A Very Real Dystopia

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Oh, how I love The Hunger Games (whole trilogy, though the first book is easily the best) by Suzanne Collins. I was a relative latecomer to The Hunger Games, only getting involved I think when the film was looming and I decided to read the books to see if it was worth going. I borrowed the books from my little sister, who had read them some time ago and, I’m ashamed to say, endured teasing from us older siblings who decided they looked rubbish. It took less than a week to demolish them. I found them utterly absorbing, perfectly aimed at introducing challenging concepts to teens but with plenty going on for adults. Much like Harry Potter!

I have struggled slightly with deciding how to approach this post. That’s not an excuse for how long it’s taken me to write it (for that I blame several busy weekends on the trot) but there is a lot to potentially cover. I have been pondering this and I have decided, perhaps controversially, that of all the dystopian novels I have read, this is the most plausible. Perhaps not the most classic, but I think the most plausible.

I realise that some people may struggle with the adjective dystopian being applied to The Hunger Games. It is one of those books that is seen as fluffy and badly written because it is aimed at least partly at young adults and it dared to become a massive commercial hit. But it is set in a grim future that I don’t think is particularly unlikely, certainly not when you compare it with such books as Brave New World or We. The basic premise is that North America at some point split into fourteen districts, Districts 1 – 13 and the Capitol that ruled them all. Around 74 years prior to The Hunger Games, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol and were defeated, with District 13 being destroyed. Districts 1 – 12 are now ruled with an iron fist, and every year they must offer up two tributes, one boy and one girl between the ages of 11 and 18 to fight it out to the death in The Hunger Games, which is televised for the nation Big Brother style.

At first glance, this does seem like an unoriginal rehash of Battle Royale, and this was part of the reason why my sister was teased so unmercifully. But it is much better than that. There is a substantial amount of detail that surrounds the Games which makes it much more plausible than Battle Royale. There is a futuristic element in the Capitol, which is like an extension of the celebrity culture we have today, but the Districts are kept in abject poverty. The majority of the Capitol citizens are depicted as pleasant enough people who simply fail to question their supremacy. I don’t think that is that far away from most of us in the Western world. They are in the most part oblivious of the lives of the people that live in the Districts, merely accepting the fruits of their labours without a second thought. Again, how many of us have smartphones, vegetables out of season, affordable clothes without thinking of the exploitation and suffering that went into delivering them to us? And if we do think of them, does it really stop us from taking advantage of their availability? We are the Capitol already. And if our reality shows don’t show people dying, we are perfectly happy to watch misery and mental breakdowns. Indeed, they are often the most entertaining bits.

The media element of the Games is one of the most important aspects of the book. It really makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and brings the whole thing much closer to home. The Reaping, where the tributes are chosen, is all televised and from that moment the tributes are celebrities. Katniss Everdeen, the District 12 female tribute, is our central character, narrator and guide through the Games. She has watched it for years, it is part of her life, and she is well aware of the importance of how she is perceived. It is not enough to be able to survive. You have to engage with the audience. Stylists are ubiquitous and appearance is everything – not necessarily your looks, although that helps, but how you come across. When Peeta Mellark, Katniss’s fellow tribute, reveals his longing for her on their pre-Games interviews, a star-crossed lovers storyline is born and the Gamesmakers in the Capitol take full advantage of this, changing the rules of the Games so that two tributes from the same district are permitted to win. Katniss is forced into an uneasy partnership with them by playing the game, seeking out Peeta like she knows she is supposed to, feigning a romance with him, playing to what the Capitol viewers want. She can imagine them, sitting at home, rooting for them and their romance, revelling in it just like we do when romance blossoms on Big Brother. For the Capitol viewers, they are like characters in a play, not like real people at all.

Katniss is very believable character. She is very much a product of her time and life. She is expert with a bow and able to hunt because she has had to do so to survive. She is wary and distrustful because she cannot afford to owe anyone anything. She is manipulative and self-centred because she is prepared to do anything to survive. This has always been her way, and she is at her most compelling when something happens to challenge this view. The climax of the first novel comes when she and Peeta are the final two left and the rules are promptly changed back to permit victory for only one tribute. Instantly she is pointing her bow and Peeta, but he is not prepared to defend himself. In fact, he encourages her to do it but she can’t, not because she loves him too much, but because she couldn’t go home having done so. Her suggestion of joint suicide is a bluff, one that she is prepared for the Capitol to call, but it is still a bluff. The Capitol have used her and Peeta as their central characters in this year’s drama, and this has consequences for them as well. They are forced to permit Katniss’s act of defiance, and this provides the spark for a revolution that ripples throughout Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the second and third books in the trilogy.

This of course is how revolution happens. It is one person standing up, whether through choice or because they are forced into it, leading others to think that change may be possible. The Arab Spring showed this. It also showed, particularly in Egypt, that the people who end up in charge are not necessarily the people who had in mind. When we meet the leaders of the revolution, in Mockingjay, they are a disappointment. The way they intend to govern, and treat the defeated citizens of the Capitol bears an uncanny resemblance to the way they were treated. Unfortunately people are often reluctant to draw a line under horror and violence, to be the ones that turn the other cheek and say, no more. It is no different in Panem.

The Hunger Games reflects the ways of the world we live in. It teaches about human nature. It has a strong, imperfect heroine who needs people rather than men. It’s an important book for young adults but it’s something we all can benefit from.

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