I did the review as an assignment for my Human Rights paper. SPOILERS GALORE!!
Literally the first few sentences will spoil the ending of the book for you, so you should stop reading now if you don’t want to risk killing the surprise. When I say Spoilers Galore, I mean it. This piece was written for people who have not read nor plan to read, or who have already finished reading, all of the three Hunger Games books.
When Katniss Everdeen decides that the best way to “show” the Gamemakers that she was not just a piece in their games, was to suggest that Peeta and she poison themselves at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, she has no idea that her actions would spark a rebellion across the districts of Panem. All she wanted to do was to get out of the Arena alive. She had no intentions of challenging the Capitol. Still, she managed to become the face of a rebellion against the Capitol’s injustices, the hardships it inflicted on the people of the districts. Isaiah Berlin, in On Liberty, suggests that in order that some people get to maximize their experience of freedom, others will have to suffer the constraints of its lack. The people of the Capitol do not suffer the lack of anything. They have the best, the most magical, that technology can offer. They have the best of food and clothing and lodging. They even have the best of entertainment. In the post-apocalyptic dystopian world of Panem, reality TV takes the ugliest twist: a gladiatoresque fight to the death.
Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favour!”
The Hunger Games is primarily a story about the face-off between the Capitol and Katniss Everdeen, who becomes the unwitting and unwilling face of a rebellion against the oppressive power of the Capitol in this post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. The Hunger Games trilogy is narrated from the protagonist’s point of view as a fantastic adventure where she, Katniss, becomes a participant of the seventy-fourth “Hunger Games”, an Athenian gladiator-like event(1), and the things that eventually follow. Suzanne Collins’ gripping trilogy takes us through three years in the life of Katniss, who is, remarkably, a female protagonist whose sole role is not to be all-consumingly besotted with a male character. This fact in itself makes the book, targeted at young adult audiences, different from others of its ilk. Collins’ Katniss is quite a believable young girl of 16, with excitable, but thankfully not raging, hormones that usually dominate popular fiction for this demographic. Collins gives a rich background to her protagonist, without much to-do about her non-gender-normative role as the game hunter and primary bread winner of the family, consisting of Katniss, her 12 year old sister Prim and their mother. Her father who died in an explosion in the mines where he worked(2) has been dead for 4 years at the start of the story, but whose memories haunt the pages of Katniss’ mind. It was he who had taught her to hunt, and it is his absence Katniss fills in the family. There is, thus, a distinct division of labour, at least, along the lines of gender within the districts.
The Hunger Games is a special book because, like Harry Potter, it is a book that provides young adults across the globe a common vocabulary to understand and discuss the existing world’s set of unsolved problems. In my reading of it, it is primarily a book about empathy, and the first person narrative really helps bring that out, as you are able to hear Katniss’ struggle to reconcile her immediate reactions against injustice with her larger understanding of institutionalized systemic injustice, and to see her evolve as she overcomes the feelings of animosity that the Capitol has so methodically planted between the Districts to prevent common causes from developing.
Katniss’ story is situated in Panem, “the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America”, constituting of a “shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts”, bringing “peace and prosperity”. The “Dark Days” of the revolt of the districts against the Capitol resulted in the [obliteration] of the thirteenth district and the enforcement of the Treaty of Treason, with “new laws to guarantee peace”. As a part of this, the Hunger Games were instituted, for which each of the twelve districts must provide one boy and one girl “tribute” between the ages of 12 and 18, picked on the basis of a random selection, who then participate in a fight to the death, in an artificial “Arena” conceptualized, rigged and wholly controlled by the Capitol. Additionally, one observes the dynamics of power in the relationships between the Capitol and the different districts, based on their utility and threat to the Capitol. Districts One, Two, and Three, which, respectively, produce luxury items, the people who man the Capitol’s military force (the Peacekeepers), and electronic gadgets, are the favourites with the people of the Capitol(3). These Districts have the Careers, the candidates from these districts live in relative comfort and providence, and spend most of their lives training for the Hunger Games in the eventuality that the “honour” of participation befalls them. The Capitol itself is a place of magnificence with “glistening buildings” and “shiny cars”, and “oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal.”
