The way Wrather describes it makes me think the Hunger Games is finding its moment for many of the same reasons Game of Thrones found its moment—and that they are similar in a lot of key ways that correspond to current economic and cultural trends.
The idea of not just fighting for your interests against a decadent elite, but of the main character traveling from the hinterlands to the city to discover what that means, and watching that discovery of how the world works through their eyes—and wondering what they’re going to do about it and how capable they will be—that much corresponds between the Everdeens and the Starks.
It matches up to a world where stuff is going wrong, and they don’t know exactly why, but they have a pretty good sense for whose fault it is—our world. And then of course corresponds to a sense that actually it’s a bit more complicated, and there are incentives to do the bad things the leadersdo, and in turn the important thing is not to stay who you are, but to know when and how to change in order to advance your interests and protect what you hold dear.
I think people want that in today’s world—they are mad at the people who caused all the problems, but most people want to learn their tricks and discover how the game works and how to play it as much if not more than they want justice—especially because righting the wrongs and undoing the damage is virtually impossible.
Or perhaps it is a fantasy of learning how the game works, which many people despair of in their everyday lives.
It’s all an interesting take on the Bildungsroman—whereas in the classic coming of age story, the hero comes to terms with society and finds a place in the social order, in this riff on it, the actual, underlying social order is obscure and guarded. It’s about realizing there is a second social order in the shadow of the first that has actual power, that it’s hostile to you, and that it’s not enough to have a personal journey that brings you to where you belong—you have to carve your way into it through an act of patricide.
It’s Oedipus in a Che Guevara shirt. Tunic.
In the first book, it never occurs to Katniss not to play the Hunger Games on the Capitol’s terms. She’s there to survive, not to bring down the system or expose the injustice of the whole thing. Until at least the middle of the second book, she’s actually trying to reinforce that system, if only to protect her family. It’s the guys who are the budding revolutionaries, and she thinks they’re crazy. I think that’s what makes this different from The Running Man or Battle Royale or Death Race—how reluctant she is to fight the system.
I do have to say that one thing I though was a bit of a cop-out is how Katniss never has to make any hard choices in the arena. It’s not that she has an easy time—it’s that the whole point of the game is it forces people to do terrible things, and yet Katniss escapes that. Here are all the kills she makes:
- Dropping beehive on people who are hunting her
- Shooting guy who is stabbing a 12-year-old
- Mercy-killing horribly wounded guy
That’s it. You can barely call her a murderer. Katniss basically plays a very defensive game, and the one person she was allies with is conveniently killed for her. Same deal with the second book—she never hunts anybody or attacks anybody who isn’t actually coming at her. She keeps mentally reassuring herself that she will, but it never becomes necessary. The author spares her having to off anyone mildly likable, which seems like cheating to me.
Peeta is actually a lot more interesting—he teams up with the careers, and I believe he helps hunt down and kill at least a couple people. He has a more typical and morally-problematic Hunger Games experience, effortlessly turning into a predator because that’s what it takes. I think the author sort of soft-pedals this too. When Katniss and Gale are reunited, she never berates him for teaming up with the careers.
There’s sort of an unspoken question: is there a right or wrong way to survive the Hunger Games? Katniss doesn’t seem to think so—she never talks about any former winners being particularly hated because of how they won. But the author clearly thinks so.
Mlawski [Hi there! —Ed.]
I haven’t read The Hunger Games yet and thus have been avoiding all your spoilery e-mails, but have you read this Salon article about the series?
It’s pretty critical of the series’ world-building, as well as the hypocrisy of making a huge, blockbuster-y movie that criticizes spectacle and the mass media.
Eh, the book doesn’t seem that uncomfortable with the implied voyeurism of its readership. It’s kind of working from the assumption that this is the kind of stuff we all have to watch anyway, and is more about the shared experience of watching it and how to do it right and figure out what is going on than whether watching it is good or bad.
It isn’t really unreservedly critical about the media—even though you would expect it to be, given its plot. The media is one of the heroine’s biggest allies. So I don’t really see hypocrisy making it into a movie and profiting off of it.
The media is definitely not a totally bad thing in the Hunger Games. It’s a tool of propaganda, for both sides. There would definitely be no revolution without the media, so it’s a force for good as much as a tool for repression.
