January 10th, 2012

Review: 7/10 Can of Whoop Ass


The Hunger Games By: Suzanne Collins


            Most people billed this book as science fiction.  And while they could point to the many similarities it shares with the science fiction genre – post-apocalyptic, advanced technology, rigid class stratification, repression of individual liberties for political stability – The Hunger Games is not science fiction.

            Those same people that classify The Hunger Games as science fiction would probably go on to certify it as “dystopian fiction”: fiction that is marked by an ugly view of the future, in which everything has seemingly gone wrong.  This type of literature has an eerie feeling of familiar doom to it: a place not completely unlike ours, but infinitely more terrifying.  This familiarity is the most horrific part.  John Joseph Adams, editor of Brave New Worlds, a collection of dystopian stories, shares this sentiment: “That’s part of what is so compelling – and insidious – about dystopian fiction: the idea that you could be living in a dystopia and not even know it.”

            But The Hunger Games isn’t imagining some distant future where things are much worse, even though at face value that’s what it does.  The Hunger Games is less genre-based conjuring than an extended analogy for the modern world.  The world – the earth – that we live in today.  And The Hunger Games isn’t happy with what we’ve got.

            The story revolves around Katniss Everdeen and her eventual involvement in the Hunger Games, which is nothing more than a wilderness survival expedition merged with a cage match/winner-take-all fight to the death.  But the Hunger Games were not created for competition or achievement.  The Hunger Games exist as a perpetual reminder of the dominance the Capitol – a shining city in the mountains – holds over the twelve districts of Panem – rural tributaries lorded over by the Capitol.

            Now, as in all strong dystopian fiction, the real difference between the Capitol and the outlying districts is social-based.  The Hunger Games is an inhumane death lottery for the commoners, but for the Capitol’s affluent ruling class, the Hunger Games is entertainment.  The Capitol has thoroughly oppressed the under-classes, but its rulers seem hell bent on beating that supremacy into the ground based on nothing more than frivolous tradition and an obsession with violent spectacle.  Katniss frequently compares the Capitol people to pets: brainless animals that float from whim to whim and drown themselves in excess.

            If the Capitol is home to the grandiose culture-snobs, District 12, where Katniss hails from, is home to the proletariat.  Food is scant.  Disease is rampant.  Regulation and punishment is severe and constant.  The society exists as an agricultural tribe, using a communal bartering system to get by.  If the Capitol is a glimpse into the soulless, brain-dead future of excessive consumerism, District 12 is a glimpse into the past – perhaps thousands of years into the past – when all that mattered was your survival and your family’s survival, though at times the two needs are mutually exclusive.  And in this way, The Hunger Games is more than science fiction: it’s an inspection of the future as informed by the past.  For all our gizmos and gadgets, humans will never be more than walking apes who need water, food, shelter, and love – in that order.

            To echo this point, Collins has offered a clear allusion to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery”.  That story also portrayed a kind of vicious futurism by presenting a desperate rural community clinging to its traditions.  The Hunger Games selection process – a giant bowl with every child’s name, aged 12-18 – is the same as Jackson’s pseudo-religious lottery drawing to decide who will get stoned to death in sacrifice for the harvest.  Jackson’s story presents a terrifying view of modernity’s confusing attachment to pagan sensibilities.  Collins’ story blunts the severity and immediacy of Jackson’s lottery by allowing a training period and an opportunity to fight for those selected, but sharpens it by limiting the violence to children.  It isn’t just that the Capitol wants their dominions to offer up sacrifices; they want teenagers.  Isolating the violence and death to children is a daring move by Collins (I’m interested to see how it will play in the upcoming film adaptation), but it hammers home the point that the eventualities of America’s frivolous use of power and resources will lead us into realms of depravity we cannot envision.

And in Collins’ analogy, Panem isn’t the ruins of America.  It is America.  The twelve districts are nothing more than the third world countries we dominate economically and thereby control completely.  “The Hunger Games” of the novel are the real-life struggles populations all over the world exact against starvation.  And in real life, as in The Hunger Games, we have the means to right the wrongs.  But the thought of our financial elite lending help to those whose lives depend upon it is as ridiculous a thought as a District 12 tribute winning the Hunger Games.

            But the novel works as more than just a political analogy or didactic denouncement of modernity: it also functions as an internal struggle with the problems those things present.  Katniss is caught between the emotions that make her human and the emotions that make her weak.  She is forced into a situation where she must deprive herself of the emotional capacity that makes survival worth it.  And, I think, this is conundrum at the center of the novel: survival at what cost?

            We have erected an entire civilization based around self-worth and self-preservation.  But more and more, our self-worth is becoming a figment of culture, not the result of some self-actualization process.  Reality TV is the course du jour, and Collins knows it.  Reality TV unapologetically offers scripted, exaggerated, stereotypical, consumer conscious advertising as actual human behavior.  This false pretense creates a blurry relationship between the real and the artificial.  Eventually, we regard the images on the screen as no less real than the ones that exist outside the screen in everyday life.  So we look to the screens to inform everyday life and thereby make culture out of calculated consumer ploys.  In the novel, the Capitol reflects this possibility in its extreme: when we blindly submit to a mandate on propriety, we lose our ability to discern.  At that point, anything is possible and Collins’ view gets even bleaker.  She proposes that not only will the people allow such shocking savagery, they will eat it up.

            To win the Hunger Games, Katniss must play along.  She must give up all she was and become something marketable – cute, funny, loving.  In many ways, her submission to the role of on-screen heroine is what saves her life: it brings her aide when she needs it most.  But cleverly, while the situation has been rigged to force Katniss to become this reality TV caricature, Collins saves the important moments for her true self to emerge.  When it does, it appears as something untouched and indomitable to the Capitol regime.  Near the end of the Hunger Games, Katniss discovers that the rules have changed again.  So what does she do?  She refuses to play.  She would rather take her own life than allow herself to be controlled any longer.

Collins has this part right: there are limits.  Eventually, if the game is rigged, people will stop playing.  When Katniss is told to kill her partner from District 12 if she wants to survive, she realizes that if she does so, she will have given up too much.  She wants to live, surely, but at what cost?  There are limits to what we will throw away to survive.  There are limits to what we will become to keep our lives. 

            The Capitol is America that continued to conquer the world for a thousand years.  But at what cost?  Our culture is so intent on devouring itself and making pariahs out of non-conformists – unless there’s profit to be had – that we will lose sight of why our way of life once was worth dying for, but more specifically, why it’s worth living for.  The media will become government.  We will spend our days spying on everyone else.  Individual liberty will be sacrificed to make way for order.  Our failures will be like The Hunger Games: giant spectacles wrought of our disconnection with selfhood and humanity.  But those failures may not wait for the time of hovercrafts and Panem; they may come a bit sooner.