Monday, July 7, 2014

'Hunger Games' based on the Minotaur legend: A review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is a brilliant fantasy about teenagers forced by the state to kill each other.

The theme is plausibly drawn from the Greek legend of the Minotaur, a mythical beast caged inside a labyrinth. The Minotaur was fed adolescent human beings, seven boys and seven girls, sent from Athens every year as tribute to the King of Crete.

In the Hunger Games twist on this ancient motif, twelve boys and twelve girls are demanded as annual tributes by the Capitol of the land of Panem representing its twelve districts. Those sent are chosen by lottery. They are thrown into an unforgiving outdoor arena from which twenty-three must be removed as corpses and only one may leave alive. While in the arena, they are given meager food rations, inadequate survival gear, and simple weapons to encourage them to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat. The Capitol televises the "games" over a period of several days and requires the districts to treat it as an annual celebration.

The Hunger Games series was published as a trilogy for young adults: The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). The narrator is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen.  She is one of the tributes, and the fact that she is narrating the story — in present tense — strongly hints as to who the winner of the Games might be.

Because this is a classic story line with a diabolical twist, every writer wants a chance to describe the plot, which is undoubtedly part of the reason The Hunger Games received so much media attention when the movie came to theaters in March 2012. In that regard it shares something in common with Life of Pi (2001), an award-winning fantasy novel that reviewers gleefully cheered for being about a sixteen-year-old Indian boy named Pi Patel who was stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger named Richard Parker. Sometimes the very premise of a book is its own endorsement.

The Hunger Games' land of Panem is set in a future era on the North American continent. In some ways it is slightly more technologically advanced than our current society. The inhabitants are able to live-broadcast the Games as a reality television show, aided by tracking devices implanted in the tributes' bodies, and are mysteriously able to capture even quiet conversations in the video. They can nearly instantaneously send gifts to the tributes by remote-controlled parachutes and can quickly remove corpses by hovercraft. They control the outdoor conditions — the terrain and possibly the weather — to a certain extent. They have bioengineered several dangerous, even demonic, new species.

Part of the Hunger Games' literary magic is that these technologies are simply given as facts about the world. There is no attempt, as there would be in "hard science fiction," to explain how any of these technologies work. Perhaps this is omitted because the young narrator would not be expected to find it a matter of concern.

In other ways, however, Panem's culture is primitive. There is not enough food for everyone so many poor people starve to death. Some, like the heroine Katniss, hunt with a bow and arrow if they are lucky enough to have such a tool, or more commonly with knives. There are land mines, but no mention of the existence of guns; most violence is up close and personal. Nor is there any mention of cell phones or personal computers. At school — Katniss's district is located over the land formerly known as Appalachia — they are mostly taught about coal.

The society also seems to be free of religion, at least as Katniss portrays it. Even when facing death, no one ever references a belief in a higher power. The grinding poverty does not seem to generate any kind of communal organization to provide material or inspirational support. The concept of religion seems unknown. The most heavily ritualized aspect of their society is the Hunger Games itself which is run by the state.

This odd premise is reminiscent of the reality show "Survivor," which first aired in the United States in 2000, in which contestants successively vote each other off an island wilderness until only one person remains, a format that naturally inspires them to form alliances early on and later to fend for themselves against their former teammates. As for the fictional land of Panem where the Hunger Games television show proceeds without the full consent of the participants and is a national fixation, it evokes the movie "The Truman Show" (1998). The use of a lottery to mark innocent people for death recalls Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" (1948). The violent society where children are the main agents must inevitably spur references to William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" (1954) and Stephen King's "Children of the Corn" (1977).

The series is enormously popular with teenagers. Their interest in the books disturbs some adults because the subject matter is so violent, but the reasons for the books' appeal are clear.

Anyone reading such a story asks: How would I react in this situation? Katniss has known all her life that being called to serve as a "tribute" is a possibility, even a likelihood for her.  She wastes no time feeling scared, engaging in panicky behavior, composing goodbye messages, or pondering abstract questions. She simply does what has to be done. Her lack of introspection and her inhibited emotional range does come back to bite her later, however, indirectly setting the stage for a sequel.

Insofar as there is an interpersonal core to the story, children are likely roped in because it is so obvious to the reader that the boy who professes love to Katniss is sincere, while Katniss erroneously persists in believing he is faking. The reader feels drawn into the story because they know something the narrator doesn't. Katniss may be near-invincible with a bow and arrow but her self-awareness is flawed.

Although adults may find the drama partially ruined by the author's careful explanations of crucial elements, this is presented on the right level for kids. For example, Katniss, accustomed to killing animals, says of her impending role as a gladiator, "The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all." This line might be gratuitous if the story were written for adults who could be expected to draw the connection between hunting animals and hunting people. For a child, however, this book could be an eye-opening first exposure to the concept that people have to "dehumanize" each other to be capable of systematic violence toward each other. As another example, Katniss sometimes asks herself questions like "Is he saving that information [about my skill with a bow and arrow] because he knows it's all that keeps him alive? Is he still pretending to love me for the audience?  What is going on in his head?" Again, experienced readers should already be attentive to the mysteries of other characters' minds, but newer readers may appreciate that the problems of these mysteries are made so explicit for them.

Finally, Katniss's strength and resilience may be inspiring to people at a vulnerable young age. After all, Rollo May observed in Power and Innocence that "there seems to be inherent in human life an urge to get over innocence. Is this related, in some curious way, to the urge to get beyond the age when we can be so easily sacrificed?"

From a thirty-something childless guy: Cool parents let their kids read this book.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on April 1, 2012.

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