The Salon article has to basic complaints, one of which is true but insignificant, the other of which is more serious.
The first is that the backstory of Panem is a little sketchy. How does whatever combination of ecological disaster (floods, etc. are vaguely described) and civil unrest that transpired give rise to the political situation we find at the beginning of the series?
Who cares? Swallowing the premise is the price of admission. Next?
The second objection is more serious, and it’s that the movie adaptation amps up the romance twi-angle (forgive me) at the expense of not the violence exactly but rather the hunger of the Hunger Games. In other words, it is untrue to the spirit of the source, elevating the ideological over the material in the way that amounts to a reversal of the dynamic we’ve been outlining.
I think this probably has to do with some savvy and some naive assumptions about the market on the part of the filmmakers. The savvy one has to do with the MPAA: putting the material described in the novel onscreen would guarantee an R rating. The naive one, I think, has to do with the taste of the young women who I’m guessing are the film’s target demo—they are clearly not put off by the series’s violence, since they have elevated it to bestseller status.
One of the things I was struck by when I finished the series a while back was how perfunctory the resolution of the romance plot is: When Katniss finally makes her choice, it’s dispensed with in a sentence or two. This leads me to think that Collins’s real interest is elsewhere.
I agree with my esteemed colleagues that the book isn’t really critical of the media, or at least is only critical in a very roundabout way. When Katniss and Peeta emerge from the arena the first time, and she realizes the political needle she must thread in the post-games interviews, she says something like: “Now the most dangerous part of the games is about to begin.”
That is to say, the media are tantamount to the arena where the annual slaughter unfolds. And “media savvy”, on which the narrative takes an ambivalent position (which it does on most things, really, since it’s narrated by a teenager who is only gradually awakened to her political views over the course of the series), is the price you are forced to pay when you are forced to compete.
Look, a more fruitful angle for criticizing the series on political grounds has to do with the lavish, almost fetishistic description of the sumptuous pleasures of the Capital: the food, but especially the haute couture outfits and the elaborate grooming they require. On my current, second, read, these make me uncomfortable. I just don’t need the details of, say, an adolescent’s waxing session. And it gives me the feeling that something ulterior is being transacted with the audience—that the series may not be totally up-front with us or itself about what its appeal is.
Why do you like The Hunger Games? Sound off in the comments!
It’s interesting – having seen the movie, but never having read the book, I never particularly felt like the movie was glorifying the violence. It’s constantly presented as something that’s not very nice. (Spoilers, yeah?) When Glimmer is killed by the wasps, she’s bloated and malformed into something almost horrifying; I /felt/ the audience wince when Cato snapped the younger boy’s neck. There is something ironic about making the anti-media book into a movie, but I think Ross handles it particularly well.
There’s also a constant feeling of… I guess shame is the word? Most of the Capitol people that we see are Not Nice People. (Cinna is, and Effie Trinket is not as bad as the rest of them, but other than that…) And the constant cuts away from Katniss’s viewpoint, to what the people are seeing, are used to reinforce that there are people watching this and enjoying this, and that we’re not supposed to be.
If an actual Hunger Games was created and put on TV, would you watch it? Also, would you try to contribute towards sending aid? Would you bet?
