In Suzanne Collins's trilogy, and the recent movie
adaptation of the first book, the Hunger Games are a nationally-televised
spectacle in which 24 randomly chosen teenagers are forced to fight to the
death in a man-made arena. The annual Hunger Games are an instrument of
oppression by the Capitol--the center of totalitarian power that survived a
rebellion--to remind the 12 districts under its power just how powerless they
The citizens of the Capitol love the Hunger Games. To
them it is pure entertainment. To the citizens of the 12 subservient districts,
it is a form of torture. Their children and neighbors become murderers or
victims, and they are forced to watch (literally--viewing is mandatory).
There is a paradox at the heart of The Hunger Games' appeal. The book's message is fundamentally
anti-violence and antiestablishment, but the action of the Games is its main
draw. The first half of the book introduces the Games as the unjust,
inescapable instrument of exploitation they are. But going on to read about the
Games in the second half is just really fun.
Collins treads this contradiction carefully. Her main
tool is Katniss Everdeen, the book's hero and narrator. At every step of the
process--from volunteering for the Games (to take her sister's place) to
training, public appearances, strategy sessions and finally the Games
themselves--we get Katniss's dread and anger at the position she's been forced
into. She watches with horror as the contestants kill each other in cold blood,
And yet, Katniss is also really awesome. She's a skilled
archer, and years of hunting for her supper has made her adept at surviving in
the woods. No matter how horrific the idea of the Games is, part of you shouts,
"Kill them all, Katniss!" as you race through the pages.
Collins, in another very deft sleight of hand, makes this
easy for you to do. Although Katniss does well in the Games, she only actually
kills two other contestants. Both are "careers," kids who have been put through
combat and survival training by the citizens of their district, and they are jerks. They're cocky and they love
killing. Katniss picks each of them off in self-defense after they've already
killed several other kids.
For the most part, Katniss just sits back while the other
kids kill each other. When she does face a kill-or-be-killed situation, of
course, she's got her bow and arrow, surely the most graceful and detached of
all deadly weapons. For a contestant in an underage death match, her innocence
remains fairly untarnished.
When the story is translated from book to screen, the
scale of violence versus contemplation of same tips very heavily toward
violence. On screen you don't get nearly as much of Katniss's tortured inner
monologue, her reluctance to participate or her horrified witness of murder.
What you do get are exciting fights! Laughing blond alpha males getting offed!
Katniss's quick, deadly draw.
A friend of mine said he had to actively resist the
movie's lure while he watched. The filmmakers so obviously wants you to cheer
when any kid besides Katniss gets killed. Another friend said people in the
theater where he saw it actually did
cheer. "I think," he said, "they were missing the point."
They were. The other kids were chosen at random, by their
totalitarian government, just like Katniss. As much as Collins manages to
demonize some of them so you don't mourn when they die, they certainly don't
The citizens of the Capitol--which boasts, say, 99
percent of the nation's wealth--don't have to send contestants to the Games.
They only have to watch, and they think of the contestants as people to root
for or against. Before the Games, the contestants are paraded through the
Capitol, where they are cheered like celebrities rather than children randomly
chosen to murder each other.
Witnessing this reception, Katniss is horrified at how
obliviously the people embrace the Games as great entertainment. Whatever, kill
them all, Katniss!