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Satisfying Hunger Games

John Bell

April 25, 2012

Reading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, it struck me how respectful it was to its audience, “young adult” fiction with the emphasis on the “adult”. The books are gritty and violent, the characters are damaged and often unlikable, and the romance is equivocal to say the least.

By making the Hunger Games books the first real post-Potter phenomenon this audience proves it knows substance when it reads it.

The themes, plotting and characters are superior to the Potter books. They are inspired in part by a Japanese novel and later a film called Battle Royale, which told the story of school children forced into a deadly gladiatorial competition designed to terrorize the population into submission before a totalitarian regime. These, especially the hyper-violent film version, are certainly not suitable for young people.

Collins also acknowledges that part of her inspiration came from the media manipulation in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

So we are introduced to Panem, a post-apocalyptic US society where a tiny, alienated elite inhabiting the “capital” rule a nation of 12 strictly isolated districts, each organized around an economic specialization. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen is from District 12, where coal mining is the only sanctioned employment and where poverty and hunger are only alleviated by her ability to sneak out of the compound to hunt game with a bow and arrow.

Each year two teen-aged “tributes” are drawn by lot from each district, transported to a technologically manipulated arena, and forced to fight to the death. The victor is promised a life of celebrity and ease. The spectacle is broadcast live: effete inhabitants of the capital embrace it as the pinnacle of “reality TV” entertainment; inhabitants of the districts are forced to watch in punishment for a past, failed revolution, as a form of social control.

It is impossible not to see the connection to the Occupy movement, and to identify with the District workers as the 99%. Opposition to Panem (pan-empire); sophisticated critique of mass media; and themes of solidarity and revolt: no wonder young people made these books such a phenomenon.

So much did I enjoy the books, that I was somewhat reluctant to se the film version of the first volume. I’m happy to report that the movie retains most of the novel’s power. The decision to tone down the graphic violence is commendable. The performers–lead Jennifer Lawrence and Stanley Tucci–clearly convey what is at stake.

It is hard not be happy to see such subversive themes reach a huge, appreciative audience. Here’s hoping subsequent films build on this good start.

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