Hope and the Hunger Games -- youth fiction for the 99%


The Hunger Games Trilogy
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press, 2010,
three volumes, $31.

The Hunger Games is young adult fiction for the 99%.

Millions of readers around the world have made the 2008-10 Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins a wildly popular series, and an eagerly-awaited movie version is scheduled for release this year.

But The Hunger Games should get special attention for the way it captures something unusual in young adult fiction ― the strength, curiosity and resolve of a cunning, intelligent, young female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.

The trilogy also stands out because it resonates with a generation of young people who have grown up with the realities of economic insecurity and war, but also with the hope of resistance.

The novel takes place in a fictitious, but not outlandish, post-apocalyptic, police state called Panem. The country is divided into isolated districts, whose citizens are forbidden to communicate with another. Each district specialises in a different industry ― wheat, coal, fishing, etc.

The 12 districts support the wealthy city called the Capitol, where people live in absurd narcissistic wealth.

Each year, as a spectacle for the citizens of the Capitol and a way for the government to control the population of the 12 districts, the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games. A boy and girl from each of the districts (known as a tribute) is chosen by lottery and forced to fight to the death.

Without spoiling the plot, there are certain themes that run throughout The Hunger Games that clearly align these books with the hopes, aspirations and sentiments of our side ― the 99%.

This is a book about an intelligent young girl, Katniss, who is the caretaker of her family and protector of her loved ones.

Collins never sexualises Katniss ― even as she is forced into a relationship for the benefit of the Capitol, the 1%.

At different points throughout the novels, she makes the point that she does not have time to worry about a relationship or love. She is her own young woman, even as there is intense pressure to feel and act differently.

Katniss isn't sexy, flirty and boy-obsessed. She is a strong, stubborn, intelligent, caring, confused, angry, rash, impulsive, and at times under-confident young woman ― in other words, she is a teenager.

This is a trilogy about poverty. The lives of the people in District 12 are gripped by poverty, hunger, fear and misery.

A generation of young adults growing up during an economic crisis ― during which 50% of children in the US will at some point be dependent on food stamps and 16% are considered food insecure ― know the feeling of growling stomachs all too well.

They, like Katniss, use a mixture of keen survival skills and desperation to provide for their families and navigate through difficult situations.

Katniss and her best friend Gale break the law to survive ― they hunt in a restricted area. Without this illegal activity, their families would starve to death since both Gale's and Katniss's fathers died in a mine explosion where they worked.

The Peacekeepers (police) and the local officials look the other way, since Gale and Katniss trade their game and loot with them.

This is a trilogy about wealth inequality. Districts provide for the Capitol, where the citizens vainly alter their appearances with cosmetic surgery, tinting their skin and hair outrageous colours.

Once picked in the Hunger Games, the tributes have access to the most delectable food they could imagine, nice clothes, a team of make-up artists and stylists, and even comfortable sheets.

Those in the Capitol are completely obsessed with themselves, their looks, their parties and their fancy things. Collins adds priceless details, like the drink they consume in the Capitol during parties that forces them to vomit ― to make more room for the delicious feasts.

Unlike in most books and TV shows, there isn't an ounce of envy or a shred of desire to be one of this trilogy's 1% ― just disgust. Katniss shows almost pity toward those in the Capitol, who don't know any better and live such shallow and pathetic lives. They too, she concludes, are pawns in the game of the haves and the have-nots.

This is a trilogy about war. Every citizen of Panem outside the Capitol knows that he or she, during their teenage years between 12 and 18, might be picked by the lottery to enter the Hunger Games.

But there is a poverty draft. Families can "choose" to get an extra ration of food from the state in exchange for the name of a family member being added into the lottery for extra time.

By the time the trilogy begins, Katniss already has her name added to the lottery 20 times to help feed her family.

This system reeks of the poverty draft in real-life US, where working-class and poor kids have no choice but to join the military to get money for college, job training or to get out of small, de-industrialised rural areas.

As in George Orwell's 1984, Panem is under complete surveillance. Katniss has the constant feeling ― within the games and without ― of being watched and listened to.

The lines between being in the games (or in a war) and "back home" are completely blurred as Katniss realises she is being monitored at all times.

In fact, the president ― the most powerful man in Panem ― reveals to Katniss that he knows about things she did in private. This is undoubtedly a comment on society today and the government's increased powers of surveillance.

Most of all, however, this is a trilogy about resistance. From the very beginning, Katniss and Gale talk about running away and escaping from their homes.

Survival, in the Games and in life, is also an act of resistance ― sometimes Katniss is conscious of it, and other times she is not.

However, as the story continues ― and everyone should read it ― questions of what type of resistance haunt Katniss. She struggles with whether her resistance should be personal or collective.

Yet Collins always paints a picture of a collective struggle, whether it's describing the way in which the districts can cut off the supply of their industry to the Capitol to really take a stance; or whether it's a collective symbol ― a song, a mockingjay or a fire ― that galvanizes the entire country against the 1%.

Even as the trilogy nears its end, Katniss struggles with the question of what type of alternative there is. This isn't a trilogy about a workers' revolution, but it is about revolution and class struggle.

And Katniss is a sometimes conscious, yet often unconscious, revolutionary.

The third book puts a bit of a wrench in what otherwise would be a fantastic trilogy. Though addressing the ending would give too much of the book away, I think that it never presents a positive alternative to a very dark society.

The ending isn't hopeful ― and, I think, reflects a broken society, even through the process of resistance.

But regardless of its shortcomings, this trilogy cynically and beautifully reflects the times we live in.

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]