This gripping, little story has us up in our pajamas tearing through pages in the dead of night. We close the back cover and find ourselves wishing we had gone ahead and picked the next book in the trilogy earlier in the day. It doesn’t appear as though Suzanne Collins has woven a particularly complicated tale with The Hunger Games, but after coming through to the other side- we feel just a tad stunned- but by what? Considering the nature of the content, we have to stop and ask ourselves why? Why do we like this book so much? Literally, hundreds of thousands are lined up and clamoring to see the book come to life on the big screen this weekend. Why?
Some might say it’s because we identify with these particular characters. They are everyday, uncomplicated and transparent. Katniss Everdeen, while likable, is at times, cold and selfish- very human indeed. She initially wanted to drown the cat with the mashed-in nose and she can’t make herself think outside of her little family circle. We like our characters to be real.
Others might say we like The Hunger Games because we’re inexorably drawn to stories that follow the average victim into the worst of circumstances. We like to watch them suffer and then emerge victoriously. We wait for the scrappy, young heroine with blood under her fingernails and skills up her sleeves to let the winning arrow fly. We hope for the average, little underling- bloodied, barefooted and bruised to reach the peak of Mount Doom in hobbit-like fashion, finally defeating the greatest forces of evil.
We love stories of survival. We love a story where the good, unremarkable guy wins. We love an everyday hero willing to sacrifice it all for love.
Hmmm…. sounds almost biblical and certainly is the ending we hope for as we rip through the pages of this book- but the masters of this fictitious game rely on oppression, rather than deliverance, and our heroine isn’t thinking of the fate of mankind. Even so, these moral themes do seem to lay hopelessly near the core of the tale.
Some will flatly say that we like The Hunger Games solely because it’s an uncomplicated thriller- a bloody, page-turner that need not be dissected for meaning. We literally flip from page to page, like there’s no tomorrow, caught in a storm of aimless suspense.
There are others who will peer skeptically at the unopened cover and claim that we have become nothing more than civilized crudes fascinated by atrocity and vulgarity; insatiable junkies craving a violence fix- hungry to neatly fulfill the most base fantasies- because enough is never enough.
Or maybe the reasons will prove to be more enlightened than that. Maybe we recognize the paper-thin fragility of life and can’t avoid slowing the car to rubberneck at flagrant emergencies.
Yeah, that’s why we like this stuff; it’s all that.
But there’s something else… something vaguely familiar about this particular story line. The Hunger Games treads dangerously close to our prime time reality. It speeds along on a parallel track, keeping pace with our lust for action and adventure, but goes one step further, not just entertaining us with the unthinkable, but teasing us with a taste of the not-so-distant future. The Capitol serves as a garish replication of our pop-culture at at more mature stages. The wealthy inhabitants carve and tuck, tattoo and dye until some strange and contemporary caricature evolves. The Hunger Games both laughs at and defines us, making fun of our superficiality and pointing to our vulnerability; it simply and cleverly provides us with a recipe that smacks of history, modern culture, ancient theme, and prophecy all at once.
Photo Source: http://www.thehungergamesmovie.com/
Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
The Hunger Games looks like a deadly, little version of American Idol– where we watch the chosen make deadly missteps and then pass into oblivion. The “tributes” are tracked from home- become one of ours- are coached by one of theirs- and after much trial and effort, are remorsefully narrowed down to one victor. All of Panem watches and waits to hear the latest news. Our “Caesar Flickerman,” Ryan Seacrest, keeps things tense and intimate. The mentors are glamorous and command respect, but even they follow the rules, and the “Gamemakers” are always watching, poised to change the dictates if it will enhance the game.
And oh, how we love a game…
The entertainment industry now offers so much more than an impotent thrill from the couch- we stand ready to enter the game in a more sophisticated and global way than ever before. As technology mutates like an infectious disease we line up for the next dose of multi-sensory pleasure. We no longer want to go out to play- we want to go in to play and some of the places we are playing are deadly. We log-on and gain access to a stark grey world- where color and activity are superimposed. Real life can’t compare with the quick titillation to be enjoyed in our private utopias. We log-in and detach on a whole new level- our ears are plugged- our minds consumed- our senses active- alive and onscreen. We are just new releases away from doing the unthinkable.
Funny, how when we log out it leaves us strangely hungry.
Hungry for organic life- for green grass and for fresh air. Hungry, but ill-equipped to enjoy, having been spoiled by quick fixes of rabid adrenaline. “To have fun” now requires definition and effort.
In Panem, the games are a fact of life; they serve to oppress and entertain. The prizes are grief and hopelessness. Katniss crawls beyond the perimeter of her district to do something which is forbidden- to explore and sustain life via her resourcefulness; to experience the organic and real- to see things grow and to hear birds sing. It’s here, in the trees and fields, that she develops the skills that will keep her alive in the dangerous game we call life.
Maybe we like this story because it makes us strangely hungry for something we are at risk of losing… or perhaps we like it because we can see some distorted version of ourselves lurking in the pages. Maybe The Hunger Games has taken center stage for such a broad audience because it both reminds of the past and warns us about the future. It makes a game out of atrocity, something we are getting quite comfortable with, and it innocuously invites us to think about where we are headed. Technology has transformed our idea of fun- creatively taking us higher than we ever dreamed- while simultaneously allowing us to sink lower than we ever dared to dread.
Author, Suzanne Collins, wrote this book several years ago for a young adult audience; she wanted to reveal something about “the effect of war and violence on those coming of age.” It doesn’t matter if she ever really meant for The Hunger Games to so poignantly and powerfully reveal and prophecy; it has- and it’s a story who’s time of ripening has come.
© Catherine Whittier, March 2012. Please join the conversation!