As a general rule, I avoid young adult books turned into hit movies, but after my daughter—a high school English teacher whose tastes I respect—taught The Hunger Games to her class, I decided to give the series a try. One long weekend later, in which I devoured the popular Collin’s trilogy borrowed from a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter, I can unreservedly say that the books are a worthy contribution to the young adult genre, with a wealth of social and political commentary about war, totalitarianism, political leadership and personal responsibility all woven into the fabric of a compelling adventure story.
Since most people have either read the book, seen the movie (based on the first of the series), or read a review, I won’t bother going into plot details, except to observe that author Collins very clearly modeled her high-tech dystopic society on a very old one—ancient Rome, to be exact—where the decadent capital survives solely based on the exploitation of outlying districts whose slave labor services the needs of the Roman populace under the watchful eyes of the centurions. At one point, it is explained to the heroine Katniss that the name of this dystopia—Panem—actually comes from the Latin expression panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” a metaphor used by the Roman poet Juvenal to decry the deliberate erosion of a citizenry by providing diversions to gratify the population’s most shallow needs in exchange for abdication of responsibility. This is clearly the case in Panem’s Capitol, where shallowness and excess—in fashion, in food, in entertainment (the Hunger games, for example), in thought itself—is the norm, and stands in sharp contrast to the poverty, the desperation, the struggle to survive in the Districts. And just as Rome fell, so too must Panem.
[A relevant aside here, if I may. It didn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch to read between the lines of Collin’s descriptions of Panem, and see today’s ubiquitous advertisements hyping prestige, youth, sex, and beauty. Our children and teens are already plugged into their “circuses”– iPod, iPads, and video games–while their parents watch endless hours of reality television, Superbowl extravaganzas, fantasy, and gore. Bread and circuses, American-style.]
Panem’s annual Hunger Games were highly creative, horribly bloody, and grotesquely fascinating, and to me they resembled nothing so much as an elaborately-designed video game, complete with disasters, monsters and enemies hiding around every corner. Indeed, Hunger Games video games are reportedly in development right now, and are sure to be in the hands of our children soon, a fact which raises some pressing questions about the corrosive effects of these killings games on those who participate in them. Collin’s chose adolescents to serve as the “tributes” in the Hunger Games, and then places us—her readers– inside the Games through the minds of Katniss and Peeta, where we get to experience not only their horror, terror, and grief inside the Arena, but as importantly, the mental and emotional deterioration that they and all the “victors” experience in the aftermath of the Games. I found the lengthy, almost clinical, descriptions of disassociation, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic shock that afflicted the Game victors—many for decades—the most affecting parts of Collins’ story.
Obviously, this trilogy speaks to youth on many different levels. But Collins chose to write not a fairy tale, but a story which offers some dark truths about the world. And for that, she is to be commended.