Reality Hunger: The Hunger Games Trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
Reality Hunger: The Hunger Games Trilogy
When I was young enough to be considered a Young Adult reader, the last thing I wanted to read were YA novels. I was desperate to read “grown-up” books, and none of the YA covers with their horses and cheerleaders ever appealed to me. Now, as an MFA student, I turn to YA for an escape from all those grown-up books. Contemporary fiction, to me, feels heavy after a while, political and emotional and exhaustingly thought-provoking. The crazy thing I’ve been pondering over the past year, though, is that maybe YA isn’t so much an escape as it is a better vehicle for those heavy things. Maybe YA is where we should be looking for the political, emotional, thoughtful writing. Maybe YA is literature’s best kept secret.
I borrowed The Hunger Games from the thirteen year-old I babysit back in March of 2011. It was just after spring break, I was stressing over job applications and seminar papers, revolutions in the Middle East were making headlines every day, and I thought, Why not? I could go for some escape reading right now.
After letting the paperback sit on my night table for a few weeks, I was kick-started into reading it, unexpectedly, by the New York Times Magazine. The cover of the April 10, 2011, issue had one small line in the upper-left corner: “Suzanne Collins’s War Stories for Kids.” Before reading the article, I innocently thought, Oh, she must be writing a new series. [Insert thirteen year-old’s eye-roll here.]
“Collins’s fiction,” writes Susan Dominus, “echoes other dystopian literature in which states subject their citizens to novel forms of oppression.” She goes on to quote Collins as saying, “I don’t write about adolescence, I write about war. For adolescents.”
I began reading the first book tentatively, and then voraciously. Anytime the topic of “dystopia,” or “violence as entertainment” comes up, I find myself thinking about eleventh grade, the winter after 9/11, when I read A Clockwork Orange. I can still remember how tickled I was by the new language, and then as the new language slowly sank in, how much I felt implicated in the violence, like an accomplice in Alex’s gang. It was unsettling, but it also felt real (something I didn’t get from the super-trendy chick-lit of the time). I couldn’t shake A Clockwork Orange, even long after it ended. It felt like there was truth at the core, real people underneath the “horrorshow droogs.” Because if there was one thing I learned that year, random violence was all too real.
It took me a while to realize it, but reading the Hunger Games series last spring and summer was like reading A Clockwork Orange in late 2001. As the series moves along, the staged, gladiator-like battle of teenagers in book one turns into a real life battle in the streets of the Capitol by book three. Collins’s war “for adolescents” is actually a war led by adolescents. Without intending it, sixteen year-old Katniss, the heroine and narrator, becomes the face of the youth-led revolution that will eventually topple a decades-long dictatorship. Sound at all familiar?
By the time I started reading the Hunger Games, the Tunisians had taken to the streets and ousted their authoritarian president of twenty-three years. The Egyptians had overthrown a thirty year long autocracy in a mere eighteen days. Protestors were raising hell in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. The tide of revolution already had a well-known name: the Arab Spring. I didn’t immediately see the parallels between the fiction I was reading and the news I was watching because they aren’t really there in the first book, The Hunger Games. It isn’t until the second book is well under way that it becomes clear—this isn’t a series about teenagers. This is a series about a revolution.
The Hunger Games introduces readers to Panem, “the country that rose out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America,” which consists of “a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts.” When an uprising in the Dark Days nearly toppled the Capitol (long before the series begins), twelve districts “were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated.” In the novels, Panem seems to exist alone on the planet. No other countries are mentioned, and even the other districts are a mystery to Katniss and her fellow District Twelve residents. Information is power, and the Capitol, like any totalitarian government worth its salt, knows all and shares nothing.
As a reminder of the Capitol’s power, and as punishment for the uprising, the Hunger Games were formed. Each year the tributes, one boy and one girl from each district, are chosen at random to compete. Collins describes it: “The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.” After Katniss’s twelve year-old sister is selected as tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place and finds herself heading for the Games, which she takes as both a challenge to fight, and a long, slow-burning death sentence.
The first book in the series deals entirely with Katniss’s preparation for, and time in, the Hunger Games. It’s a book about survival. Not only does Katniss have to outplay her competitors, she also has to feed herself, keep warm at night, find a source of water, fight the hallucinations of genetically engineered wasp-stings, and all the while maintain some form of dignity because every bit of the Games—every forest fire, every hiding place, every gory death—is broadcast on television and mandatory viewing for all. She isn’t afraid to die; she’s afraid for her little sister, who will have to watch her die. This was not the lighthearted YA reading I had expected.