I personally don’t know, because while I hate TV shows that portray people at their worst, betraying each other, etc (most reality TV), I am an avid sports enthusiast, especially football. I think the answer depends on how successful the game makers are at taking me away from reality and making the tributes feel like characters or athletes. I wouldn’t hesitate to watch “The 73rd Hunger Games: The Movie.” Now, I only read the first book in order to prepare seeing the movie with friends (something I regret doing in retrospect, because I feel that the film is a significantly different viewing experience without reading the novel, and I found myself wondering while I was watching “What would I be thinking now if I hadn’t read the book”), but it seems to me that the pomp and circumstance surrounding the beginning of the games is in place to turn the tributes into characters, and thus the Games into a narrative. After their selection (which is starkly in contrast to the character building, and I feel is more directly a statement of power intended for the districts, not the capitol (which makes an interesting conflict that the game makers must make a production for two separate audiences with two very different purposes)), they are presented symbolically in a grand parade (similar to the Olympics, where competitors are presented not as individual athletes, but as extensions of their country (thankfully though, competitors don’t dress in their country’s main export, because costuming franchises would be a nightmare for America). The novel even expresses this dehumanization when they refer to the protagonist not as Katniss, but as the Girl on Fire. When they score the competitors, they creating favorites, building expectations, turning it into a sport with rankings. Finally, the interviews, far from revealing the competitors as human, are designed to create a persona for each of them. Katniss is not told to be herself (until panic time), and when she tries that, it is presented as bland and forgettable. Reality TV uses similar tactics with confessional videos and careful editing (indeed, the last podcast’s discussion of reality TV and the niche between reality, fiction, character, and the self awareness of character is very applicable to the Games), the result is that going into the Games, there is just enough characterization to build a narrative. I feel that this is more evident in the novel, when we see the process as it happens to others as well as well as Katniss: Tresh (The Brute), Cato (The Career), Foxface (The Theif). It is actually rather interesting to read a story about making stories, and it is also interesting to note that Katniss (and thus the reader) is still fooled by the game makers narration despite being inside the system. She never questions that Cato is a bad person, because he grew up in another town (which is later validated by the author, so perhaps the author has even fallen victim to her own dystopia (although I suspect that this treated more deeply in the next book)).
Bringing this back into my original point, the Games seem constructed to divorce themselves from reality for the benefit of the Capitol, and I feel that this is just enough in order to get by the moral qualms for the thrill of the hunt to take over, and would be a not too unrealistic way for such a thing to be accepted in a different present.
And that was not meant as a specific reply to your comment, my apologies.
I read the books a while ago, and have been amping myself up to re-read them, but first-off, I agree with Stokes’ point whole-heartedly. I have had days where I felt like the guy who had a Royal Flush, but no chips to play. Somehow, I didn’t take anything from the Hunger Games. I wasn’t really into Overthinking (or overanalyzing in my case) media, so I didn’t draw any conclusions. All I can say is that Collins restrictive writing style does come to nip her in the bud. Not by way of characters, but of story. I loved the first book, really enjoyed the second, but when I got to the third, I had already heard so much about how the third book was so terrible that I really didn’t get into it as much as I should/could have. Here are my standard complaints about the third book:(Spoilers. For like, everything)
In Mockingjay, Katniss, having survived 2 Hunger Games, is now finding herself in a budding war with the capitol, which then escalates into a full scale civil conflict. This was really foreign for me, as an audience member, and I just wanted to see the games again. All of the war planning, and propoganda was neat, but I don’t think it was explored to it’s full affect. It didn’t make me think at all, and it was just battle, battle, and more battling. The story was hinged around the action, which is all I can really remember. And that makes the exploration of motives a little sketchy. While Katniss’ little show works in the Capitol, she is also dolled up for the afore mentioned propoganda ads ran in the Capitol, calling for equality(?) or something. Katniss became a literal Mockingjay, in more ways than one. She was dressed in the wings, with the bow and arrows, crying her war cries. All this time, she is just humouring people who want to use her as a symbol, just like she did in the Games.
Wrather described the description of the Captiol as off-setting, and only in the third book, I think, it was. In The Hunger Games, and to a greater extent, Catching Fire, Katniss was exposed to the best the Capitol had to offer. Katniss was a competitor. She became an insider. Everything in the Capitol was described as a “Look at this”, “This is amazing”, and “I was astounded. They said it was pedestrian”, among other things. I believe that in the second book, Katniss is eating a bowl of pea soup, and it’s apparently the greatest thing ever. In the third book though, we see all of the mundane, day to day workings of the Capitol. Katniss is actually inside people’s houses. The absolute wealth of these people is described painstakingly, and that’s just from a look in one person’s closet. The clothes are bizarre, and the hair is coloured every bright neon colour in the rainbow. The people were always shown as caricatures of some bad comic book, but those were just bigwig eccentrics running the show. Seeing everybody equally as crazy ruined our exclusivity in the Capitol. We didn’t go to cocktail parties, and laugh it up with President Snow, no. The audience became residents of the Capitol.
Third, I really didn’t like the way the series ended. Basically, Katniss just goes home and mopes. Everything was rushed out in the end, where it feels like there is so much more story to tell. More dialogue is needed to truly understand Katniss’ actions. This was the one time I truly understood Katniss though. Everyting felt like a whirl wind. A flurry of panic and chaos. I finally understood why she was the way she was. Everything was like a blur. There was no time to think. Barely enough time to act.
