The Hunger Games: Kids Killing Kids

by Mark T. Mitchell on May 21, 2012 · 13 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

hunger games

Spring grades are in, so it’s time for a bit of fiction. And since I’ve been hearing plenty of buzz about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (now a major film), and since a neighbor girl left a copy on our steps after telling us how “amazing” it was, I thought I’d give it a try.

First things first. The writing is not good. My fourteen-year-old son read the first three pages and put it down grumbling about how he couldn’t stand the writing. He’s right. The author is fond of sentence fragments. Very fond. Too fond. This penchant gives the prose a chopped feel that is irritating. Off-putting. In fact a real distraction. See?

But it is not the quality of the writing that has driven the success of this book. It is the pacing and the plot. It’s a page turner that never lets up and the plot is so gruesome that it is difficult to turn away, even though several times I was tempted to abandon it in horror.

For those who are not familiar with the plot (and herein lies plenty of spoilers), the story is set in a future world where the United States, now the county of Panem, has been carved into twelve districts plus the Capitol. Nearly a century before the story takes place a rebellion against the Capitol was severely crushed and as a sort of perpetual reminder of the power of the Capitol and the relative powerlessness of the districts, the Hunger Games were instituted. Every year each district is compelled to select a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to compete in a game of survival to the death. The last one alive is declared the champion and enjoys a life of ease and plenty. The games are broadcast on live television and provide several weeks of riveting entertainment for the citizens of Panem. Consider it a mixture of Survivor, The Lord of the Flies, and The Most Dangerous Game.

The narrator, Katniss Everdeen, resides in district twelve, a poor coal mining district in Appalachia. When her little sister’s name is drawn for the games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is whisked off to the Capitol where she receives some training (although she already is an accomplished hunter who favors a bow and arrow). She is coached and primped and made ready for the televised events that introduce the various “tributes” to the viewing audience and then she and twenty-three others are placed in an outdoor arena to slaughter each other for the entertainment of the audience, which quickly grows bored if the action flags. And like Panem’s television audience, the reader is never treated to a dull moment as children plot to survive and kill in turn. What could be more entertaining?

The book is all about finding entertainment in watching the suffering of others. In a voyeuristic age where reality television is ubiquitous, where old stand-bys like Survivor are joined by the likes of Temptation Island and Jersey Shore, the author is tapping into something profoundly disturbing about our mass culture; although, in our case sex rather than violence seems to be the standard fare.

While the gladiatorial elements are not new, the intriguing and disturbing twist is that the combatants are children. This takes the dynamics of the arena to an entirely new level of decadence, and suggests one reason why this book has been so successful: no child is going to say “I’m bored” when reading this gripping tale. Like reality television, the book compels attention by the sheer audacity of its premise.

But while Collins taps into a powerful aspect of our contemporary culture and in so doing subjects it to a serious critique, in the end, she flinches. Katniss—along with her ally and love interest, Peeta Mellark—never kill an innocent competitor. To be sure, the possibility is constantly in the back of their minds, but when Katniss unleashes her arrow, it is an act of vengeance against a nameless male competitor who ruthlessly kills the wide-eyed child, Rue, and then only when attacked by terrifying and remorseless killers. The author manages to construct a situation in which the “enemies” are monstrous and lacking any humanity while Katniss, Peeta, and Rue are the “good ones” fighting for their lives. And while this makes possible a satisfying outcome where the “good ones” win the “game,” it seems disingenuous and indicates that the author simply can’t look with complete honesty at the world of horror she creates. In an honest telling, we would have sympathetic characters on each “side” where children like Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark would be pitted against each other in an amoral world of carnage. The result would be unbearable. The fact that Collins manages to arrange the plot so that there are clearly good characters who manage to maintain their moral bearings—even to the point of self-sacrifice—brings the story into more or less conventional territory, yet she does so only at the expense of reducing some contestants to two-dimensional caricatures. This “weakness” in the author is hopeful evidence that she is simply better than the logic of her fictional world allows.

