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.