The Hunger Games–Everyone Is Doing It

I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It took me less than two days because, as you’ve no doubt heard, it’s a page-turner. The last time I read a book so quickly was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go two years ago. Which is kind of odd because I generally think I don’t enjoy dystopian novels, but apparently I do, at least sometimes. I don’t actually mean to equate or even compare Never Let Me Go and The Hunger Games, other than to say that they are both entirely compelling. There are familiar or recognizable aspects and qualities of the worlds they depict, and the ways in which they are different from the one we live in has a lot to do with my level of engagement. I’m intrigued by the differences and want to know more.

All I knew about The Hunger Games before reading it was that everyone loved it, it’s been made into a movie, and people are forced to fight to the death at least in part as entertainment.

It’s sort of like The Lottery meets Survivor meets The Lord of the Flies.

Speaking of Survivor, and speaking as a one-time fan of the show, I couldn’t help but feel that a televised fight to the death among twenty-four participants, both willing and (mostly) unwilling, was the really the next logical step. Completely reprehensible and inhumane, yes, but at the same time it was all so very reasonable in some ways, with all the trappings of a civilized competitive entertainment event: clothes and makeup, coaching for interviews, the importance of first impressions, skills and strategies.

And all the time, never forgetting that the cameras are rolling and the world is watching.

I have to admit a fondness for situations that involve forced socialization (long car trips, Bel Canto, reality tv, riding the New York City subway). I’m curious about how people adapt to situations and work together, or not, for the good of the group, or sometimes just for the individual. I’m interested in the spoken and unspoken rules that develop as a means creating order out of chaos, making the trains run on time, and figuring out who is like you or on your side. Competition and cooperation are natural parts of those scenarios, no matter how contrived they might be, and I confess that I find it fascinating.

I always watched Survivor somewhat apologetically, as a guilty pleasure, as if I knew better but could somehow imagine myself to be above it. But reading The Hunger Games cast that voyeuristic pleasure in a slightly different light. Would I watch a show where people killed each other until only one was left alive? No, of course not. I can’t even watch boxing! Would I watch a show where people are hungry? Where they are cold? Where they have to compete and sometimes demean themselves for basic needs like food, fire, and water? Well, I have. The major difference, as far as I can tell, is the death factor, and other than that, it seems like there’s a pretty fine line between modern television audiences and ancient Romans.

And if that’s uncomfortable—which it is—I think that’s a large part of the point. Who is the reader in this scenario? As the story progresses, the reader is drawn in by the very factors that entrance the Hunger Games audience. What will Katniss wear and will it create a sensation? How will she do in her interview? Who will die next and how gruesomely? The reader is culpable in some way, as if our very interest is part of the reason such a world exists in the first place: we have an appetite for it.

It makes complete sense that this book would be made into a film; it’s perfectly suited to it. I can only imagine that being in the audience for the movie, as a viewer just like those in the book who are either forced to watch the Hunger Games or do so for pleasure, would be an even more disconcerting experience.

I enjoyed the unreliable nature of the narrator Katniss Everdean. She seems like such a direct person in some ways, certainly not like someone who would enjoy playing games. But she is forced to. Her whole life, she has been forced to take action in order to survive and to hide her thoughts and squelch most of her emotions—aside from her love for her sister. When she becomes part of the Hunger Games, this sort of deception is a requirement. Then there is the self-deception. She doesn’t allow herself to feel if she can help it, or she denies or ignores her emotions, seeming to truly not realize what they mean. Even her memories are unreliable, and it’s all thoroughly understandable.

There is the whole question of what is real and what is an act and who can be trusted that runs throughout the book but is really embodied in a personal way in Katniss and her experiences.

I thought many of the characters felt real, and I was invested in what would happen to them. My one moment of disappointment with regard to a character’s fate (not necessarily in what happened but in how) also turned out to be the moment of highest emotion for me, which is kind of saying something because I’m not generally demonstrably emotional when reading.

