Suzanne Collins’ magnificent YA series The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a single massive city, called simply “the Capitol,” maintains its luxurious splendor by subjugating the residents of twelve favelas/client-states called “Districts,” each devoted to a specific industry like coal mining, textile manufacturing, agriculture, etc. (Not all of the zoning has been revealed in canon, but there are districts for crops, livestock, fishing, coal mining, other mining, lumber/paper, textiles, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and unspecified “luxury goods.” You can have fun speculating about the other two.) Every year, as a symbol of the Districts’ submission to the Capitol, one boy and one girl are chosen at random from each district to compete in the titular Hunger Games, a no-holds-barred battle to the death.
Now, at this point about a quarter of you are thinking “wow, what a great story hook,” and the rest are thinking “that sounds like a ripoff of Battle Royale.” Both statements are true enough, although it actually works out to something like a cross between Battle Royale and My Side of the Mountain, since Katniss, the heroine, spends easily as much time struggling against hunger and thirst as she does trying to murder her fellow contestants. That the concept is not totally original is entirely beside the point. It’s still chilling, and in this case wonderfully executed. Collins’ prose is sparkling and addictive, her plots are well structured and exciting. Neither of these are universal traits in YA fiction (or any other kind of fiction), so that right there is something to celebrate. If this was just Battle Royale fanfic, I’d still say it was worth your time and attention.
But it is much more than that. There is one element of The Hunger Games which I think is entirely original, for this kind of story — and when I say “this kind of story,” I don’t mean post-apocalyptic tales of children battling to the death, I just mean fiction directed at youth in general.
One of the big master narratives of fiction for the young is BE YOURSELF. We’re constantly telling people that it’s bad to pretend to be something you’re not just to fit in: if you learn to be yourself, people will learn to like you, or at least the right people will. If you have to pretend to be someone you’re not to fit in with the cool kids, well, then to hell with them. They were never worth paying attention to in the first place. A slightly less after-school-specialish version of this narrative gives people a plausible reason for not just being themselves, but then adjusts the situation so that abandoning the pretense becomes the sensible thing to do. Like, say you’re a teenaged wizard, and using magic outside of Hogwarts will get you expelled and possibly jailed. A sensible person might want to, you know, keep his wand in his pants for the summer. But Rowling sets up a situation where Harry has to reveal his true wizardly colors in self defense. And of course the ministry of magic cavils and moans, and Harry gets to feel righteous about disobeying their stupid fussy laws. They were never worth paying attention to in the first place, right?
To a certain extent, The Hunger Games plays right into this trope. The Capitol wants Katniss to be one way, but she turns out to be the other way. That’s the core struggle of the book right there: government authority vs. individual autonomy. No bonus points for guessing which one is on the side of right and justice. No points for guessing whether she eventually triumphs over adversity — it’s still YA fiction. (I feel like I can say this with 100% certainty even though I’ve not yet read the third book of the trilogy.) But there’s an intriguing wrinkle built into the structure of the games, which is the main difference between the setup here and the one in Battle Royale. In Battle Royale, the violent contest is staged for no very clearly defined reason. It just sort of happens — that’s actually one of the most horrifying things about it! There’s some suggestion that it’s a reaction against surging youth violence, or that it’s an attempt to keep the general populace cowed and terrified, but it’s by no means clear how the event would serve either end. The kids just wake up on an island one day and are told that they have to kill each other. Although we’re told that the battle was created as part of an education reform act (and can I just say, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that subcommittee hearing), it’s not at all clear that all of the students in question even know about the program until they’re dropped into it.
In The Hunger Games, by stark contrast, the contest is televised. It’s the media event of the year, every year. There are hosts and commentators. People bet on it. And you can support your favorite contestant by buying gifts which are parachuted into the arena. Food. Water. Medicine. Bullets. If you have enough fans, all this can be yours, and more…
This might seem at first like a cheap bid for relevance, updating the Battle Royale formula for the era of social networking and American Idol. Not so. Because it means that, for Katniss, putting on a good show for the audience is quite literally a matter of life and death. And although this is not at all literally true for most teenagers… it sure feels like it sometimes. This, for me, is the interesting thing about the book. It follows the standard narrative as far as “people who don’t like you as you really are were never your friends to begin with,” but then takes a hard left turn: rather than writing these people off as beneath your contempt, you have to work extra hard to deceive them, because otherwise they’re going to hurt you. And to twist the screw even further, it’s not like all of the people Katniss is trying to deceive are horrible people. There are plenty of good, decent people — people that she likes, people that she enjoys being around, people who bear her no ill will — that she still can’t be her real self around, because it’s vital to her survival that they think of her in a particular way. And the book doesn’t flinch from the hardening and corrupting effect this can have on her psyche and her relationships.
To reiterate, the standard message of YA lit is that you should be yourself, because your real friends are the ones who like you when you are yourself. The message of The Hunger Games is that if you have to put on a false face in order to interact with someone, even slightly, then that person is to that precise degree a threat, and therefore your enemy. The change in focus is subtly, crucially — perhaps even transgressively — original.