Being that it was the first in a trilogy, I was right in assuming that Katniss would win the Hunger Games, but it didn’t stop me from devouring the book as if her fate rested in my ability to stay up past midnight. The Hunger Games moves like a perfectly plotted action movie. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Even moments of calm seem infused with suspense. As cold and calculating as Katniss is going into the Games, she can’t help but see her competitors for what they really are—other kids—and even the deaths of minor characters socked me square in the stomach.
Dystopia is a tried-and-true theme for YA novels. The classic, of course, is 1984, which the Hunger Games is often compared to. And even though it’s universally acknowledged as YA, the question I kept asking myself was: who is the audience for this? According to the American Library Association, Young Adult novels can be generally defined by the following parameters: the novel’s protagonist is an adolescent; the story deals with major themes, but at the same time is far more plot-driven than what we think of as Literature; and—here’s the tricky part—it’s written for readers between the ages of ten and twenty.
While it’s true that the person who recommended the Hunger Games to me fell squarely within that age range, the majority of people I see reading YA novels—on the subway, at coffee shops, on the beach—are most definitely well above the age of twenty. (For the record, I’m twenty-six.) So then my next question is naturally, why are all these adults attracted to and taken with novels written for people half their age? What does YA accomplish that other mainstream “grown-up” novels may not?
I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year, as I read the Hunger Games trilogy and recommended it to my friends and teachers, as they read it and came back to me to say, Whoa! That was not what I was expecting! And for me, what it comes down to is one thing: plot. What we all weren’t expecting, myself included, was to be swept up in the action of a story, to need to know what happens and then to be shocked when the last-minute twist arrives, to find that all this constructed action, in an invented country, in the future, actually matters to us. We have become conditioned to be readers of other things—ideas, themes, regions, cultural experiences—and we’ve forgotten how powerful a good storyteller can be.
Going through college as a creative writing major, I distinctly remember being told by a professor, “A plot is the place where you bury your character.” I don’t know when the evolution began, but as modern readers and writers of literary fiction, we’ve drifted away from plot. We’ve come to love and appreciate the voice-driven writing of Zadie Smith, or the character-centered writing of David Foster Wallace, or the language-conscious writing of Nicole Krauss, or the idea-focused writing of Dave Eggers, but a good plot is an entirely different beast. A good plot sinks its teeth into us and reassures us at the same time, because a story with a plot has a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that happens contributes to reaching that end, and, in a way, is meant to happen. Actions have consequences. We’re looking for the validation that life has an arc, that life can be like the plot of a novel. Frighteningly enough, that’s exactly what I found out reading the Hunger Games.
As I watched the news coverage of the Arab Spring spreading further into the heart of the Middle East, Katniss and her fellow District Twelve tribute, Peeta, find themselves the last surviving players in the Hunger Games. Rather than attempt to kill each other, as the Gamemakers intend them to, they decide to eat poisonous berries together—what the audience is supposed to see as a Romeo and Juliet stunt, but what Katniss and Peeta see as a big f-you to President Snow. As Katniss well knows, the Hunger Games has to have a victor, so at the very last second a reprieve is made and Katniss and Peeta return to District Twelve as the first ever co-champions.
Their stunt is interpreted as “an act of rebellion” by the government, and in the opening of book two, Catching Fire, President Snow pays a visit to Katniss’s own house to tell her so. He warns her, “Unfortunately, not everyone in the districts fell for your act. This, of course, you didn’t know…In several of them, however, people viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love.”
To prove his power and punish the newly crowned victors, President Snow devises a sinister twist to the 75th Annual Hunger Games the following year: the Quarter Quell, as it’s called, will be made up entirely of past Hunger Games champions. His tactic is a controversial one because viewers in the Capitol become attached to the victors over the years. To them, surviving the Games is a mark of distinction and celebrity. Throwing Katniss and Peeta back into the arena is tantamount to tossing in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. In certain small ways, Snow’s plan begins to backfire from the start. Catching Fire, as the title suggests, provides glimpses into the other side of life in the Capitol—people as eager to overthrow Snow as Katniss is.
Coming on the heels of The Hunger Games, which had me captivated, Catching Fire reads like a Hunger Games redux. Really, it’s more of a plot point in the elaborate arc of the series—a stepping-stone to the final act—than a fully formed standalone novel.
