The Hunger Games (Book 1)
Scholastic Press, 2010
384 pp., 12.99
Paul D. Miller
The Hunger Games was first published in 2008. Less than four years later it and its two sequels have 26 million copies in print, and a Hollywood blockbuster based on the first book in the trilogy sold over a half-billion dollars of tickets and set records for opening day. Billed as Young Adult fiction, the franchise is regularly compared to Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and The Lord of the Rings. Is the hype justified? Adolescent mania, or modern classic?
The first aspect of Suzanne Collins' trilogy that has drawn attention is the violence. The story of the first two books revolves around children forced to fight each other to the death in a reality-TV show. The third book explodes into a blazing war epic, the brutality of the game-masters having provoked an equally brutal rebellion in response. Some critics, and many Christians, have criticized the violence as unhelpful for the young adults at whom the story is ostensibly aimed.
Indeed, once the Games begin, the violence is brutal and unremitting. Katniss Everdeen, our heroine, and her adversaries endure wasps, fire, freezing nights, blazing sun, downpours, spears, knives, broadswords, arrows, poison, hallucinations, hunger, wild animals, hand-to-hand combat, booby-traps, and landmines. That's just the first book; the third is much worse. The action gives the book its deserved reputation for thrills: the author pulls it off with a technical proficiency that is impressive and that translates extremely well to the screen. The violence sets The Hunger Games franchise apart from Harry Potter and should probably disqualify it for a pre-teen audience.
But of course violence has always been a staple of epic narrative. Many of the same critics who complain about the violence in The Hunger Games insist that our children read the classics in school, like the Iliad, Beowulf, or the Song of Roland. Here is a passage picked at random from a prose translation of Book V of the Iliad: "Meriones overtook him as he was flying, and struck him on the right buttock. The point of the spear went through the bone into the bladder, and death came upon him as he cried aloud and fell forward on his knees …. The son of Phyleus got close up to him and drove a spear into the nape of his neck: it went under his tongue all among his teeth, so he bit the cold bronze, and fell dead in the dust …. Eurypylus gave him chase as he was flying before him, smote him with his sword upon the arm, and lopped his strong hand from off it. The bloody hand fell to the ground, and the shades of death, with fate that no man can withstand, came over his eyes."
Even more significant than the simple presence of violence is how it is treated. The pre-modern epics overtly celebrated violence and war as the true test of a man. The Hunger Games, by contrast, is a wicked satire on violence-as-entertainment. The Capitol, which forces the games on the population, represents the arrogance of unchecked power; the spectators are mocked and ridiculed for their callousness and vapidity; the Games are roundly condemned by the protagonists; and the rebellion is inspired in part by the Capitol's disregard for human life. Near the end of the third book, Katniss murders a civilian in a cold act of self-preservation; the reader and eventually Katniss herself are horrified at what she has become. The film is almost quaint in its modesty about violence, keeping most of it off screen.
More interesting is this: amidst the action and chaos, Katniss rarely stops to reflect on her situation. Like Homer's epic, The Hunger Games is full of passages that detail violent deaths accomplished in the spirit of competition. But The Hunger Games is the Iliad as told through Achilles' Tweets, if he were a teenage girl. Katniss certainly thinks and shares her thoughts via inner monologue with the reader—but her thoughts are focused on survival techniques, not on the nature of war, struggle, life, death, society, or anything else. The author has given us a thrilling tale about a strangely unreflective protagonist.
And that is perhaps the point: Katniss is a cipher for what we become when we are saturated in social media, unable to escape the eyes of digital observers. Katniss spends almost the entire trilogy performing for a TV audience. In the third book, she is co-opted as a symbol of the rebellion, which televises her "battles," choreographed for maximum propaganda value. Her every waking moment is thus recorded and broadcast. She is the spiritual heir to people who share their entire lives online by uploading photos to Facebook and recording what they had for lunch on Twitter. The Games are the last word in live-streaming webcasts. Katniss is the ultimate blogger.