See, I mostly liked the third book. Katniss’s self-imposed mission to assassinate Snow is probably the second weakest portion of the entire series, but I absolutely love the way being in District 13 changes so little about Katniss’s inability to define her own identity, and how that subtly informs the ending. It makes explicit what was implicit throughout the series: That the battle to control the narrative is all-consuming.
More than a media criticism or satire, the Hunger Games always felt like a surprisingly savvy media analysis, it’s almost obsessively interested in the way real and staged events and feelings are mashed up, edited together and reimagined as useful narratives for mass consumption. When I really started getting interested in the first book is when Peeta introduces the romance angle and I started trying to put myself in the mindset of a capitol viewer. The question that began hounding me is “Would this actually work, and if so, how?”
No one else I’ve read or heard talking about the book or movie seems to have felt that dissonance, so let me take a moment to explain where I’m coming from. Bloodsport, and stories about bloodsport, are basically about inhumanity. In the Running Man, or Gladiator, or any other story you can think of about people mercing eachother for other people’s entertainment, the audience isn’t really supposed to be thinking of the combatants as fully human. They’re to be thought of as animals or less, just some sort of gore delivery system existing for your depraved tastes. If you start sympathizing with them, or otherwise caring about anything other than how entertainingly they kill and die, the game stops being fun.
This explicitly isn’t happening with the Hunger Games, and the capitol’s apparent obsession with Peetniss is the best example of that. Romance is humanizing; it’s an expression of the internal life you’re supposed to pretend the people killing and dying for your entertainment don’t have. It’s strange to be jazzed to watch a whole bunch of teenagers kill each other, and then still care whether a particular pair of them are able to find love.
Everything seemed to me to hinge on a plausible element of unreality. On some level, I figured the viewership must be processing these kids as fictional characters. That’s definitely part of it, but there’s actually more to it than that. Equally important, as the second book makes clearer, there’s an element of what I guess I’ll call moral helplessness.
Panem is not a democracy, or even an apartheid state. However well off they are materially, citizens of the capitol appear to have no real political freedom. The Hunger Games were set up by people long dead and administered by people who don’t have to answer to a ballet box. They’re going to happen whether anyone objects or not, and by the way you better not object if you don’t want to have your tongue cut out.
But what’s interesting is that, for the most part, the citizenry doesn’t even have a sense of their own oppression. The opulence of their lifestyle and the superficial novelties of their fashion blinds them to how the government narrows their choices. In their mind, everything’s just kind of the way it is; nobody is to blame, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. We laugh at Effie Trinket when she plays up the small luxuries the Tributes are able to enjoy in the days running up to their almost certain death, but I suspect in her mind she’s just making the best of things. The law dictates these kids kill each other, there’s no changing the law, so hey isn’t it great they get to experience how the other half lives for a little while.
The most hilarious example (it’s from the second book so very minor spoiler alert) is the way everyone reacts to the Quarter Quell. It’s clear to the reader that President snow set it up to deal with Katniss, but it’s presented as something that was put in place 75 years ago. Everyone fusses and frets over how awful it is, but also accepts that Snow and every other living member of the government is blameless. Not only do they not imagine that this was done intentionally, they do imagine that somehow it’s something that even the President is powerless to change.
This sense of helplessness and blamelessness is important because it transmutes the horror of the Hunger Games from atrocity to tragedy. No one wants to watch an atrocity, and if you end up seeing one it makes you angry. But tragedy is one of the oldest forms of entertainment, and seeing one of those makes you feel sad in a morally uplifting sort of way. More importantly from the government’s perspective, the presence of an atrocity encourages a righteous desire for change, while the presence of a tragedy encourages a contemplative sense of the world’s immutable unfairness. It suggests change is impossible, reinforcing that sense of helplessness on which the whole thing depends.
I like this idea of atrocity vs tragedy. And I think the reason I didn’t like the movie (haven’t read the books) is because there wasn’t enough atrocity to make it atrocious, but neither was there sufficient tragedy to make it tragic. Ultimately, the gravity of the situation was never fully realized, so it just felt like a bad weekend.