At one point in The Hunger Games, one of the characters expresses a desire to not lose who he is as a person, to find a way to prove to everyone watching that he remained himself in spite of the situation he was forced into, to prove “they” couldn’t control everything. That seems to be the key, the real reason I might want to watch or read something like this.

The question speaks to me as adult, and I suspect it comes across even more strongly to this book’s target audience of young adults, who present themselves in so many different ways to the world, even as they’re trying to figure out who they really are, even as who they are is changing. They are growing up in a very exposed way, and potentially a very unforgiving one. I would guess they would find this aspect of the book quite relevant to their lives.

I’m not planning to see the movie anytime soon, and I’m not going to rush out to read the rest of the trilogy. It’s a really contemporary conversation that this book begins, but I think the crux of it is the same question that people have always asked, just framed in a highly modern/futuristic context. But it does a great job, I think, of speaking to young adults, even if the ideas may not be entirely new. And for what it was, it was a great read.

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10 thoughts on “The Hunger Games–Everyone Is Doing It

  1. /You have so many thoughts in your post, I am not going to do them nearly any justice. However, here are some things that made me think, “You are right!”:

    1) Everyone IS doing it. The NPR On Point piece about The Hunger Games was so good. (I should REALLY put a link here.) It’s certainly in the middle of a national conversation. What I really liked about what they were saying on NPR is another thing you are right about…

    2) There is a very relevant correlation between the book and reality TV, and in general the place we find ourselves in right now as a culture. Social media, blogging, the feeling and the reality that our lives are being watched is a concept that the book and movie seem to take to a kind of inevitible terrible end. There is a lot of ourselves we can see in this book/movie, escpecially for the younger generations, at this crossroads in time. Our culpulbility in being the viewer is not new (you’re right, Rome comes to mind) but is very timely.

    3) The story does completely call to mind Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Did we all have to read that in school? I’ll never forget that story. I wonder if it influenced the author as well.

    I have no interest in reading the book or seeing the movie, but I do love the way it is acting as a mirror, or maybe a magnifying glass, on our culture. We are in a bit of uncharted territory here, and it bears looking at.

    • I should thank you for drawing my attention that NPR On Point show about The Hunger Games. I listened to it, but only after writing my own post first. I didn’t want to be influenced! It was great, but what you didn’t mention was that Lev Grossman was one of the guests! That’s okay. You probably didn’t realize that I love him, or that I sometimes feel like I’m on a one woman quest to get everyone I know to read his books, specifically The Magicians and the The Magician King. I don’t think they’d be your cup of tea, to be perfectly honest, but if you ever feel the need for something completely different . . . I digress.

      The Lottery! Yes, I think we were part of the generation that was forced to read that story in school somewhere right around sixth grade. Along with Animal Farm and other cheery and traumatizing not-quite-for-children literature. I recall very little about either of those–just enough to know I have no desire to read them again. I wonder if they still put kids through that?

      • As C.S. Lewis said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I would be delighted to read Lev Grossman on such a recommendation. I’ll add it to my list!

  2. Okay, wow! You probably have absolutely NO idea how incredibly apt it is that you just quoted C.S. Lewis as justification for reading Lev Grossman. But you will! When you read him . . .

  3. Hi you two!
    First congrats on this blog! – Love the way you banter back and forth – like a book group online! So the best to you both on your blogging adventure!

    I came here first to see the Austen / Shakespeare post – love all the comments on Mansfield Park – and yes indeed, Edmund is sadly lacking in the romantic requirements we seem to expect / need from an Austen novel [or any novel?], isn’t he? – I have often wondered if she didn’t really intend for Mary and Henry to be redeemed somehow, and to end up with their respective loves – but in the end even she couldn’t do it – did Henry really love Fanny do you think? could she have redeemed him? – Austen the realist says no, and thus the romance piece just fizzles, sort of like Edward Ferrars and Elinor…

    I however, find The Captain the most romantic of her characters and the Team Henry I would be on is Team Tilney, but I digress, my intention here really to talk about The Hunger Games…

