the themes in it touch on the fears, hopes and desires of the readers. By considering the themes in this book, we can get a glimpse of what people, and especially young people have since it was written specifically for them, might be seeing this as the current reality or possible future of their world.
The Hunger Games is a story where the dark futuristic book 1984 meets survivor, one of the earliest so called Reality TV shows. Mixed in with that are elements of the entertainment from the bread and circuses and gladiators of the Roman Empire, and an image of a modern young woman as one of the tributes.
The story takes place in the nation of Panem, in what are the ruins of North America sometime in the future. Panem is very much a surveillance state with the inhabitants fearing the authorities and kept in poverty and isolation by the richer inhabitants of the Capital, located in the Rocky Mountains. As a result of a failed rebellion against the Capital some 70 years previously, each of twelve provinces every year must provide a tribute of one teen boy and one teen girl to a televised event called the Hunger Games, a huge arena where the 24 youth over several days must fight to the death on live TV where only one will survive. The purposes of the games include reminding the provinces of their submission and to provide mass entertainment by a game where the basic rule is to kill or be killed.
So what might be resonating in young people (and all other ages) from this novel?
1984 was a novel written in 1948 that became a classic icon predicting a Big Brother oppressive government where conformity was demanded and individuality discouraged. In 1984 it was very difficult for a person to carve out any privacy for themselves or even a comfortable living standard. In many ways 1984 could have been describing Panem of The Hunger Games. The popularity of this novel suggests a fear (of young people) that that is the kind of society we are evolving to (or even already has), where they have no real freedom, and the authorities owns even their bodies.
Survivor was a popular TV series a few years ago where a group of people were gathered on an island, and through competition, betrayals, backbiting, short term alliances and lying, people were voted off the island until there was just one survivor. The same concept appears in The Hunger Games except exit was by death rather than by vote. What kind of nerve could this be touching in young people? That they are growing up in a dog eat dog world, based on survival of the fittest where nobody can be trusted?
One of the most common icons of the Empire of Rome is the image of gladiators fighting to the death, or the condemned thrown into the arena to be slaughtered. All this was public entertainment with people cheering the carnage and making bets on who would die or who would die the most courageously. In Panem, just like Imperial Rome, the average citizen has no rights and even his/her body is owned by the authorities. Perhaps this is the concern the young (and old) readers of The Hunger Games have, either that this is how they see their world now, or what the world will be like in their future.
Katniss, the heroine of the story, seems to be an example of the modern woman – smart, assertive, competent, a little ruthless, nurturing and feminine at times. The real brutality on the part of the tributes competing in the arena is represented by some of the boys. In fiction at least, Katniss is a role model for young girls, overcoming extreme obstacles to persevere in the end through courage, creativity, smarts and perseverance. The role model for boys of course is Peeta, who seems resigned to his fate and just wanting to die honorably.
There are a number of other themes in the story also. The contrast between the living standards of those living in District twelve, which Katniss represents, and that of the residents of the capital is suggestive of current criticisms of income inequality such as from the one per-centers, the philosophical brutality hidden behind the glitz of showmanship common in totalitarian nations, and what a total lack of freedom of movement and thought does to people.
So what does the attraction of this novel say about the attitude of young people? Perhaps they are seeing it as a metaphor for life as it is currently. Or, more likely, it might be a fear that we are evolving that way unless something is done to intervene to prevent this future.
Either way, despite the modern image of teens as being only interested in parties, entertainment, celebrities, gaming, having fun etc., the popularity of this novel suggests that at least on some level, many many teens are concerned about these themes touched on in this novel. Maybe it will help inspire them to do something positive about it.
We can hope!