News & Politics

3 Great Reasons You Should Check Out 'The Hunger Games'

The story's visceral feeling of rage and distrust is a perfect counterpart to a revolutionary spring.

The Hunger Games, the hottest young adult book on the market, set to become a blockbuster film this weekend, is a dark dystopian tale that explores poverty, gender, totalitarianism and oppression. Both sides of the ideological spectrum will claim, and have begun to declare, that its somewhat simplistic (and breathlessly engrossing) anti-authoritarian energy matches their agendas. 

But really, this story's essence is one progressives in particular should take to heart: a powerful condemnation of violence, poverty and exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Most crucially, the story's visceral feeling of rage and distrust is a perfect counterpart to the Occupy spring.

The legend of The Hunger Games' conception is a cultural staple by now: children’s author Suzanne Collins was flipping back and forth between reality TV, with its ruthless competition, and footage of the Iraq war, in which young people were dying, and she came up with the idea of a reality show that featured children fighting each other to the death. 

It wasn’t an entirely new idea (the concept has been explored in the Japanese novel Battle Royale), but it fit our current moment. Like other teen fiction phenomena, word of mouth turned The Hunger Games from a popular series for kids into one their parents devoured without shame, one that spread out to permeate the culture at large. Its success stands as proof that issues as serious as hunger, patriarchy, the toll of violence on young people, the corrupting qualities of power and the futility of war can be addressed with a page-turning, heart-pounding narrative.

1. Control by Hunger and Fear 

The parameters of Collins’ dystopian world begin in an unknown time after global warming and nuclear war have left society in chaos. The country of Panem, once North America, no longer has 50 states but instead is divided into 12 numbered districts, each with a distinct economic, racial and cultural flavor, each oppressed to varying degrees. (The more agricultural or industrial the district, the darker its inhabitants' skin, the more oppressed they tend to be.)

All of these districts are controlled by "the Capitol" after a brutal war led to their defeat and subjugation. A 13th district tried to throw off the yoke of the Capitol and was shown on TV being obliterated by nuclear bombs. That threat, and the hunger caused by a constant and deliberate scarcity of food, keeps Panem’s citizens from mounting an insurrection. 

But the citizens are also controlled by fear and competition. As a reminder of their fealty, once a year each district is compelled to participate in a “reaping” ceremony. This is a lottery that chooses two teen tributes for the annual “Hunger Games,” a televised, weeks-long fight to the death in which they will face all the other selected tributes. The games are choreographed for maximum suspense and entertainment, and the citizens are obligated to watch in a mix of wonder and horror as the winner is chosen: the last person alive.

Enter our heroine, District 12’s Katniss, a self-sufficient and fascinatingly bitter young woman who spends her days hunting illegally in the forbidden woods--she must feed her family after her father died in a mining accident. Katniss’ life, her routine, her suspicion and ferocity are all a study in the psychological effects of crippling poverty. Eventually, her self-protective instincts catapult her into the spotlight when she volunteers for the games in place of her vulnerable younger sister.

Collins’ story echoes speculative fiction’s rich tradition, cleverly combining the vision of brutal totalitarianism of 1984 with the numbing entertainment of Brave New World and the brutality of Lord of the Flies. The annual “reaping” borrows from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, in which one person is chosen as a sacrifice in an annual town lottery, while the Capitol with its sinister leader is akin to Star Wars’ evil Empire. Katniss’ mixed feelings about her own celebrity recall the angst of Harry Potter during his own teen years, and the carefully calibrated role of women’s bodies in Panem has very faint echoes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, whose patriarchal/biblical society Gilead certainly seems these days like one of the most relevant dystopian societies ever imagined.

2. Haves vs. Have-nots

Much of the excitement in the books arises from the events of the games themselves. Twenty-four tributes, only one survivor. It’s a reality show gone wild, the highest of high concepts guaranteeing plenty of fast-paced action. But what makes The Hunger Games resonate beyond the cheap thrill of the games is the steady drumbeat of rage building in Katniss, even as she marvels at the opulence of the Capitol and the beautiful clothes she gets to wear and the food she can now eat. This contrast between scarcity and plenty continues to increase in significance throughout the series. When Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, she chafes at the inequality:

"What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance it it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”

The Capitol works as a metaphor for both America’s 1 percent vs. the rest of us and also American lives compared to the rest of the world. This passage is a classic dystopian indictment, a moment when the imagined future and the actual present become practically indistinguishable. Katniss’ anger isn’t just directed at the government, but at the people of the Capitol, at the reader, at our indifference and our refusal to lift a finger to help those who have nothing. 

3. Defiant Heroine, Political Awakening

In the sequel, Catching Fire, Katniss realizes that the disparity is even worse than she thought; people in the Capitol have a drink that makes them vomit so they can keep gorging themselves. She recalls “the emaciated bodies” of starving children in her neighborhood as she watches the wealthy eat only “for the pleasure of filling their bodies.” Over time Katniss’ anger moves away from the rich people of the Capitol toward the evil machine in whose wheels she is just a cog: "To hate the boy from District 1... seems inadequate. It's the Capitol I hate for doing this to all of us.”

The defiant Katniss experiences a political awakening. Her instincts evolve from vague rage to a measured grasp of grim reality, from a desire to protect her family, to a realization that they will never be safe in a world where violence is a weapon wielded to achieve power. 

Like other heroes of Young Adult literature, Katniss is sometimes painfully oblivious to the workings of the grown-up world--and the boys who have grown-up interest in her. She is a successor to a long line of literary tomboys, and as such she’s somewhat de-sexed, or “pure,” as one of her admirers tells her. Still, she’s a refreshing teenage heroine in her imperfection and grittiness. Her ascent to ubiquitous movie heroine is even more remarkable in a Hollywood that is a wasteland for complex female leads.

Her attitude toward the beauty rituals of the Capitol is appropriately bewildered: although she marvels over the details of her beautiful new clothes, she hates being shaved and plucked and sees herself in this ultra-feminine state as a different person, an avatar of herself. Most interestingly, she never lets the glitter and glitz distract her from her hatred of what it represents. 

Perhaps its adolesent core of distrust is what makes The Hunger Games so appealing. Teens begin to notice the lie behind claims of a meritocracy, the way certain kinds of privilege are rewarded and bad authority, from a corrupt president to an arbitrary teacher, is obeyed. The Hunger Games, true to its YA nature, is propelled less by a specific agenda and more by a feeling -- the feeling that the system is rigged and the adults are just sitting around doing nothing about it. Perhaps that’s why the series has legions of adult followers--it allows us to give expression to a loud, seditious frustration that our sensible society has deemed unseemly and unrealistic.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.