Novel * Suzanne Collins * Dystopian Murder Sports * 2008
When The Hunger Games first became a thing, the criticism I heard most often was that it had been done before. “Whatever, Battle Royale already did the ritual teen murder thing. And it was so much cooler because it was Japanese!” That’s a quote from an imaginary straw man weeaboo, by the way. Anyway, yes, The Hunger Games is not the first story to use a lethal game as a conceit. Battle Royale and The Running Man exist in the world, and it’s likely that Suzanne Collins was familiar with both before she began writing (and she certainly knows about them now). Now here comes the most important thing about all of this: it doesn’t matter. At all. Not even the tiniest bit. Nothing could be more irrelevant. Attempting to invalidate a story because the concept has been used before is the weakest kind of criticism that could possibly be levied at someone. What matters is how well the story is told.
As it happens, The Hunger Games is told exceptionally well. If you’d like a direct comparison, Battle Royale was a pulpy goof. The Running Man was also a pulpy goof. They’re fun stories that have a lot in common and are well worth the short time it takes to read them. Meanwhile, The Hunger Games is over here building an actual world. There are well thought out characters who move and act with a will of their own. There is a logic and concreteness to the dystopia that Collins has created which is entirely absent from the likes of Battle Royale. To be perfectly clear, The Hunger Games is doing something very different. It wants to be taken seriously whereas the pulpy stories are looking to get in and out in a glitzy bang.
The Hunger Games is a first person narrative, and as such it lives or dies by the strength of the narrator. Katniss Everdeen is a teenager who is also the head of her household. She cares for her mother and her sister, Prim, by hunting and scavenging the forbidden woods outside of town. Right away the reader is introduced to her strength and pragmatism. There is a tinge of vulnerability beneath her rough exterior, but it’s clear from the onset that Katniss doesn’t have much time for inessential nonsense. She can’t afford it because of the harshness of her world. Katniss’ home is at the fringe of the last of human society. Living in the backwater of what’s left of civilization is difficult, but because Katniss has been willing to learn survival skills and has the fortitude of character to support her family, she has created a life for herself and loved ones from next to nothing.
Collins does two admirable things pretty much right away, with a graceful efficiency that I can’t help but be jealous of as a writer. The first, as we’ve seen, is to introduce us to a completely believable, strong protagonist. Katniss isn’t entirely likable, at least not right away, because her grim pragmatism can be off-putting. There’s a joylessness to her that creates a distance between her and the reader (and, it should be noted, the other characters in the book). For all that, Katniss is still well-drawn. She’s that way because that’s the way she is, and there’s no reason to question her character. This is in part because of the other thing Collins does, which is to present a well-realized world for the characters to live in.
Look what we know by the end of the first chapter. Civilization as we know it has long been destroyed. Society has reformed around a single Capitol. There are twelve districts which are each responsible for cultivating a single resource, which are used to support the Capitol. Once, long ago, there was a war of rebellion waged against the Capitol. The districts lost, and as retribution the Capitol razed the thirteenth district to the ground. In addition, the Capitol created The Hunger Games as a further punishment of the rebellion. Each district would select “tributes” to be sacrificed unto the Capitol. One male and one female from each district would be sent to the Capitol, placed in a big arena, and told to kill each other until only one remains. Why? So that the Capitol could exert their power over the districts. The beautiful thing about all this exposition is how seamlessly Collins is able to weave it into the story. Not only do we learn the basic set-up, but we get a deep sense of life in District 12, the fear and grim life of its citizens. It’s an impressive first chapter.
The book moves quickly, but for that Collins knows how to take her time with the plotting. She doesn’t just immediately drop everyone into the kill-arena to exploit the violent aspect of the story. No, she eases the reader further into the world she’s built. Katniss doesn’t see the arena until halfway through the novel. Before then, we’re learning more about her as a person, and are being introduced to the other main characters. Collins spends a good deal of time describing the atmosphere and conditions around The Hunger Games, underscoring just how important they are to the society she has built, how they are a spectacle designed to oppress. Oh, and she has to set up the least essential part of the novel: the teen love triangle. Ugh.
