Dystopias — dark, funhouse mirrors of our fears — will always be with us. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the product of a time when Big Brother Stalin was on the march, and the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine reflected H. G. Wells’s anxiety about where the onrush of 19th-century capitalism could lead. So what to make of the success of a “young adult” trilogy set in a North America that has — here a shout-out to a fashionably green vision of global catastrophe — emerged after “the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much,” including, it appears, all of the spirit of 1776? This land is now Panem, run by a despotism that proclaims and reinforces its control with the Hunger Games, a brilliantly, sadistically choreographed contest that is broadcast across the nation. This annual ritual turns slaughter into both spectacle and terrifying statement of who is in charge.
The Hunger Games, the first of the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller list after its release in 2008. By May 2012, Scholastic reported that some 36 million copies of the three books were in print in the U.S. The movie version (not bad, incidentally) has been a smash, grossing over $150 million in its opening weekend alone.
Earlier this year Collins became the best-selling author in Kindle’s history. That’s quite something for a writer of works aimed at (to repeat that cloying phrase) young adults, even in the age of Harry Potter and Twilight. What she has produced is no great work of art (the trilogy’s numerous grown-up devotees need to move on to more challenging fare), but Collins fully deserves her legions of teenaged fans. Her characters can find themselves burdened with names that hint at vintage sci-fi or sepia bucolic idyll (Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, Cartwright), but the writing is taut and spare. Chapters frequently finish with cliffhangers that beg for a turned page.
Collins’s heroine, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is tough and ornery, an accomplished huntress and, when she has to be, a deft killer. If less glamorously so, she is a model of adolescent female empowerment in the venerable Buffy tradition, with her harsher traits both diluted and emphasized by nods to girliness that won’t have hurt Collins’s sales in Sweet Valley High: Despite the dangers that lie in the Hunger Games ahead, and despite herself, Katniss exults in the outfit created for her presentation to the crowds in Panem’s capital. Nor is this the trilogy’s only fashionista interlude: Throughout the books there are detailed descriptions of what is being worn by whom, and a “stylist” is one of the heroes.
There is also a love triangle that could have matched that between Twilight’s Edward, Bella, and Jacob in its angst, but, revealingly, does not. Perhaps Collins felt that male readers could take only so much. They, and other savages, are thrown plenty of bones, limbs, mutilations, sinister mutant creatures, and well-told grotesque, disgusting deaths.
The brutality is inclusive. Sympathetic characters don’t escape Collins’s chopping block. Then again, dystopias are not meant to be happy places. And Panem is not. It exists purely to serve the needs of a predatory capital — the Capitol — that feeds off twelve ruthlessly exploited districts. Its coal is mined in Katniss’s Appalachian home, the desperately hardscrabble District 12; its fish comes from District 4; and so on. The Capitol regime is a caricature of vicious imperial misrule, and the Hunger Games are the acme of a cruelty as depraved as it is carefully targeted, a reminder of the consequences of a failed revolt by the districts three-quarters of a century before. Each district has to furnish two “tributes,” a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and 18, for a gladiatorial competition in which they and the other 22 will be consigned to an arena from which only one is allowed to emerge alive.
#page#Unkind critics have commented on similarities between the Hunger Games and Battle Royale, a Japanese saga of high schoolers forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian state, a connection that Collins denies. She cites instead, as an influence, the legend of the, uh, young adults handed over to the Minotaur. Spartacus, she says, is another: “Katniss follows the same arc from slave to gladiator to rebel to face of a war.” Lest the classical analogies pass anyone by, there are other clues, from the occasional Latinate coinage (a slave with his or her tongue cut out is an Avox) to the fact that many of the Capitol’s inhabitants, not to speak of the city itself, are named with a distinctly Roman flourish: Coriolanus Snow, Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman — you get the point. Then there is this from a member of the Capitol’s elite who switches sides: “In the Capitol, all they’ve known is Panem et Circenses. . . . [It] translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The [Roman] writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”
Katniss connects the remaining dots. The districts are compelled to provide the Capitol’s frivolous and decadent citizenry with abundance and, through the tributes, the “ultimate” distraction of the Hunger Games. Duly sated, the frivolous and decadent citizenry then leaves the business of power to those who wield it. By now even the slowest of Collins’s readers may suspect whose reflection they have been glimpsing in this particular funhouse mirror.
That seems to have been her intent. She has said that the idea for The Hunger Games first struck her while channel-surfing between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq War, something that troubled her NPRish fastidiousness more than it should: It’s a long way from Survivor to Katniss. There are certainly viewers who have been desensitized by the tube’s manufactured conflicts, but only psychopaths or the extremely stupid could have confused the images from Iraq with entertainment, make-believe, or both.
Collins’s explanation that war is hell (a theme of her Underland Chronicles too) is unoriginal, but commendable enough, at least until the moment — sometime in the course of Mockingjay — when sermon overwhelms story. The tale of the Capitol’s fall offered an ideal opportunity for a deeper exploration of the principle of morally legitimate violence that, from Katniss’s arrival in the arena, forms one of a number of this trilogy’s more interesting subtexts. That opportunity is at first grasped but then thrown away in favor of a dull plague-on-both-your-houses world-weariness that is more evasion or tantrum than an attempt at an answer.
There are always true believers of one sort or another who see a popular phenomenon and claim it for their own. Some Christians have detected a Christian message in these books. Meanwhile, writing in The Atlantic, Nicole Allan saw Katniss as “the populist hero the Occupy movement wasn’t able to deliver.” To be fair, that’s a proposition more credible than the notion of one of Katniss’s two suitors (an admirable lad, but still) as a Christ figure. At a time when the left side of the elite is using inequality to bludgeon the right, it’s easy to see how this trilogy could be cast as a manifesto for the 99 percent. Maybe that has been some of its appeal. Perfectly, The Hunger Games came out as Lehman went down.
#page#And there are historical resonances far closer to home than ancient Rome is. Collins has given Zola’s Germinal, no mash note to the 1 percent, as a reason for picking coal-mining as District 12’s industry, but that district’s pinched iconography also has more than a trace (underlined in the movie) of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange about it. District 11 suggests the Jim Crow South. There are class and, possibly, ethnic tensions within the districts — the closest that District 12 comes to a bourgeoisie is WASPy, light-haired, and blue-eyed; the miners are olive-skinned, black-haired, and gray-eyed — and also between them. Pampered District 2, the source of Panem’s thuggish Peacekeepers, is filled with Capitol loyalists, but its stoutly proletarian stonecutters swiftly rally to the revolution.
But before draping Collins in a flag of the deepest red, look more carefully. The revolution’s base — the never-vanquished District 13 — is a repressive, sternly egalitarian place somewhere between Sparta and Mao, and it’s not sympathetically portrayed. Libertarians may appreciate the Sic semper tyrannis twist towards the trilogy’s end, and tea-party types will note that the Capitol is overthrown by a union of 13 districts.
Rebels of both Left and Right will identify with the contrast between the homespun virtues that can be found in the “real” Panem and the excess, affectations, and vice of its capital. And so they should: This is a time-honored narrative, sometimes accurate, sometimes not, but, in its combination of resentment and self-congratulation, one of eternal appeal to those on the outside. You would have heard it in Imperial Russia, you would have heard it in Imperial Rome, and, if there’s any truth to an old, old story, you would have heard it in Sherwood Forest too. Katniss, of course, is deadly with a bow.
– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.