Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Hunger Games, Collins


The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
2008
USA

            Over Christmas break, I read The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, because vacation means you are supposed to consume junk food, in this case in the form of a YA bestselling novel. I sought out this book for my vacation reading because I found the premise of it (which I learned of from friends and by seeing the preview for the upcoming film) intriguing: It’s some unspecified time in the future. The United States has endured a civil war and now the victors – The Capitol – lord it over the 12 surrounding Districts, hoarding food and goods for themselves and keeping the rest of the country in poverty to maintain the status quo. As a yearly reminder that rebellion against the Capitol doesn’t pay, two children between the ages of 12-18 are chosen from each district as "tributes," to compete in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death in which the last child alive “wins.” Of course, there are plenty of surprises to keep those pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and now, two days after finishing the book, all I can think about is buying the next one in the trilogy.

The best part, for me, was the richness and novelty of the descriptions both of the Districts and the Capitol. Anyone with a penchant for fantasy or science fiction knows what I’m talking about – the fancy machines that wash your hair for you, the plethora of food available at the push of the button, and outlandish costumes and fashion trends of the make-believe future and, in contrast, the brutal life in the poorest District, where hunting is illegal and workers must buy back the food and goods they produce at crippling prices. And then, of course, there’s the embedded social commentary.

I don’t know whether she intended it or not, but a lot of what goes on in the world of The Hunger Games might very well be taken as a critique of the issues facing our own society today. The Capitol taking wealth directly from the hands and mouths of the rest of the country seems strongly reminiscent of the claim that the 99% is being oppressed by the 1% in the U.S., which the recent “Occupy” movement has brought to our attention. And some of the discussions between Katniss and Rue, another Hunger Games tribute from a different district, call to mind Marx’s analysis of the worker who, because she lacks ownership or even the ability to purchase the goods and services she produces, becomes alienated from her work and her society. Here is a conversation between Katniss and Rue to explain what I mean: “‘I’d have thought, in District Eleven, you’d have a bit more to eat than us. You know, since you grow the food,’ I say. Rue’s eyes widen. ‘Oh, no, we’re not allowed to eat the crops.’ ‘They arrest you or something?’ I ask. ‘They whip you and make everyone else watch,’ says Rue. ‘The mayor’s very strict about it.’” Of course, we don’t whip people here for stealing or for entering the country illegally, but we do arrest and deport our own food workers on a daily basis, and you can’t tell me there isn’t an element of power and humiliation inherent in that punishment, too.

I could go on and on, making comparisons between the Capitol and the current United States. There’s plenty more to say about it. But in the interest of starting off 2012 with happy thoughts, I’ll end my analysis there.  The good news is that you don’t have to register any of this between the lines stuff to enjoy The Hunger Games. Regardless of your political ideology, you’re sure to feel both sympathy and admiration for Katniss Everdeen and many of her fellow tributes as they navigate the massive, manipulated, and deadly game they have no choice but to play.  

4 comments:

  1. Great Post! I loved this series, read it a second time when I heard that they were going to be making a movie out of it,. As a lazy Marxist, I loved your analysis and totally agree that this is an interesting time to read about fictionalized, hyper-violent, centralized governments.

    I would be weary at calling it "junk food". Many librarians put this book at the top of recommended reading lists, even some nationally recognized lists. In library science, one of our core beliefs is "Every reader his/her book, and every book its reader". To you, an academic and literary critic, this book might come across as fluff. But to less prolific and younger readers, this book could be ground shaking.

    As always, I enjoy your perspectives!!

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Turner! I appreciate your thoughts about the "junk food" title. For me, yes, it was lighter reading fare than I usually ingest but I definitely agree that it makes great reading and discussion material for anyone, and particularly for its intended audience (young adults). One of my followers here, Jessica, is a high school teacher and was considering assigning this text in her class. I think she should! It would, as we've both pointed out here, be a great starting point to talk about government roles and politics in a more abstract, theoretical way while still providing an actual (albeit fictional) example for context. I think you could do the same thing with another favorite YA series, Harry Potter.

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  3. Hey Emily and Turner,
    Great discussion here. On the topic of YA novels that totally transcend the target audience, I can't recommend Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy more highly. I pounded through the series this fall and am very glad I waited for my adult brain to read them. They made a kinda bad movie out of the first one--the Golden Compass--but don't let that dissuade you.
    All the best,
    Josh

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  4. Agreed, Josh! His Dark Materials is an amazing series. Nothing like having a young adult novel help you question the relationship between God and particle physics!

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