Look, it’s a Young Adult Trilogy. I get it. It’s just that for all of Collins’ skill as a writer and a world-builder, the ‘who will she pick’ aspect of story feels forced and pointless. Part of this comes from how I know the trilogy plays out. To be honest, this first novel is mostly concerned with setting up Katniss’ relationship with Peeta (yeah, the name is dumb and is a rare misstep on the part of the author, I get it, he’s a bake and his name sounds like a kind of bread) and less about the inherent conflict it presents with the other boy. Katniss is a teenager and of course the parts where she’s grappling with her budding sexuality are obnoxious, especially because that’s not what I’m here for. I’m far more interested in the structure of the dystopian Panem and the growth of Katniss as a survivor and a leader than I am about which boy she gets the flutters from kissing. I will go so far as to recognize that the relationship stuff is at least partly necessary to humanize Kaniss (and it’s a clever use of plot that Peeta and Haymitch recognize this within the context of the novel itself), and to give her an emotional center beyond her desire to protect. So it’s fine. It’s just, you know, girl junk.
To return to the fun stuff, the structure of Panem is a fascinating choice because it is a clear distillation of how a normal city functions. This is to say that a normal city, such as New York, London, Bejing, or in this case post-apocalyptic Denver, relies entirely on outside areas in order to function. Cities are hubs of finance and culture, but they cannot produce food or other resources on their own. Crops are grown, minerals are harvested, and these things are shipped into the city for consumption and manufacturing. That’s the basic blueprint of civilization. There’s a few ways to look at this relationship. The kind view is to look at it as mutually beneficial. Outlying areas grow excess food, sell the rest, and in return get manufactured goods and episodes of Game of Thrones to complain about. Another way is to look at civilization is as a parasitical relationship, in which the city leeches resources from outlying areas without giving anything worthwhile in return. In this view, the city takes what it wants by force, leaving those charged with harvesting resources no choice other than laboring unto death to provide for the city. Guess which view The Hunger Games takes?
Obviously, as a dystopian nightmare, the novel takes a dim view of civilization. The districts are a model of resource inequality. The workers are disposable commodities, and the resources they produce are whisked away as soon as possible. The only thing the districts receive in return for their labor is bare sustenance. Sometimes not even that. Such a model is likely not that sustainable, at least not without some kind of cataclysm. Luckily for the Capitol, that’s what they got. The reduced population in the wake of disaster is what allows this stripped-down model of civilization to work. Now, the book is rather vague about the size and set-up of Panem. Clearly the Capitol is Denver, and District 12 is basically Pittsburgh. As for the rest, who knows? Distances seem vast, but populations tiny. Technology is quite advanced, but its scale is small, and most of it is reserved for the favored classes in the Capitol. The real question is, then, what happened to the human desire for expansion?
The Capitol is only interested in one thing: the continued power of the Capitol. This is why the Hunger Games exist, and why even the smallest subversion of the Games is intolerable. When Katniss and Peeta exploit the Capitol’s loophole and survive the games, they threaten that hard line of control the Capitol must maintain. Going forward, this will of course become more important. As things stand, any overt action by the Capitol against their victors would only call more attention to the moment of disobedience displayed by Katniss. The Capitol must walk a fine line, because their system is finely balanced. While all the technology and power is centered within the Capitol, the districts control the resources, and they have the people. Size is important here, because if there were many more people in the districts, they would have the numbers needed for a complete overthrow of the center of power.
The model of Panem is a stripped-down, bare minimum model of civilization. If society were to grow much beyond its current boundaries, the system would likely collapse. Essentially, what is happening is a willful suppression of growth and development. Given the cataclysms of the past, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, all of this is being done to the detriment of the largest number of people. While the spectacle of the Hunger Games is intended to be a show of power, it also brings with it the danger of exposing the districts to the true nature of their society. If I remember the other two books correctly, the Capitol is right to worry.