Ultimately, the book is a spectacle that is perfectly suited to translation to the big-screen, for it is there that spectacles only hinted at on the page can be realized in a way that can do justice to a book like The Hunger Games. I think I’ll skip the film.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Anthony DiStefano May 22, 2012 at 12:26 am

Mark—

Writing skill aside, I think you may be too harsh on Collins. Keep in mind that this is a 3-part series. While the writing gets worse in the 3rd book, the moral dimensions of the story get far more interesting. As a result of her engagement with the enemy & manipulation by her allies, the “good guys”, Katniss becomes something typically not seen in children’s fiction, a heroine who is almost wholly ruined by her actions. There is a profound & obvious cost to her participation in violence, something which strikes me as far from disingenuous. Contrast this with the Harry Potter series, where the good guys seem relatively unscathed by their having to fight against very one-dimensional evil guys. As I read Collins’s trilogy I was reminded of René Girard’s work & the cyclical nature of violence, even that which is done in the service of a good cause. Katniss remains sympathetic but, at the same time, evokes our pity as we see how much she has been changed by her participation in violence, & the impossibility of her living anything approaching a normal life.

avatar Mark Nelson May 22, 2012 at 5:59 am

The Hunger Games is definitely not the first book of this type, and nor is it the most terrible. I suggest you have a look at one called “Battle Royale,” even if it is only to see what the reviewers say.

For a summary: future Japan. Kids gassed during a school trip to knock them out and fitted with explosive collars. Armed with various weapons. Told the last man standing is the victor, and if nobody dies for a 24 hour period, the explosive collars will detonate.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 22, 2012 at 6:59 am

But while Collins taps into a powerful aspect of our contemporary culture and in so doing subjects it to a serious critique, in the end, she flinches.

I agree completely. I read the first book in the series, and liked it, moderately well. I liked the second in the series less, and the third even less than that–and my primary beef was that the original story had an element of satire and critique in it that was appealing (if unfulfilled), yet that was exactly the element which disappeared as the books continued. Katniss becomes a heroine–a flawed, unreliable, ultimately damaged heroine, to be sure, but still a heroine, somehow essentially free from the cultural worldview which makes something like the Hunger Games possible. Collins moves her story further and further away as the books continue from any truly unflinching look at the weird appeal such contests would have in that world, as similar contests have appeal to our spectator culture today. My recommendation? Check out Battle Royale, either the book or film. A similar story, and one where the dark, angry satire remains intact through to the end, I think.

avatar Centaur255 May 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Did anyone else’s mind move toward the Minotaur at Knossus when reading the books? I’m working through the third book now, and it strikes me that even the idea of child tributes used for spectacle and sacrifice for the entertainment of the powerful is not a new concept.

Could it be that Collins is hearkening to this intentionally? I was worried when I went to see the movie, primarily because I didn’t want to see small girls speared while trapped in nets, teens swelling to the point of exploding from allergic reactions, and the other horrible things that happen to kids in the story. But what if that reaction is what we are supposed to have when we read the books and watch the movies? Are we supposed to be appalled?

What if there was actually a movie that resembled Survivor, but made us not want to watch? I may not call that movie my ally, but I may not regard it as an enemy either….

avatar B May 22, 2012 at 6:36 pm

I confess to having loved The Hunger Games. I listened to the audiobook in my car, and almost drove off the road during several key scenes. But while THG was a book I mostly just found entertaining, Battle Royale chilled me to the bone. I’m not sure what it was about that book. Maybe because it was in a setting not that far removed from our own. Maybe it was the inclusion of guns, which made killing “easier”, less personal and more frightening (to me) than the primitive combat in THG – again too close to home? The premise in Battle Royale is not as well developed. Every year 50 junior high school classes with 40 students each are set loose in these elaborate killing arenas – sheesh, that’s a lot of work and resources for reasons never clearly defined. But again, somehow scarier than THG which at least had the ostensible purpose of entertaining the upper class while keeping the masses in line. Neither book ends happily though, and that was my favorite part. Hey kids, life just doesn’t work out the way it does in a Disney movie. Get used to it.

avatar robert m. peters May 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

We are already players in the Hunger Games and do not realize it.

avatar Jon S. May 24, 2012 at 9:16 am

Mark,

Couldn’t agree more. The books suffer mightily from the first person present tense story telling. It allows precious little opportunity for reflection, deliberation, or even scene setting. While the comparison may be unfair, think of all the time Tolkien takes simply describing a hobbit hole, or a tree, our a mountain range. By the time he’s done you can clearly view the scene in your mind’s eye. Hunger Games, even worse than Harry Potter (which I like quite a lot, btw), is written like a movie script, quickly moving from observation to observation, scene to scene. The Hunger Games books are merely page turners (by the third book simply because you want the damn thing done) that aren’t even asking you to reflect or think. And spending three books inside the head of a self-absorbed sixteen-year-old girl is not a pleasant experience. Like most, I found book one to be enjoyable if not particularly engrossing, but the subsequent books go from mediocre to bad.

avatar Matt Weber May 24, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Well I think the premise of the game basically eliminates any possibility of having to kill an innocent…the conscientious participant will simply hide while the innocents are killed off by the more ruthless ones. At the point where there are nothing but ruthless types left that are trying to kill you, the question isn’t pertinent anymore.

