The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Myth mates with reality TV
Friends of Edith Hamilton, prepare the bacchanal. One of the most famous and frightening of the Greek myths lives on—vividly—in our 21st century.
Once upon an Attic time, there lived a king named Minos. Ascending his throne to rule the island of Crete, Minos asked the God of the Sea, Poseidon, to bless his reign. Poseidon sent Minos a marvelous white bull and commanded the king to sacrifice it in the god’s honor to bring happiness and bounty to Minos’ kingdom.
The animal proved so magnificent, however, that the king betrayed Poseidon and kept the beast for his own herd. The angry Poseidon then cast a nasty curse—the god caused Minos’ wife, the queen, to fall hopelessly in love with the great white bull so much in love that she had the royal engineer construct a hollow wooden cow that she hid inside so that the bull would mate with her. The queen got pregnant, of course, and gave birth to a “Minotaur”—a monstrous offspring with the body of a man, the head of a bull and an unholy appetite for human flesh.
King Minos, terrified of his special stepchild, built for the beast a gigantic prison, a maze known as The Labyrinth. Any person (or wooly bully) that entered the labyrinth soon found that the bewildering, completely dark passageways started and turned and stopped abruptly. A visitor grew utterly lost. In the dark of the labyrinth, terrible and hungry, the Minotaur eventually hunted down all who entered and ate them alive.
To feed the Minotaur, King Minos sent a ship with black sails once every nine years to Athens to harvest a crop of seven young men and seven young women. Chosen by lottery, the unfortunate kids went back to Crete and into the labyrinth—Greek cuisine for the Minotaur.
This conceit of young people chosen by lottery to give their lives for the appetites of the powerful serves as the seed of the idea behind Suzanne Collins’ novel, The Hunger Games. After publication in 2008, the book vaulted onto best-seller lists, an instant young-adult classic, one of those works like J.K. Rowling’s that command sales and critical respect at the same time. The Hunger Games has spawned the current blockbuster movie, two best-seller sequels, publication in scores of countries, tens of millions of readers. Archery equipment may be selling fast too—the protagonist of the novel, a young woman named Katniss Everdeen, supports her impoverished family by illegally hunting game with a bow and arrow.
Here’s the plot of The Hunger Games.
North America has changed. At some future time, it’s called Panem, a nation comprising an affluent, all-powerful Capitol and 12 districts, each with some specialty like farming or fishing. The book begins in impoverished District 12, known for coal-mining clearly the part of the U.S. formerly called Appalachia.
The Capitol metes out a cruel punishment to the districts for a failed rebellion in the past: Each year, a lottery selects a girl and a boy in their teens to take part in The Hunger Games, a sort of ultimate reality TV event in which teens must fight to the death in a vast outdoor arena before millions of viewers. These teen “Tributes” do battle using their own unique skills and wiles, and they fight until only one of them is left alive.
Imagine American Idol as blood sport.
Katniss, age 16, volunteers for The Hunger Games to replace her beloved baby sister, Primrose, a 12-year-old unlucky enough to have her name drawn in the lottery. Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker and a childhood acquaintance of Katniss’, has the bad fortune to be chosen as the boy from District 12.
They’re a nice couple of kids, smart and competent. When televised for the first time, Peeta confesses that he’s had a lifelong crush on Katniss. Is his affection real? Or is it a ploy to win sympathy from a TV audience that can sponsor gifts on favorites—gifts such as medicine and weapons and water and food? The love story—the possibility of Cupid’s arrows—does indeed beguile viewers, as does Katniss’ skill with her real bow and arrows. (Also, to complicate the plot and the emotions, Katniss carries a torch another budding love interest, a beau with a bow, a hunting companion left in the woods back home.)
The Hunger Games prove a bloody business. Day one, 11 of the 24 young people die at the hands of their peers, though Katniss and Peeta survive. Separately, they set up survival operations in their own hidden sections of an immense woodland chosen as this season’s arena. And so the plot unfolds, The Most Dangerous Game in prime time.
There’s a prime time in the book business too.
Why is any book a best-seller? What combination of elements and good timing converges to create a page-turning phenomenon irresistible to readers of different ages and even different nations?
The arrow of genius Suzanne Collins shoots into our social psyche has, I believe, much to do with her vision of a reality TV broadcast pitting live humans—children, no less—in mortal combat. Is it really such a stretch to imagine that someday, somewhere, we might see human beings hunt one another for our entertainment? How hard would it be for remote viewers left insensitive to violence by artificial carnage on TV and computer screens to simply think of such a thing as a new kind of diversion, a new sort of video game say, or mixed martial arts carried to the next level?
Clearly, the idea proved not much of a leap for Collins, who incidentally has a long history as a writer for children’s TV, with work at Nickelodeon and on award-winning holiday specials. She also boasts a previous NYT best-selling young-adult book series, The Overland Chronicles, about a kid who falls down a manhole into another world, as Alice once fell down a rabbit hole.
Collins grew up a military brat, went to high school in Birmingham, Ala., at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she surely lived the teen memes of which she writes. She later took an MFA from NYU in Dramatic Writing.
Much has been made of the violence in The Hunger Games, and it surely is a violent, bloodthirsty place Collins dreams up, this Panem. But what’s new? Is the carnage of this story so different from that of the 3,000-year-old Greek myth of the blood-drunk Minotaur roaring through the dark to devour helpless children? Or from the bloody fairy tale gore collected in Europe for us by those utterly grim Grimm brothers?
Not really. In fact, the suspense engendered by violence and the blood-and-guts counts for the book’s success, for the same reason that so many millions buy violent games like Call of Duty and see movies starring Freddy Krueger. Adolescents itch for the macabre, the scare. Twilight, anyone? The Blair Witch Project? In my own teen years, I subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, glued together Aurora monster models, and read every ghost story I could lay hands on. Why? I felt monstrous myself. Most days, I knew with certainty that the baffling changes my teen body went through made me an outlaw from the human race.
Still, reading a book is not watching a screen. The page admits reflection and consideration that a TV or movie fights hard to inhibit. That’s actually one of the sweet ironies in this book. We’re reading about viewing. The kids in combat in The Hunger Games force us to examine where the heck we really might be headed with entertainment that seems to require more and more shock and sensationalism to raise ratings and to influence us into buying products of its sponsors.
The Hunger Games reads arrow-fast. The female protagonist will long serve as a role model for young women determined to be empowered and resourceful, not a bad thing at an age when broad-shouldered, blustering males tend to run them off the road. It’s a faintly cynical book, but not nearly so fatalistic and terrifying as its close cousin in literature, Lord of the Flies.
The Hunger Games left me gravely unsettled, as if I’d wandered all alone into a pitch-black maze where I could hear, now and again, a distant, blood-curdling roar, something coming in the dark.
Charles McNair is author of the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen, and is Books Editor at Paste Magazine.