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World Gone Wrong

Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games
World Gone Wrong

In her trilogy The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins, an established writer for children’s television and successful novelist of teen fiction, has portrayed what everyone seems to want to describe as a “dystopian” universe. The United States (North America?) has been rebuilt after the apocalypse as “Panem”, certainly a reference to the use of the latin panis in a famous description of the Roman empire c. AD 100 by the poet Juvenal. Juvenal satirized the Roman system as one in which the political strategy of those in power had long been and still was to provide for the people “bread and circuses” (panem et circensis) in order to keep them happy and the politicians securely in power. As long as no one went hungry or starved for entertainment, the dictatorial government of Rome was stable, no matter what else it did. That strategy worked until the fall of the empire in AD 410.

The trilogy’s social commentary is obvious. Collins appears to critique America’s present system as wrapped up in everything from the political strategy summarized in James Carville’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid.” (panem) to the honoring of young soldiers who come home from wars she seems to think are put on by our politicians as games to keep themselves in power (circensis). The country of Panem is ruled by an elite class, which lives in the city, central to the nation. As one gets further and further from the Capitol, nature’s basic goodness provides people who are good, hard working, and oppressed by the rich and self-absorbed who live in the Capitol. The heroine in the book, Katniss Everdeen, is from district 12, the furthest from the Capitol, and she is morally formed largely by her illegal forays into the woods around district 12 to hunt game with her friend Gale.

Much has been written about the violence in the books, and the two big stories about the recent movie of the first volume (also called The Hunger Games) have been its extraordinary box office success and its rating of PG-13. The books, easy to read and lively page-turners, are violent, describing the deaths of children, who are forced into a gladiatorial contest called the “hunger games”, as they kill one another in order to survive, while the entire country watches on television sets. The contestants are “reaped” from all the children country-wide aged 12-18. Significantly, though the novels are set far into the future, the only weapons available to the children are knives, bows and arrows, axes, etc.; the killing must be up close and personal. And when the games begin to drag, the gamemaker, a government official in charge of the games, creates everything from floods to artificial killer dogs in order to force the children to engage one another or be killed by a “natural” disaster.

The movie could not be made without incorporating all of these elements, but in order to get the box office response they wanted, the filmmakers needed a PG-13 rating. They succeeded by cutting out much of the blood and violence that makes the books so horrifying. But in many ways, this cuts the heart out of the story, too. The movie presents a saccharine version of the violence, undermining the severity of the oppression heaped upon the populace by the Capitol and its policies. Evil and corruption are rampant in the book’s version of the Capitol, its populace and especially its politicians. The movie is still clear in its portrayal of the thoroughness of the corruption of the city dwellers, but the depth of the book is just not there.

Gone, too, is an element of the novel that almost cannot be equaled in a movie because of film’s visual form. The book is written in the first person, and this provides a clear window into Katniss’s soul. Movies have always struggled to portray internal dialogue; voice-over narrative by the main character is the closest they come. Themes like the self-doubt plaguing this teenage girl, her struggle with her feelings about the boys in her life, her childish tendency to see events and people as either black or white and her growth into understanding the complexity of life with all its ambiguities—all these are almost gone in the film.

If one has read the book prior to seeing the movie, these do surface nicely in the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She does a superb job of trying to display Katniss’s inner self by her facial expressions and uncertain movements in times that ranged from the awkward (twirling in front of the audience to show off her fire dress) to downright terrifying (seeing, as she comes up from underground, the arena and the twenty-three other “tributes” whom she would either kill or by whom she would be killed). Nevertheless such things are far too subtle on first viewing, and if you have not read the books before seeing the movie, you will miss them altogether.

This trilogy should be read, and the movies seen, by anyone working with students at university today. They have been a phenomenal success among 14-18 year olds and these are the students of the academy in the coming years. The books have many more themes than those mentioned here, too, and would make wonderful discussion starters.

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