“The Hunger Games [are] administered by people who don’t have to answer to a ballet box. They’re going to happen whether anyone objects or not, and by the way you better not object if you don’t want to have your tongue cut out.”
This is not a description of any realistic political system. There is no such thing as a govt that has no supporters. Every govt, no matter how apparently hideous, that survives for any length of time, is supported and approved of by some group of people. A govt cannot simply order literally everybody around like slaves on pain of having their tongues cut out, because who, in that scenario, would do the cutting? The leaders can maybe drive most of their people like slaves with the whip, but what about the man who holds the whip? To him at least they must make some kind of positive appeal.
It’s a fairy tale political system, masquerading as a realistic one.
I’m also someone who saw the movie but never read the books, and my answer here is a little shallow. Rather than the character dynamics or anything like that, I liked the artistic design. Both the capital and its residents felt different but not totally alien. You could almost see how contemporary design tastes in fashion and architecture changed over time to produce what we see, and that helped ground the film more in reality for me. I thought it was a brave choice since genre films and TV shows tend to skew towards a mundane style nowadays. Like in nBSG, where there’s all the killer robots and FTL travel in a civilization totally divorced from Earth’s, but the politicians dress in business suits that wouldn’t be out of place in any modern business office. It was a risk on screen, even if it was already part of the book Hunger Games, but it ultimately worked and upped my investment in the movie.
I agree with Belinkie that Katniss gets off easy. Not only doesn’t she have to make any hard choices, she gets a lot of the other gameplay victories handed to her. If not for Rue and that redhead girl, Katniss would have been killed several times over.
along the lines of katniss getting off easy, i noticed watching the movie (i don’t remember if i took note of it when reading the book last year) that katniss is more than comfortable sitting the games out while everyone else is doing the dirty deeds. she ties herself to trees and doesn’t move unless she has to.
from the get-go we see she isn’t a threat to anyone…she only becomes a threat when it’s absolutely necessary (and her third kill isn’t threatening at all; in fact, we like her for doing it).
the movie also treats her training with candy gloves. when they are in the training facility, do we see katniss doing any kind of preparations at all? the other kids are engaging in hand-to-hand combat and honing their skills. all katniss is seen doing is standing in line and telling peeta to throw a big ball. she’s not even a threat to train, let alone kill.
is it a cop out, or simply her character development (or lack of development in this aspect)? a bit of both?
This is one of the points where the movie is kind of weak compared to the book. All that time Katniss spends hanging out in a tree in the movie do make her look kind of passive; but in the book we realize she’s spending that time desperately trying to find water before she dies of dehydration, among other things.
As for the training facility, although the movie only briefly touches upon this point, her light training regimen is a deliberate stratagem, so as not to reveal her abilities to the other competitors. I think in the book she spends this whole period learning how to tie more effective knots, which would have been fairly dull portrayed onscreen.
i don’t mean to turn this into a conversation of what the movie got right and what it didn’t (as that’s not the essence of the think tank), but i found it odd upon my viewing (and now that i think back to the novel i think i recall the same issue) that the tributes were told a large percentage (what was it, 70% 80%?) of them wouldn’t be killed by each other, but by the elements (lack of water and food, etc). yet i don’t think any of the tributes in the 74th hunger games died under such circumstances. this must have been the most exciting hunger games panem had ever seen.
The book (Which doesn’t have that line) says that a few Hunger Games ended that way, but they weren’t well received (so the arenas are normally set up to allow for survival for a person with skills). However, no one says she was telling the truth, she could have been lying to hammer her point home. The game makers don’t want tributes to die of exposure because it doesn’t make good TV, but they still need it to be an element (kind of like no wants people to not survive in Survivor), so they encourage developing survival skills. It doesn’t really matter how kids kill each other, with trained sword play or by bashing each others skulls in with a brick. It does matter that they get to that point though.
