As the opening of The Hunger Games film approaches, I thought it’d be useful to see what made the book so special. It’s one thing for a film to be faithful to the events of a text; it’s another thing for it to be faithful to that ‘spark’ that made the text so important. To me, the following represents five things about The Hunger Games that makes it more than just a fun read. I’ve read a lot of stories that are about revolutions, but not many of these stories are revolutionary in and of themselves. The Hunger Games is.
1. Subverting Gender Expectations
Twilight derives its primary drama from a stereotypical soap opera scenario: the love triangle. The Hunger Games also derives much of its drama from soap opera romance. The difference is that Bella is nothing save an object of affection. Katniss, on the other hand, uses the public’s desire to treat her as an object of affection to gain power. In this sense, Katniss is not only a “strong female character” (which usually means that she doesn’t act like a woman normally does in this kind of narrative), she’s an active antagonist of female stereotypes. By disingenuously presenting herself as a lovesick teen, Katniss shows up a Capitol that seeks to pity/objectify/patronize her and shows herself to be far stronger and smarter than they realized.
2. Subverting the Media
The smartest thing about Suzanne Collins’s Panem is how it blurs the lines between reality television and news reporting. Clearly, Collins is suggesting (through her invented world) that our news giants like CNN, Fox, and NBC are indistinguishable from their reality television counterparts (where people are routinely ‘voted off, chopped, eliminated’ etc.). Collins has mentioned in interviews how a lot of what she wrote was inspired by news coverage of the Iraq War, and she does a remarkable job of suggesting that television producers are becoming increasingly more likely to package real, consequential world events in the same way as faux-reality game shows that are created for ratings and profit. Is Caesar Flickerman an entertainment host or a government employee?
3. Subverting War
As with many wars, the tributes of the games are, by and large, drafted to fight an enemy that their government forces them to kill. However, the tributes of District 7, for example, bear no particular ill will to the tributes of District 5, and while the Career Tributes may be somewhat ‘culpable’ compared to those who have no interest in being in the games, they are not actually waging war against any other district. This is largely what ‘war’ does. It pits soldiers against soldiers, and it is not always the case that those soldiers have any real reason to want to destroy their ‘enemies.’ Soldiers kill each other because they are told to do so, not necessarily because they are shown that their enemy is truly evil. When Katniss threatens to eat those berries, she isn’t just challenging ‘The Capitol’—she’s challenging the whole concept that people should kill one another because a government drafts them, arms them, and tells them to do so.
4. Subverting Economic Disparity
This is the perfect time for The Hunger Games to make a global splash. Is there any movie that more skillfully places a metaphor around the whole language of the 99% versus the 1%? The Capitol doesn’t represent a future city that might one day appear (if we are not careful)—the Capitol of Panem exists here and now. While much of America is out of work and getting poorer, the villains who destroyed are economy have been getting wealthier. And what do they do? They volunteer the children of the poor to fight in wars that they themselves never think to sacrifice for. Reading and watching The Hunger Games could be more effective at educating the public on the current state of our economic system than the news media’s feeble attempts have been.
5. Subverting Storytelling
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Hunger Games is its ability to make me feel as if I’m part of the problem. I realize that Katniss and the other Tributes are being horribly mistreated by a world that causes them to kill for sport. And yet here I am being as riveted by Collins’s exceptional and inventive descriptions of a sci-fi arena’s death contraptions as the audiences in the Capitol are. In other words, even though I recognize that the Capitol is wrong for turning this death sport into entertainment, I too am guilty of being entertained by the horrors of the games. This ‘turnabout’ should make all readers question their own interests. Why do war stories interest me? Why is violence worth supporting in literature and film? If I enjoy these stories but sit back while injustice occurs in the rest of the world then how am I any better than the citizens of the Capitol?
What do you think? What makes The Hunger Games something more than ‘the new Twilight’?
See also, Why We Have to Root for Katniss