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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.

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