Overthunk: The Hunger Games’ Challenge to Children’s Literature

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 … Continued

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.

16 Comments on “Overthunk: The Hunger Games’ Challenge to Children’s Literature”

  1. Bryant Dillon #

    “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.)”

    While there is triumph in the end in some degrees, you really need to read the end of “Mockingjay” and reevaluate this statement. To Collins credit, she takes Katniss to war and gives us a realistic outcome, one where none is left whole in the end.


  2. Gab #

    Have you seen the Doctor Who episode “Bad Wolf?” Random selection by “government” for televised deathmatches, and you’d better comply or you’ll die that much sooner.

    From reading the first two books, then, can you say what the message is supposed to be in terms of how to deal with one’s enemies once they have been exposed as such? Or will that have to wait until you’ve finished the series?


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      It’ll probably have to wait. My guess would be that you just keep your defenses up and try to get as much out of them as you can, unless they’re really evil, in which case you need to fight or run. It’ll be interesting to see if the third book polarizes things a little more.


  3. El A #

    I really mean to read this series sometime, but from your description it sounds like she mashed together the plot of Battle Royale with the setting of the original Rollerball. Also the plot of Rollerball, where the state set up the game as a teaching tool to teach their subjects one thing but the main character ends up bucking the system. This just makes me want to read it more…


  4. turin #

    I haven’t read the series (everyone has been telling me to do so for a while but I haven’t gotten around to it, and since I’m no longer a teenager I’m not sure I will), but I’d say it’s not fair in general to say that because it’s YA fiction she definitely triumphs over adversity. From what YA fantasy and sci-fi I’ve read, the good guys usually win, but often with serious losses, and the hero doesn’t always come out of it to live happily ever after.

    To mention two examples (both of which I’d recommend as worth reading): Brian Jacques’ _Martin the Warrior_ has a rather dark ending, and while we know from elsewhere in the series that Martin gets better, the book can stand alone. And Robert Jarvis’ Deptford Mice trilogy ends in an astonishingly dark way for a children’s series.


  5. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    Great point, Jordan. Along with Bryant Dillon above, I’m excited for you to get through the end of book 3 and then do some overthinking about the “message” of the series. The way the story ends, the dichotomies of loss vs. victory and authenticity vs. deception are disrupted; each state is unique but each is in some way a trauma. You have to cast your lot with the choices you think you can live with and with the trauma you think is most survivable…


  6. Phire #

    I thought The Hunger Games was a fun read, but I found it mystifying that it was held up as the pinnacle of “new YA”, as it were. While Katniss was fun, I found the character development really dry for the most part, and very one-sided. I would’ve loved to have more backstory on Cinna, for example, beyond Katniss’ incomprehensible instant trust of someone just because he seemed “different” given that she’s survived thus far in a regime that teaches you to mistrust even your neighbours.

    The thing that distracted me the most from the book, however, was the utter implausibility of the premise…. or at least the total miscomprehension of human nature on the part of Collins. To quote part of my own review of the book:

    Come on, Collins. Few things light the fire of rebellion better than the brazen and systematic slaughtering of children for nationally-televised sport.

    It just seems untenable that the regime has survived for 80-some years, with the only thing keeping the different district downtrodden being the mysterious downfall of district 13.

    I don’t want to totally word-dump here, so here’s just a link to my review.

    Enjoying this blog a lot, keep it up!


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Well, the premise is not the most believable thing, I’ll grant you. But there’s a pretty long tradition of this kind of story: The Lottery, The Long Walk, Logan’s Run, Battle Royale, Theseus and the Minotaur if you want to go way back… I think most people are willing to suspend their disbelief simply because the book is so clearly working within this tradition.

      As long as we’re nitpicking, though, the regime has invisible hovercrafts and advanced genetic engineering capabilities, but they’re still running on coal power? Please.


      • RHJunior #

        We have space shuttles and the internet, yet we still run on fossil fuels…


    • RHJunior #

      Ever heard of Ancient Rome? blood spectacle for the masses, child.

      And civilizations have been sacrificing their own children to higher powers for millennia…. willingly.


      • Brian #

        “Britney’s New Look” episode of South Park captured the real present day incarnation of this, Britney Spears wasn’t killed irl but the point is lots of people would have made more money if she had.

        It totally dismantled my ivory tower notion that we’ve progressed so much beyond primitive superstition as my go to example was the Aztec virgin sacrifice for their harvest, granted it was much more brutal than relentless hounding teen pop singers, but idk if that’s really a triumph of rationalism, as the paparazzi do it because it just makes too much financial sense- the math is just not in Britney’s favor therefore it’s ok/necessary for her to die.


        • Crystal #

          As long as Britney jeep’s acting crazy, it makes more sense to keep her alive. If she dies there would be a big spike in magazine sales but the Britney-fueled sales would never return.

          Personally, I think the South Park episode really overstated things. It’s not so much a case of people intentionally destroying a pop idol. Rather, the idol cracks under the pressure and people enjoy watching the wreckage. Look at all the pop stars who don’t crack (and of course there’s something to be said for dramatic/unstable people being drawn to spotlight, theoretically).

          It’s not a lot better, but it is different.


  7. Bryant Dillon #

    Got to agree with RHJunior regarding Phire’s comments on slaughtering children. Yes, it does ignite rebellions, but in no way does that mean that it doesn’t happen. There’s a long tradition of slaughtering children in world history.


  8. Steven #

    Does someone want to tell me how the hell they’re going to split the last book and not make the movie(s) suck? MockingJay isn’t that terribly long compared to the other two, and I find that, while it made sense (sort of) for Harry Potter to do it, Twilight? THe Hunger Games? Why are the climaxes of book franchises being seperated? It is obviously for money, but I think their may be something deeper. I have not even seen the first part of Deathly Hallows, (Harry Potter 7) so I am in no way qualified to Overthink about it, but it leaves one curious does it not? Probably not. My other query about the transition of THe Hunger Games to the Silver Screen is, not that they will indeed kill the children, but how will they? If I were in charge (and I so wish that I was) I would keep the gore at the level it is described in the book. I think that Collins didn’t hold back on the description of the bloodshed, but it all depends on how the ratings will go. I think that the filmmaker will pansy out and go for a PG-13, if not PG, which will not be all that astounding. I also hope I won’t dismay Phire, who left an excellent comment on the dryness of the characters, first off, I think if Collins tightenend up some parts of her narrative, she could have gotten away with these characters. Second, The movie that is bieng made will do away with what development or story arcs there are in the book, and it will be in danger of becoming a terrible film that spits in the face of those who so diligently read the trilogy. The film has an excellent oppurtunity to expand on things like this, eg: Relationships, mainly between Katniss and her family, and with Gale, as well as the one-sidedness and development of the characters, but since the filmmakers are probably not Overthinkers in the least, most of production time will be spent perfecting the Capitol Accent. If the even go that far for relevance to the source material. Tell me what you think.


  9. Kristen #

    Nice point. I feel like one of the aspects of my adult, professional life that I wasn’t prepared for was that a certain amount of lying is actually necessary. Just for one example, everyone pretty much agrees that you don’t tell your boss what you’re actually doing if you take time off to interview for another job and there are a handful of other similar scenarios where it’s just expected that you misrepresent reality. I’ve never been too good at this stuff, because I took all those lessons growing up about not lying or misrepresenting yourself to heart, apparently a bit more than I actually should have.

    I always appreciate it when books like this touch on some of the more morally ambiguous aspects of the world we live in, and this series in particular does a pretty great job at addressing moral ambiguities in a way likely to give kids (and adults) a lot to think about.


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