The Hunger Games: Politics and the Extreme

Cover of The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2008

Call Number: PZ7.C6837

So I was waiting for my ILL request for Gender Trouble to come through, and I’d already finished the Third World Women  anthology, and of course I can’t just be between books, and so.. I had the opportunity to read this fantastic YA book.  I really love YA literature, far more than my blog so far would indicate, but I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I remember the dueling editorials about “dark YA” a few months ago, and I can’t remember whether The Hunger Games was discussed in that conversation, but let me tell you, if this is dark YA, sign me up, I’d like to read more.

Mild Spoilers Ahead – beware. I don’t spoil the ending or anything here, but I do give some details that only become clear over the course of the book.

The very premise is totally devastating: in the future, the former U.S. has been reduced to twelve districts run from a central Capitol with apparently unlimited political and economic power.  Every year, this Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl to compete in a giant, weeks-long melee (aka the Hunger Games) until only one of the original twenty-four is still alive. Further details about how this is managed, how the competitors are chosen and the cultural meaning of the Hunger Games only make things seem even worse.

There’s a lot to praise about this book—the quality of the writing is very high, and Katniss is a great character—but this isn’t a book review, so I’ll refrain (but seriously, read it, it’s excellent).  I’d heard a little about the premise and I expected the book to be good, but what did surprise me at least a little was how political it was.  There’s a strong awareness throughout the book that both the Hunger Games themselves and all the other circumstances of life in Panem are determined by political realities that come from far beyond Katniss’s sphere.

The choice of Katniss as a narrator does a lot to give the reader this perspective.  She’s from  District Twelve, and wealth and security seem to gravitate somehow toward the lowest numbered districts—that is to say, District Twelve is the most impoverished and the least important, a coal mining community where people barely survive. Within that district, she is from the Seam, which is a slum.  She spends most of her time trying to get food for herself and her family.  So on the one hand, I really like Collins’s choice to make the central character of her book someone from there very bottom of the social ladder rather than have someone halfway up or near the top looking down and noticing how terrible everything is.  And on the other hand, Katniss’s experience allows her to be both cynical and perceptive as regards the social order under which she lives. She understands that she is living under an oppressive structure, because from her point of view, it’s rather obvious (after all, she does not have the luxury of seeing the Hunger Games as an entertainment event, as some in the Capitol presumably do), and she knows that it’s really a structural issue and not determined by the people who carry it out.  She knows that the Hunger Games are an intimidation tactic and that this is why everyone is forced to watch them on TV.  And she understands the economic factors behind the Hunger Games—she explains matter-of-factly the mechanism by which it is assured that the poor are much more likely to be selected to participate than the rich.

So while the book never makes itself into a polemic, it very definitely includes an analysis of the nature of political power and its relation to spectacle. The Hunger Games do a lot for the Capitol. As Katniss notes, they reinforce the power of the Capitol by flaunting the ability of the powerful to control the lives of those in the districts (and of course, the chances of victory are very different from one district to another, which also helps the Capitol to remind everyone of the hierarchy among the districts).  They also allow the Capitol to flaunt its wealth with parades and everything, to keep everyone entertained and duly impressed. And, no doubt, they bring money into the Capitol as well.  At the same time, by directing the attention of the audience toward the actions of the participants in the arena, where this audience may identify with certain tributes over others, or hold their breath in suspense or shake their heads in pity, the Capitol has skillfully deflected attention from the horrifying power that put them there in the first place. The most privileged in the audience, whether they are directly involved with the Games or not, are of course complicit in the deaths of children, whether it is by sending gifts into the arena or only by cheering at the parade.

There are even some moments that make clear the relationship between culture and economics; Katniss comments more than once on “the Capitol accent” and how ridiculous it sounds. Since there is no attempt to represent this accent in the text, the reader cannot judge for him-or-herself whether the accent sounds silly or not, leaving us to reflect on the close associations of accents with social class.  It sounds affected to her because it is the accent of people who can participate in respectable culture more easily than she can, and who have never had to experience struggles like hers.  It’s not the way words are pronounced that makes the accent sound silly, it’s the cultural distance between her and its speakers.

The strength of this political critique makes one wonder, as a reader, whether there is any analogy in our world for the Hunger Games.  Sporting events? Reality TV? Media coverage of war and other violent political events?  In each case, we’re tempted to point out the things that we think make it different.  Yes, athletes in sporting events are often seriously injured, but they’re adults and they agreed to participate of their own volition, and besides, they’re very seldom killed! Reality TV is only a social and emotional battle, not a physical one! Wars aren’t intentionally arranged to be televised by our government for the purpose of entertainment! All of which are important points, but I think what really matters is that by making these arguments, by being forced to bring up these differences, we need to think about where these ethical boundaries are or should be, and what makes it okay or not okay. So the Hunger Games, in which the participants are randomly selected children who are forced to kill each other, are a very extreme example, inviting us to think about how far over the line they are and where the line really is.

In view of this, what you really want as a reader is not to see Katniss win, but to see her bring down the whole thing.  But it’s very clear from the outset that she can’t. Katniss is a very capable person but she is forced to operate under the circumstances that are dictated to her—in fact, the same is true of all the characters that we meet. She is not exactly in a position to stand up and tell everyone that this is wrong; in fact, we see her choosing her words very carefully to minimize the danger to herself.  As a reader, I found myself (appropriately and intentionally, I think) frustrated that this cannot be changed and impressed by the choice to let us live with that frustration.  Although this is the first book of a trilogy, it’s a self-contained story about Katniss’s experience with the Games, so we end the book still worried about this milieu.

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to reading Catching Fire.  I have a guess as to who the Avox is, so when I get a chance to read it, we’ll see if I’m right.

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2 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “The Hunger Games: Politics and the Extreme

  1. Fantastic analysis of the text here. Two points really jumped out at me. The first being that yeah, it’s so rare to have an actually poor character as the main character. For some reason this fact hadn’t registered from this series but it’s a good one.

    The second is that with reality TV, our obsession with the stars, and athletics, while the carnage is not the same, it is still manufactured entertainment that keeps us distracted from the politics at play in our world and from the things that really matter. What do you think?

  2. Thanks, Amy 🙂

    Your comment about manufactured entertainment is a really good point and, I think, important to the text. I’ve always been a little skeptical of the idea that art distracts from the political, because I don’t think there exists a person who could maintain a political focus on all things at all times! But one danger is forgetting that things have their political side–like in the book where the viewers, or at least the most privileged ones–forget that they are watching real people, you know, with feelings and stuff. Another is that, by becoming viewers, they are all complicit and thus discouraged from revolting.

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