And then the story does present the dilemma. Does Katniss kill Peeta and win the game? In the end they both decide to kill themselves, at which point they are both declared winners.

I’ve only seen the movie and have no idea what happens in the next volumes.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I too have only seen the movie. Before it came out, I had never heard of the book. Perhaps someone who has read the book could respond to this:

A few days AFTER seeing the movie, it occurred to me that the movie hints at something that must have been presented more explicitly in the book. The reason these are called the “Hunger Games” isn’t explicit, but apparently the population of the districts is chronically undernourished. In fact, I would guess that the entire political economy of the governing entity revolves around food scarcity. I almost missed Katniss telling her little sister “don’t take the extra food they offer, its not worth the extra times your name goes in” for drawing to select tribute.

Yes, the movie does have the hunting of squirrels, the selling of game to “The Peacekeepers,” the flashback to Katniss starving in the rain for an old hunk of bread. But its not tied together, nor is the sudden plethora of food before the games begin really explained. It’s really the entire point though, isn’t it?

avatar kitty May 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm

I read the books and really liked them, but I haven’t seen the movie. I’d like to point a few things for those who haven’t read the books (or at least haven’t read beyond the first book) because it appears this isn’t clear from the movie:
“. The last one alive is declared the champion and enjoys a life of ease and plenty. The games are broadcast on live television and provide several weeks of riveting entertainment for the citizens of Panem”
The subsequent books show that the champion does not quite get to enjoy a life of “ease and plenty”. Also, while the games may provide “reveting entertainment” for the capitol it’s nothing but for the districts where it is a required viewing.

“In an honest telling, we would have sympathetic characters on each “side” where children like Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark would be pitted against each other in an amoral world of carnage. ”
There are sympathetic characters in Capitol which is clear in the next book; also Gale and rebels are far from angels as is also shown in the 3rd book.

“And then the story does present the dilemma. Does Katniss kill Peeta and win the game? In the end they both decide to kill themselves, at which point they are both declared winners.”
Not quite. In the book Peeta is seriously injured and in need of immediate medical attention so if Katniss hadn’t offered the berries he would’ve died and she’d have been declared a winner. Also in the book she herself isn’t sure how she feels about him. For her the “love” is a plot to gain sympathy and sponsors. When she offers the berries she is gambling on the game makers’ need to have a winner, and that they will not allow both of them to die.

“The reason these are called the “Hunger Games” isn’t explicit, but apparently the population of the districts is chronically undernourished.”
Yes, the population of most districts is starving. There are more affluent districts where it isn’t the case, but there is a shortage of food in most districts and yes, the kids can add entries for drawing, one entry in exchange for the year-long substinence ration for one person.

“Yes, the movie does have the hunting of squirrels, the selling of game to “The Peacekeepers,” the flashback to Katniss starving in the rain for an old hunk of bread. But its not tied together, nor is the sudden plethora of food before the games begin really explained. It’s really the entire point though, isn’t it?”
It tied fairly well in the books. Yes, part of the point is the wasting of the food in the Capitol and starving districts. “The Peacekeepers” is kind of a police; they are not starving but at least initially they don’t mind extra fresh meat.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Thanks kitty. There are some things a movie just doesn’t convey. I didn’t understand 2001: A Space Odyssey” until I read the book, but I’m glad I saw the movie first. I watched again after reading the book.

avatar Jeff Culbreath May 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Our society’s increasing fascination with the mysterious corruption of *children* and their capacity for evil is definitely symptomatic of … something … I’m not sure what.

avatar James Petersen June 9, 2012 at 9:22 pm

I disagree that “The book is all about finding entertainment in watching the suffering of others.” The book is about an oppressive government that controls its population through enslavement and a young girl in a horrible situation who rises above the fray to lead unwittingly a revolution toward freedom.

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