The Hunger Games

hunger gamesWhen 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.


33 thoughts on “The Hunger Games

  1. Best synopsis I’ve read. How did you find the film? I’m not surprised that the Hunger Games raises questions rather than exploring them. Successful genre fiction gives readers the feeling of significance (the questions) without the complexity and hard work of exploring them, as genre fiction is supposed to be higher on taste buds than nutritional value. (If it’s got fibre you can’t call it junk food.)

    • I only read the book (I am SO squeamish, I won’t ever risk watching a film unless someone has vetted it for me first!). Very interested in what you say there about genre – just the feeling of significance without the exploration. I like that, and it gives me a lot to think about – thank you!

    • That’s a series I’ve never read, though my real life book group has decided on Good Omens for our next book, which is by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The first time I’ve read either of them!

  2. I haven’t read it, but with your technical assessment I’ll be sure to check it out. As far as female, teenage appeal, could it simply be the draw of an *ss-kicking chick their age? Isn’t that what our young girls want (and I dare say need) these days? Someone that embodies all the strength and rebellion they know they have in a world that tells them otherwise?

    • ‘Someone that embodies all the strength and rebellion they know they have in a world that tells them otherwise?’

      I love this – but why must that fantasy come always in the form of a lawless masculinity? Is fighting and killing the only way we can depict strength and rebellion? I would SO love to read the book that made a tempting fantasy out of being smart.

      • But, there are many books that celebrate smart females, and no, don’t make me give you a list-I haven’t had any wake-up juice yet. I’m know you can think of plenty if you sit down to make a list. Check back with me after an hour and 3 cups.

        So, yes, this book might have killing and lawless masculinity, but that’s something people like. Something some women like. And It’s not that Katniss is the ONLY strong female role model they have, just one; and in just one genre. I say the more the merrier; every fantasy helps girls (and boys) find out who they want to be.

        The lawlessness is a given. It’s no fun to rebel against, say…the city council. It has to be raw, and edgy, and seemingly impossible. And for this fan-crowd, it has to be masculine because that’s what the girls have to/want to fix/overcome/reconcile. And I can tell you for certain, books like this help a lot of budding baby dykes (it’s okay, not a derogatory usage here) find some strength to deal with a society that still (hurry up already) isn’t ready to accept them.

      • Heh, well, have you had that coffee yet? As you rightly guessed, I’d love to hear your list. I’ve not read much YA – Twilight and this, but I am reading Marge Piercy at the moment, one of the old seventies feminist novels and it’s making me feel that so little has changed since then. I’d love to hear about more books with female protagonists who privilege intelligence. Of course I could never criticize a book that helped people in whatever way – that would be mean and pointless. I’m very glad that women are getting something useful from this.

  3. I’ve not seen the movie nor read the book and don’t plan on it. Nor will Bookman ever suggest we even watch the movie. He read and watched Battle Royale which is Japanese and came before Hunger Games and the two are too similar that he just scoffs at Hunger Games. As for the teenage girl appeal, I think themodernidiot is on the right track. When I was a teenager I would have been all over these books for that reason alone.

    • Yes, my son was mentioning Battle Royale (not that I know anything about that). I agree with the modernidiot in principle, but wish very much that the practice took different form. I’m so sick and tired of the tomboy being this idealised identity for growing girls. Have we really no female/feminine roles to promote that glorify compassion, communication and cleverness as forms of strength?

    • Thank you 🙂 I’m so glad my mother taught me to read well and read early, so while my peers were reading fluffy, girl-meets-boy books I could read about strong women in history.


  4. My kids loved the first book and read the sequels, and we all went to the movie. I liked it for the details about the world and the strong female character, but have been puzzled as to why it hit such a nerve. One of the answers I have been considering is that it hits the same nerve as stories about surviving the zombie apocalypse–we’re worried about survival. We know we don’t have what it takes to survive on our own in the wilderness, and we’re afraid that there’s going to be more wilderness in our future.

    • Yes, I agree with you that this vexed issue of survival must have something to do with it. The more excessive the threat depicted as entertainment, the further we must be from any awareness of how to survive for real (because we’d know then that it isn’t entertaining at all).

  5. What did you think of the film? And what didn’t the guys enjoy? I liked things about it quite a bit, but I thought it played down some of the aspects that I found most interesting about the book — particularly, Katniss’s ongoing uncertainty about whether Peeta was telling the truth about her or just playing to the cameras.

    • I didn’t watch the film – just read the book (I’m too squeamish to watch anything that I don’t have full details on!). I think the men both found it lacking in excitement, and they were perplexed by a lot of stuff that is explained in the book and not in the film – particularly everything to do with the fact it’s a televised program and this feeds into the way they survive (so in other words, they agree with your assessment of what gets downplayed). They also found the ending hugely anticlimactic because it was set up for the sequel. Oh and they found the character of Peeta to be too nothing-y. I think that was all!

  6. litlove,

    I admit I’m not a fantasy fiction reader, nor viewer for that matter. So, thanks for this synopsis. As for your menfolk not too keen on the movie adaptation, I’m not a bit surprised. Usually they who love the book find the movie disappointing. Or, maybe vice versa. Anyway, not only the character has become popular, the actress portraying her, Jennifer Lawrence, is now the ‘it’ girl in Hollywood. Well, another evidence of how we crave heroines nowadays… which maybe not be unlike Jane Austen’s days. That must speak something about this female half of our population.