The story’s beginning in the largely neglected Seam of District twelve brings to sharp relief the poignancy of poverty, without romanticising it. For instance, Katniss describes the concept of “tesserae”(4) which enables a potential tribute to resubmit his or her name multiple times each year, which increases their probability of being randomly picked, and in return claim “a meagre year’s supply of grain and oil” for each additional family member. The tesserae are usually used by teenagers belonging to poor and starving families, for whom the immediate benefits outweigh the potential risks. This is a working illustration of how systems of welfare distribution are skewed against those who have less and least. Katniss herself has twenty-seven, and her best friend, Gale, has his name submitted forty-two times. Here you see Katniss deal with the complexity of emotion that makes the poor from the Seam resent the ones who are better off, and don’t have to sign up for tesserae, despite knowing that the rules were drawn up by the Capitol, not those who live in the better parts of District 12, and were a means to create disunity between the starving workers and the merchant classes. This theme recurs in the third book, when Katniss has to be reminded that the real enemy in the arena is the Capitol, not the opponent tributes from the better-off districts.
The Hunger Games provides the readers with several excellent illustrations of how rationality enables us to conceptualize the Other, and thereby distances us from feeling a sense of responsibility towards the lives of those who we so classify as being different from Us and Ours. Katniss is described using her immense capacity to feel empathy and overcome these chasms, such as the distaste with which Katniss views killing her opponents in the Arena, as well as the brief but touching bond she develops with the tribute from District Eleven, a tiny wisp of a girl called Rue; something which is next to impossible in the bloodthirsty and competitive ecosystem of the Arena.
A fascinating aspect of the books is Collins’ description of the relationship of the people of the Capitol with the tributes. The general populace is nothing less than excited about the prospect of picking their favourite tributes, often betting on them and speeding them on in their bloody quests. Their sense of detachment from the very real and horrific fates of these Others is remarkable, and not uncommon. When she emerges from the Arena, Katniss’ stylists/ prep team is very happy to see her again but Katniss remarks on their self-involvement. She notes how their discussions of all important events in the Games she had just emerged as a Victor of, were all about where they were and what they were doing at the time, and not the deaths themselves. Then again, there is Cinna, her head stylist, who had very keenly perceived the disgust in Katniss’s eyes when she looked upon food in the Capitol appearing at the press of a button. “What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol,” she wondered, “besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?” In another scene in Catching Fire, at an opulent party in the Capitol, Katniss is speechless when she finds out that the people willingly drink a fluid which will make them vomit for the pleasure of eating more. “It’s what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun.” And all Katniss can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on her kitchen table at home, as her mother prescribes what the parents can’t give: more food.
Later on in the series, after she spends more time with the people of the Capitol, Katniss finds out that this lack of a conscience that she has always criticised is in fact the inability to empathize. When the tributes to the seventy-fifth Hunger Games are people who they have known and expected to continue to know for the rest of their lives, it is difficult for those in the Capitol to forget that these tributes are human beings.
The Capitol’s manipulation of even the people of the Capitol is only revealed in the later books, when we read about Avox, persons who have been tortured to speechlessness and then forced into a life of bonded servitude in the Capitol as punishment for a crime. There is a reference to Panem et Circenses which is Latin for Bread and Circuses, harking back to the rulers of Ancient Rome who would dole out plentiful food and provide the people with “the ultimate entertainment”, in exchange for which the people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.
At the same time, the Hunger Games provides an opportunity of reflecting on the role of media in our era of over-intrusive journalism, where the line between public and private has become quite sketchy, and where for television, written and new media forms, saleability of a sort, is more important than any version of ethics, any code of conduct.
In a heartrending scene after the rebellion is in full force, Peeta begs both sides of the war to lay down arms. Later, Katniss echoes his feelings when she concludes that there is something significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. In the concluding chapters is a dialogue which convinces me that this trilogy is a must read for all generations to come. Katniss asks Plutarch, the new Secretary of Communications after the Capitol is overthrown, whether he was preparing for another war. “Oh, not now,” he responds, “Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”
(1) The Hunger Games is replete with references to Ancient Rome. A super-plot is possibly inspired from the overthrow of Julius Ceasar by Cassius, Brutus, et al. The conspirators trust Mark Antony, only to find that Mark Antony aspired to replace Ceasar, not his rule.
(2) District Twelve’s primary role is the mining of coal.
(3) This is important, since survival in the Arena is largely linked to the having of Sponsors: people with the purchasing capacity to buy the tribute what he/she needs most to survive in the Arena at the time. Popularity, therefore, helps. The “best-looking tributes always seem to pull more sponsors”, which is a condition also related to being better-fed.
(4) Tessera means tile or cube, some of which are ceramic. Possibly Collins was inspired by the ballot system used in Ancient Greece which involved citizens using pieces of broken pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate in the procedures of Ostracism.