When Mr Litlove declared he wanted to watch The Hunger Games movie on the weekend, I was surprised. I didn’t have him down for that kind of thing at all. And then our son said he was interested in seeing it, too. So I hastily tracked down the copy of the book I’d picked up along the way (as you do) and we ended up having a big discussion about it.
The story takes place in a future dystopia where a crushed rebellion has left its people poverty-stricken and tyrannised. As a way of reminding the populace of their absolute servitude, and as a bizarre form of entertainment (to which odd combination we must return shortly), each department is required each year to offer up by means of lottery a boy and a girl to take part in the Hunger Games, a vicious reality show whose only rule is to kill or be killed. The 24 contestants are taken to the Capitol and allowed to live in luxury while the training takes place; then they are deposited in a terrain that is controlled by the authorities and left to slug it out. Survival is the name of the game, and the winner will be awarded untold riches as well as the pride of their department, and all the while the populace will be gripped by the show, permitted electricity for once for the pleasure of watching children slaughtered.
Katniss Everdeen is the 16-year-old head of her household. Her father died in a mining accident, leaving her to care, at a tender age, for a little sister, Prim, and her severely depressed mother. Fortunately, before his death, Katniss’s father taught her to hunt in the forbidden territory beyond the fence, and in this way Katniss has kept her family fed. When Prim’s name is called in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, her love of her sister being the best thing in her life, and the need to protect her a gut response. Called to join her is the baker’s son, Peeta, whose charitable act of throwing her burnt bread – bread that kept them alive in the dark days immediately following her father’s death – burns as a debt she has yet to repay. It becomes clear that Peeta’s feelings for Katniss run much deeper than mere sympathy, and as they realise that an audience-pleasing showmance is the best way to stay alive in the arena, Katniss feels her pride and loyalty to those at home pulled in different directions.
Like most smash-hit genre novels, the key to the success of The Hunger Games lies in its clever mash-up of significant cultural tropes. What can we spot in the mix? Gladiatorial combat, The Lord of the Flies, Big Brother and other reality shows that hang in the balance between torture and tedium. But the thing that struck me was a perverse rewriting of Cinderella. Yes, Katniss, you shall go to the Hunger Games. Unappreciated, carrying the burden of responsibility for her family, Katniss, gets whisked off by stylists rather than fairy godmothers, to get scrubbed up and beautified. Then in the arena her talents are showcased, she has undreamt-of opportunities for advancement, and she becomes unexpectedly desirable. Rather than the toll of midnight, she has the prospect of death as the abrupt ending of the fantasy.
It would be a mean book that killed off its main protagonist, and readers surely realise that’s an unlikely option; so the real genius of this novel lies in its tight, brilliantly-organised narrative. The early world-building is effortlessly done, and then the action unfolds seamlessly, with things happening just as they should, well-sustained tension, plausible developments, and true-to-life motivation on the part of all concerned. Technically, it’s excellent.
But what does it do with the interesting themes it raises? The idea of a reality TV show crossing the borderline and depicting death is a most intriguing one; as the rule of sensationalism shows no sign of lessening its grip, and so much that we watch smacks already of knitting by the guillotine, it’s tempting to assume it may happen one day. But what, then, are we to make of the complex web of pleasures and restraints that the Hunger Games embodies? Are the people of Panem so dysfunctional, so repressed and unhappy, that this is why they think it’s entertaining? In what way does the show remind of them of their abasement? Simply because the authorities can make them give up their children to it? And yet, Katniss and Peeta realise that they must please the viewing public, if their sponsors are to send them vital supplies. So the audience does have power, particularly where the sponsors are concerned. Sponsors, viewing public, authorities exist in a strange balance that is never properly explored. Is this because the centrality of the Games in the book creates a paradox: here we are being asked to feel horror for the Hunger Games, at the same time as they are offered to us as a form of entertainment. The sop is to identify with Katniss, but really, we’re just an offshoot of the nameless, faceless populace of Panem, watching it all from a safe distance.
And here’s another thing that intrigued me: the character of Katniss. Effectively, in this book the genders swap roles. Katniss is a hunter, she has all the strengths traditionally associated with masculinity – speed, swiftness, ruthlessness, and very few tender emotions to get in the way. Peeta, by contrast, is all about nurture and care; he’s romantically inclined, thoughtful, insightful. Katniss is not particularly clever, and in fact, has pretty much no emotional intelligence whatsoever; even by the end of the games, she mistrusts Peeta’s love for her, and is simply confused as to what she feels for him. This is the thing about survival, of course; it tends to take the place of development, in life as in narrative. But if The Hunger Games has been a huge hit with teenage girls, what does this say about their lives? What does this say about all the women who buy into the fantasy of Katniss in this book? That we are all too pampered, too worried about our protection, fed up of feeling so emotional, too reliant on the comforts of our over-civilised society? I’m just asking.
This was the thing about The Hunger Games for me: it provoked a lot of questions as to why it had touched such a nerve in our culture. And it didn’t answer them. But it was interesting to discuss them afterwards – my menfolk were not impressed with the film, though, in case you were wondering.