I think there are a lot of clever things about the third book. I love the way District 13 puts Katniss to work on propaganda, even kidnapping her prep team. I love the climatic scene where she chooses not to kill Snow. I even like the whole gloomy final chapter, where she’s almost catatonic with depression. The point, for me, is that “winning” the Hunger Games (or the revolution) doesn’t mean you get to live happily ever after. Every single person is shattered. It sort of subverts what you expect to happen, which is that Katniss finally blossoms into the powerful woman we always knew she could be. This isn’t Harry Potter. But I found the ending very moving, with Peeta and Katniss living together in their bombed-out District, trying to heal each other. Is Peeta going to snap and kill her one day? Is Katniss ever going to escape from the nightmares. All we know is that they give each other hope. It’s a very un-Hollywood picture of what war does to people, and I’m digging it.
HOWEVER, I do NOT like Katniss’ whole Rambo mission to kill Snow. Here’s what should have happened:
* Katniss stupidly leads her team into the Capitol to go after Snow
* They are all captured
* Snow stages an impromptu Hunger Games, with Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Finnick, and whatever other randos are there
* Sure, they don’t want to kill each other at first. But what if Snow has Prim? Annie? What if he’s going to kill BOTH Peeta and Gale unless she kills ONE of them herself? Or what if Snow tells Peeta and Gale that Katniss dies painfully unless they kill the other one?
* Why does Snow do this? Because just killing Katniss isn’t enough. It makes her into a martyr. What he needs to do is make her do something terrible on national TV. That’s the whole point of the Hunger Games: to show that the districts will hack each other to pieces to ensure their own survival. The Hunger Games is about making people make impossible choices.
* I don’t have a perfect ending here, but I think that no matter what the stakes, none of them are willing to kill each other. Even if Prim has to die right there in front of her, Katniss isn’t going to kill anyone. The only way to win the Hunger Games is not to play, whatever the cost.
Besides, no matter how improbably, readers want to see Katniss back in the arena. The author pretty much concedes that by hiding all those “pods” in the Capitol, but I don’t buy it.
“The only way to win the Hunger Games is not to play, whatever the cost.”
apparently, the movie “war games” doesn’t exist in panem.
How about a nice game of Hunger Chess?
a hunger game of chess?
Thanks overthinkers, for helping me understand this Hunger Games phenomenon. I read the first one on a camping trip and enjoyed it for an exciting plot, but I never really understood what was making teenagers, critics, and anarchists so excited.
I’ve read the books, haven’t seen the movie yet. My thesis is that the Hunger Games are the anti-Lord of the Rings.
Instead of a Fellowship, and the loyal relationship between Frodo and Sam, the Hunger Games characters are set up again and again into situations in which they have to choose whom to trust, whom to ally with, and for how long. Instead of a return of a king who is heroic and good, we have the attempted overthrow of a corrupt government by a perhaps only marginally less corrupt insurgency.
My criticism of Tolkien is how his world assumes good “blood” leads to good leadership. Aragon’s candidacy as king stems from his position as the heir of Numenor, even though he has nitwits like Isildur and Turin Turambar lurking in the family tree. (Which is not to say that Aragorn wasn’t the right person for the job, or that he didn’t make a good leader. If he’d stood for election he probably would have been chosen, but Tolkien’s world assumes benevolent monarchy is the best form of government.) The Easterlings can never be anything but bad, because they aren’t of the elven-approved blood of Numenor. There are no good Orcs. There can be bad Men and Elves, but they are presented as having fallen away from their promise and thus letting their heritage down. Rank among Men and Elves is inflexible, and as the movies show, the commoners of Rohan don’t seem to know how to apply washcloths to their faces. Really, the Hobbits are the most egalitarian of the lot.
The Hunger Games doesn’t truck with any of that: everything and everyone is done in shades of gray. I like both for different reasons, but I do admire how the Hunger Games bucks the mold of the hero’s journey.
There’s still the hero’s journey template going on in Hunger Games, I guess if you’re going to buck the mold of the hero’s journey you still fall into it, the thing really being bucked is what or whose terms it will happen. Or, I heard it put another way, “not if it will happen, but how.” So everything you said follows that and I agree with it, the how of Hunger Games has more morally gray areas than LOTR.
And yeah the royal blood thing never worked for me either and hopefully it’s not in Hunger Games somewhere and just missed it. That she assumes the throne at the end is probably a form of it but that doesn’t happen because of a destined blood inheritance thing. The notion of royalty as being an inspiring and empowering metaphor for self-actualization within the family and social levels I never really got, at least not it’s blatant medieval looking form, just a matter of taste because I got Star Wars just fine.