Welcome to the Jungle: The Hunger Games
With the unemployment rate still high, a giant ash-cloud enveloping Europe, and a deadly oil spill, these days it feels like the apocalypse might be right around the corner. Luckily for most of us, we experience dystopia as entertainment, in books or on television. The post-apocalyptic world of 28 Days Later or The Road is too much for most adults to stomach. So it’s surprising that these dark tales of science fiction dominate so much of young adult literature.
The Hunger Games, the 2008 novel by Suzanne Collins, imagines a world divided into twelve Districts. Some are wealthier than others, but District 12, the home of heroine Katniss Evergreen, is by far the poorest. Every day Katniss ventures into the woods with her friend Gale to hunt for squirrels or other small game. Her mother and younger sister Prim are completely dependent on her, as Katniss’s father died several years ago in a coal-mining explosion. In homage to Battle Royale, the state exercises control over its citizens by forcing its children to compete in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four tributes are drawn from each district (one boy and one girl) and sent to the Capitol to compete against each other in a battle to the death. There can only be one winner.
When helpless Prim is chosen in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is sent to the Capitol along with Peeta, the baker’s son, who once threw her some bread when she was starving. Feeling indebted to Peeta makes Katniss uncomfortable, as she knows she’ll have to kill him if it comes down to it. At the Capitol, the tributes are paraded around like national heroes, dressed up and stuffed with food. It’s difficult for Katniss to disguise her contempt, but she knows she must act engaged if she is to survive -- the games are televised and each tribute can gain a sponsor who can send supplies, so it’s important that Katniss seem likeable. The book is compelling as hell, a real page-turner, and (you guessed it) the first in a series of three books. Like Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Golden Compass before it, The Hunger Games is a book that teens and adults alike will enjoy.
Are we surprised that this dark adventure is a book for teens? No, not anymore. Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman series, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book puts it best: "I think horror has always been integral to children's fiction. Look at Hansel and Gretel. Fiction teaches kids how to survive in the world." Katniss is a great role model. She is fairly unemotional as far as heroines go, and unlike Bella Swan, she couldn’t care less about boys. She’s taken over as provider for her family. She’s smart, she’s strong and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive. She doesn’t fall into despair over her father’s death but does blame her mother for falling apart at the seams. This is unfortunately the experience of many young women who watch their parents’ marriage fall apart (or one parent perish) and feel responsible both for their mother and younger siblings. Yet, for a novel with a female protagonist, The Hunger Games is one of the least sentimental books I have ever read. While Bella might flail around and pout over Edward, Katniss sacrifices herself for her family, and never looks back. Her only moments of weakness come when she is reminded of her helpless little sister. One wonders if Bella’s decision would have been more difficult if she had a younger sibling to worry about.
Like many tales of horror (particularly in fairy tales), The Hunger Games begins with the death of a parent, and the games themselves are a literal way of Collins placing Katniss in a situation where she must fight to survive. This tradition continues in science fiction young adult novels, particularly targeting young (and older) women to approach life confidence and take control of the situation. Katniss may not be the strongest or even the smartest tribute, but she’s certainly the most resourceful. In terms of allegory, there are several ways one can make sense of the popularity of the genre: it emphasizes the difficulty of the transition between childhood and adult life, the importance of the individual and providing for oneself, the ability to trust others and choose the right people as partners and friends, most likely a combination of all these things. While these books are compulsively consumable, writers like Collins and J.K. Rowling have realized that this genre can be more than great entertainment -- it’s an opportunity for them to teach children and adults alike about hope and integrity.