    • My husband and son both thought that Jennifer Lawrence acted her part well, and she received an Oscar didn’t she? For Silver Linings Playbook? (Do I have the right person?) I completely agree that we crave heroines – and heroes come to that. I wish they came in more varied forms, particularly for adolescents. But I suppose as well, this is where the accountants hold sway over creativity. If they feel assured that stereotypes fill cinemas, they won’t want to take chances with very different kinds of female protagonists.

      • litlove,

        Yes you’re right. Jennifer Lawrence got the Oscar for her role in SLP. Just another tidbit, rumour has it that she was first picked as 2013 People Magazine’s ‘most beautiful woman in the world’, but turned it down, so now Gwyneth Paltrow is. If that rumour is true, than we really have a true heroine in my view. 😉

  7. I’ve not read the book, but I did watch and enjoy the movie, largely because it was refreshing to see a young woman like Katniss at the center of a major film. And I did appreciate some of the questions it raised about the interaction between government and media, entertainment and power. I suspect that the subsequent books dig a little more into some of those questions, but I’ll probably stick to the movies. (They take less time.)

    • I do hope those questions get explored in later books – I thought someone might comment here who’d read them, and I’d get to know! What I would find truly refreshing would be to see a young woman on screen who was exercising her intelligence in a way that was celebrated. But then I watch hardly any films and maybe there ARE different sorts of heroines out there that I don’t know about. I do hope so.

  8. Having read the first of the ‘Twilight’ series I’ve stayed clear of this particular branch of teenage fiction now that I don’t have to read it professionally. There is so much out three that is so much better. Have you read William Nicholson’s ‘Wind on Fire’ trilogy or his later ‘Noble Warriors’ trio? I found them much more interesting.

    • I read the first book in the William Nicholson ‘Wind on Fire’ series and enjoyed it very much. It was right at the tail end of my son’s interest in those sorts of novels, and once he’d move on, I felt I had no valid reason to keep reading them! (And it’s not like I don’t have a few other books in the pile, ahem.) I tend just to read the famous ones now, as I’m interested in finding out what hits the cultural nerve – not that it ever makes me happy to find out, though. I should stick to just reading the most intelligent books perhaps, rather than depressing myself with the most popular ones!

  9. The Hunger Games was one of the audio books I took on my recent road trip to Virginia. It started out fine, and I would have to say it wasn’t a waste of time, but it was far from a great read. I wasn’t particularly fond of the narrators voice, so that might have had something to do with it. I rated it an “okay.” Your review is spot on, though, in its analysis. BTW, The second audio book I listened to was The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, which made up for the mediocrity of The Hunger Games for me. Now THAT was fabulous – and it was read by the actor who played Chef, Lenny Henry, who has such a powerful voice.

  10. Yes, in many ways that’s about where I am with it. It wasn’t a waste of time, but I did feel it was a missed opportunity (not that the author or her publishers feel like that, I’m sure!). I’m delighted to know that The Anansi Boys was so good, and I’ll bet Lenny Henry gave it all he had – which is quite a lot, admittedly!

  11. I have yet to read this one, although I’ve had a copy of it for something like 2 years. I just might move it up closer to the top of the pile. I mean, really, I must read it, especially after hearing your take on it.

    • I’d owned it for a while before getting to it – and really it was only because the boys were watching the film! Save it for when you need something really easy and really gripping. It’s that sort of book!

  12. I thought it interesting when I read it last year. I just finished part 2 and it’s not that good anymore.
    I read fantasy and YA exactly because of the fact that the heroines are mostly strong. While the writing style isn’t always that good, the ideas behind are interesting. Despite of that, I think these novels depict a lot of angst.
    And this one is for a change not set in a high-school.

    • I’m really interested in the idea of strength. I think it’s a bad idea to tell women that they have to be strong, if it means always available for everyone, tireless fighters, capable in all sorts of ways, fearless, etc, etc. The only sustainable strength is in flexibility and staying in the moment, emotionally. Sometimes the strongest thing to do is to give up and walk away. Clever narratives can put that across well, I think, but it’s an easy message to misread.

      Do you know, I read an analysis of it that saw in the Hunger Games an analogy to high school??? It’s amazing – you can’t get away from it with YA it seems!

      • I personally meant strong in the sense of independent but I just had a very weird revelation – they might only be strong – in these books – because without any exception I could think of they (YA and fantasy heroines ) do not have a family, children.
        Now that would be an interesting novel, showing one of these heroines as a provider of a family with small kids. I doubt Katniss would have been strong enough to survive the ordeal in the arena if she’d just had had three months of bad sleep (or more) with a tiny infant …

  13. I really enjoyed the movie, and was happy to have watched it with my 10-year-old daughter. There aren’t that many young female heroines, and the fact that Katniss did exercise her wits and compassion makes her even cooler. (I don’t feel the urge to read the book though.)

  14. Brilliant analysis; loved the comparison to Cinderella. Of course, as to why it sparks such an interest in our culture for me that’s easy: because ultimately this book speaks of a government’s total control of its people, and I’m sorry, but that’s where America is heading. Very, very frightening, especially for what once was “the land of the free.”

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