The dystopia genre has garnered enough movies, shows, and books to fill hours upon hours of our leisure time. Classics such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are taught in schools and lauded as some of the greatest novels of the 20th century. However, we have now entered a bit of a unique situation in our modern culture. Dystopia has unseated the Twilight saga, taking its place as the king of teenage fandoms.
It’s an interesting book, simultaneously portraying a future that is both futuristic, and at the same time primitive. The country of Panem, taking the place of America, is split up into 12 districts, each with a particular trade as its specialty. Most of the districts live in poverty while the Capital thrives in lavishness and dons gaudy makeup. The centerpiece, however, is not found in the living conditions, but in the games. The Hunger Games, to be exact.
This generation of America likes football. In earlier days, we loved baseball. In more refined times, stage drama. The Hunger Games, however, goes even further back to the most animalistic, barbaric, and brutal of all entertainment forms: gladiators; except these gladiators are not grown men, but children.
Children are faced to fight to the death. Two from each district, 24 in all, fight until only one remains. Politically, this is to remind the districts that they ought not rebel, as some did in the times prior to The Hunger Games. Culturally, it is the most celebrated of all events. Indeed, the most disturbing aspect of the games is not the death, nor the fact that they are children; it is the fact that they are celebrated.
Enter Katniss and Peeta, tributes from District 12, the coal mining district. Katniss tells the story through her eyes – how she volunteers in the place of her sister, how their mentor Haymitch is a drunk that barely helps them, and how Peeta proclaims his love for her on national television (although of course there’s heroic Gale at home who she isn’t sure if she loves. This soap opera lasts for all three books, by the way). They are pampered, fed, and treated as majestic kings and queens in the weeks leading up to the games; like pigs fed for the slaughter.
After copious amounts of blood, Katniss and Peeta are the last two standing, and are about to commit suicide to avoid killing each other when the gamemakers relent and crown them both victors of the games, a symbolic event that represents a daring rebellion to the capital such as has seldom been seen before.
So what are to make of this? These are not light things that this generation’s teenagers are reading. They are dark, deep, and full of meaning. There are several things being promoted here, and we’ll take them one by one.
The first and most obvious implication is the violence of the games themselves. The games thrive on the blood bath that the games are, even to the point that all citizens of Panem gather to watch the games in their respective districts. The book (as well as the two subsequent ones) show the bitter attitude of Gale, who is angry about what the games represent. What their children have to do. I have one thing to say in this respect: this is what happens when a culture embraces violence as a means of entertainment. Are we entertained by blood baths? By gratuitous violence? By endless gunfire, stabbings, and beatings? Because this is what that culture leads to.
Even more so, though, there is a culture of rebellion. Rebellion not against parents, as is all too common in teenage literature (as a matter of fact, Katniss speaks very highly of her late father and grows to have more respect for her mother as the series develops), but instead a rebellion against the government. We find in the second book that Katniss did not mean her “rebellion” to be an act against the Capital, but nevertheless that is what it turns into. The government is portrayed as disregarding the good of its citizens.
I don’t have a problem with the government being presented this way; that’s the way many governments are. That’s life. What I do have a problem with is using that to justify rebellion.
As the series progresses, especially in the third book, I believe it is actually saying something a little different, but you have to trek it in order to see that. Essentially, I believe the book is saying that government, both the incumbent establishment, and rebellion establishments, can be harmful. There are several things in the third book that make me say this, but you’ll have to read those books to see that (I don’t want to give spoilers here).
So what’s my verdict? It’s a good wake up call. I have a feeling Suzanne Collins meant it to be more about the political aspect, but I find the violence of the book most disturbing, but in a way that a dystopia novel should disturb. How do we treat violence? Do we cringe and then say that was our favorite part of the season or movie? Or are we disturbed by it, as we well should be.