    Sarah, please do yourself a favor and read the next two books… My daughter teaches HS reading to students needing some extra help – they have devoured these books, as you say – this trilogy is a cultural phenomenon and it speaks to these kids in ways that The Lord of the Flies and The Lottery did to my generation [much earlier even than yours!] – but what about Dickens? – is there anything more brutal than some of what he wrote for his Victorian reading public? I put off reading them largely because of time and an obsession with 19th century lit and a growing dislike of popular pieces bent on making money and being more like a reality TV show than anything of substance – but finally did it after my husband read them all and he and my daughter wouldn’t let up on me! –and I could not put them down! – the first book I found so disturbing I was having nightmares, but knew I needed to know how this turned out – as you say, we care about these kids, distressed by their world and powers-that-be that control their lives and place them in a danger that only a look back to the Roman colosseum would make us understand what is going on here – these book are filled with myth and history and offer a very clear view of what humans are [and have been] capable of …

    I went to see the movie of the first book last week – we saw it with people who had not read the books, so lots of gaps for them [and always interesting to see what the non-reader sees in a scene that conveys in a single look what a whole chapter might describe!] – they got most of it – the biggest negative being that Katniss as narrator is lost and so the story does get diffused – I always wonder why some things are not included that should be – but largely it was a well-done translation onto film and worth seeing – the book is so visual, and that never ever results in a movie that the majority of people will see their vision on the big screen… [Interesting to note [and heartening!] to know that my daughter’s class voted 100% in favor of the book over the movie…] – there is hope for the written word after all!

    Anyway, just see it Sarah, and read the other two books, please…

    Ok, back to Austen! [and you have both inspired me to re-read Howard’s End!]

    • Deb,
      Our first commenter, how delightful! I hope we see much of you in these discussions. We are definitely going for that book group vibe, and all the better since we can’t alwlays have you in person.

      I love your question about Mary and Henry, if they were perhaps meant to get their loves. Austen holds out on the twist at the end for. so. long. Not 50 pages before the end she still has Edmund saying, “I cannot give her up, Fanny. She is the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife.” And Austen does say in the last chapter, “Would he have perservered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward–and a reward very voluntarily bestowed–within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.” So close! But he bacame “entangled by his own vanity” and there you have it. Austen does say, in that same chapter, that Henry loved Fanny “rationally, as well as passionately”. So we have all the passion ending in frustration and in only FOUR PAGES before the end, we have Edmund turning to Fanny with all the heat of, yes, Edward and Elinor. His “warm and sisterly regard for her would be foundation enough for wedded love.”

      And yet, “Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that afffection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.” By the second to last paragraph, Austen has sold me on the “true merit and true love” of the match, and the ineveitability of it all.

      Ah, since I will not be moving on the the Hunger Games trilogy, I will meet up with you about Howards End. I will note, though, that Lord of the Flies is known by, it seems, everyone and so something deep is being touched on here.

      Thanks again Deb! An honor to hear from our JASNA President!

  4. Hi, Deb! Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment! In fact, you’re the first person to comment who isn’t, well, us!

    Okay, okay, you’ve sold me. I will read the next two books in the trilogy. I confess that part of my reluctance is that I learned they become more about the “love triangle” to the degree that readers are choosing teams a la Twilight. I sort of liked how romance, while certainly an element of the first book, was of secondary importance because really, the critical thing was staying alive. I also frequently find myself on the wrong side of love triangles, but maybe if I just prepare myself for disappointment on that front . . . I also do have tentative plans to see the movie with a friend who has also, at this point, read only the first book. I’ve been reading a lot about the movie, though, for whatever that’s worth.

    I’m so excited that you are now inspired to re-read Howard End! We’ll no doubt have several more posts on it soon, since it’s the next read in our book group.

    Speaking of which, thank you for saying that you enjoy our banter! That’s the feeling we want this blog to have, like an ongoing book group discussion, with all the rants and tangents and side conversations that go along with it. So glad you’ve joined us here!

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