It was the third book, Mockingjay, that finally made me realize the sick truth in what I was reading. When I read it this past fall, I was no longer reminded of George Orwell or Anthony Burgess, I was reminded of Frontline and Gigi Ibrahim, a twenty-four-year-old woman who, against her family’s wishes, became famous for Tweeting from Tahrir Square, all day every day. I read a news story from NPR about thirteen year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, whose brutal torture and death, after allegedly being detained for attending “an anti-regime rally,” helped catalyze the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; then I picked up Mockingjay, where the face of twelve year-old Rue, who Katniss failed to save in her first Hunger Games, is flashed across television screens in every district, a fallen tribute turned into a martyr for the rebel cause.
As the violence escalates in Panem, and the Capitol begins bombing makeshift hospitals in war-torn District Eight, NPR reported that “[a] U.N. commission accused security forces loyal to Syria President Bashar Assad of killing hundreds of children and committing other ‘crimes against humanity’ since the government began its crackdown on protesters back in March.” Substitute “Panem President Snow” for “Assad” and you pretty much have it.
Initially, the news coverage of the Arab Spring, much as it appalls me to say it, was mesmerizing. To see so much change happening so rapidly and at such great risk to all those individuals (so many of them my age or younger) was inspiring, horrifying, hopeful, heartbreaking—an entire spectrum of emotion in a 90-second video clip. And those news shows knew exactly what they were doing: not only was the Arab Spring a major shift in our modern history, it was riveting. The Arab Spring was the ultimate reality show.
In Mockingjay the revolution explodes into full-blown war. Collins’s descriptions of the bomb-laced city streets and sniper fire from the rooftops of the Capitol seemed to be pulled straight out of the headlines: “Dozens of Protesters Are Killed in Yemen;” “Syrian Security Forces Fire on Rallies, Activists Say.” The main difference, though, is that in Mockingjay, the snipers fire on rebel soldiers wearing fantastically high-tech body armor, who in turn, fire back with fantastically high-tech weapons. In Sanaa, Damascus, and other cities, snipers fired on unarmed civilian protesters.
When I’ve recommended the Hunger Games to friends, several have asked how fanciful it is, suspicious of YA and its stereotypes (that it’s about teen romance, that it’s full of angst, that the characters are two-dimensional, that it’s fluff). The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I’ve realized that the best answer I can come up with is, “Not very.”
In the case of Katniss and the rebel fighters, their technological weapons are twice-exploding bombs and invisible hovercrafts. They have to overcome the “geographical containment” of the districts in secret, with spies providing information about uprisings in individual districts. For the protesters of the Arab Spring movement, their technological weapons are Facebook and YouTube; they overcome “geographical containment” with the help of Twitter and text messages. They know the face of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street-vendor who burned himself to death in protest of the conditions in Tunisia, and it’s his act of defiance that is credited with sparking the wildfire of uprisings across the Arab world. It’s precisely that spark of defiance that President Snow recognizes in Katniss’s feint with the poisonous berries.
The New York Times called Mockingjay “the perfect teenage story with its exquisitely refined rage against the cruel and arbitrary power of the adult world.” What I want to know is: why is that rage confined to teenagers? When do we grow out of that rage—or worse, into the role of the powerful adults? Why are teenagers the target audience for dystopian novels? What are we looking for as grown-up readers of YA? When do we stop questioning—in our lives and in our writing? Or at the very least, when do we stop rolling our eyes?
When I finished the last book, my first thought was, “The Hunger Games was a near-perfect YA novel. Did she really need to force the stretch into a series?” Something about the magnitude of the story—not simply the timeline, but how much actually happens, how many characters lose their lives—left me with a dull ringing in my ears. Besides Collins’s past success with series (The Underland Chronicles was a bestseller), there’s just something about a revolution that’s irresistible story material, both to write and to read about. It would be next to impossible to fit it all into one book, and to lose the nuances she works in, the building tension and the growing rebellion, would be to lose the heart of the revolution. It would reduce it to a blockbuster war story, which it most definitely is not (despite the fact that the movie adaptation of book one is premiering this Friday to major fanfare).
If I’m being honest, The Hunger Games may be my favorite book of the series because it was the most unfamiliar. By book three it was impossible for me to separate my feelings about the Arab Spring from my feelings about Katniss and her fellow rebels. Of course it’s naïve to think that the Hunger Games—or the news, for that matter—gives anything but a shallow sense of war, of loss, of the enormous risks average people take as they strive for a government and society that better reflect their values. But if the conclusion of the Hunger Games feels unsettling and murky, less satisfying than, say, the final duel of Harry Potter, maybe that’s because it’s more real. As with any revolution, the overthrow of the oppressors is not the final solution.