“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
This salutation is from the Hunger Games, the first of three books by Suzanne Collins about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen who lives Panem, an imagined country/world where Northern America used to be.
Katniss and the rest of the children of Panem are forced to be pawns in the Hunger Games, an infamous competition to the death set by the Capitol, Panem’s seat of government. All children aged 12 to 18, risk becoming contestants or Tributes in the Hunger Names — their names are raffled off as soon as they reach the age of 12, and every District has to send two Tributes, one boy, one girl.
The Hunger Games was created almost a century previous to Katniss’ turn to be become a Tribute as a means to control the Districts and prevent the citizens from staging uprisings or even small protests against the cruelty of the Capitol. The lives of their very own children are sacrificed to make up for the rebellion District 13 once staged before it was defeated and obliterated from existence. This is why the contestants to the Games are called “Tributes.”
In the Hunger Games, there can only be one winner. All 23 other Tributes must die so there can only be one Victor: the girl or boy who managed to escape being killed by the others; a boy or a girl who also had to kill to survive. The prize? The Victor lives, and is rewarded food. His or her District also benefits, as the Capitol gives food packages to every family in the District which the Victor represents.
The Hunger Games are also televised, in much the same reality shows are, but none of the brutality is edited out. If anything, the Gamekeepers, the Capitol’s organizers of the Game, manipulate circumstances that ever force them to defend themselves, to kill. The young Tributes to ignore any and all ideas they might have had of justice, of fairness, of their individual, unique humanity is so they can provide the Capitol grisly, bloody entertainment. The people of the Districts are required to watch the Games on pain of being arrested and even killed.
The Reality of Violence
It’s a violent novel, and so are the two novels that follow it, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Collin’s books are supposedly meant for the Young Adult audience, but the message in them, the themes carried are for more “mature” (not necessarily older) individuals.
The books carry the themes of war and survival; brutality and compassion; loyalty and betrayal. They speak about the human condition and the impossibility of happiness under a system of oppression. They describe how power corrupts and easy it is for the powerful to rid themselves of compassion and humanity just so they can remain so.
The necessity of justice is also an important theme that runs through the books. One may be able to get through the harshness of poverty through sheer resourcefulness and determination to keep one’s self and one’s family fed; but there is no way to ignore or be indifferent to the cruelties that come with living in a society where injustice is prevalent.
Through Katniss’ eyes, we see human monsters: government officials who cling to their positions by wielding iron fists that never hesitate to crush even the innocent: in the Hunger Games, even 12-year olds are forced to handle weapons — spears, knives, deeply personal instruments of killing that require determined, directed physical force and proximity between the target and the killer.
Katniss, her mother and sister Prim live in the poorest District, District 12 where coal mining is the main livelihood. After the death of her father in a mining accident and her mother falls into deep depression, a 12-year old Katniss was forced to step up. She hones hunting skills her father taught her and becomes a highly capable hunter, a killing machine with a bow and arrow.
She risks capture and punishment by the Capitol’s Peacekeepers, the policemen of Panem, by hunting in the forests and other areas closed off to the citizenry. Forests, lakes, mountain ranges, the resources of the earth and its waters are owned by the government: what is the government’s can never be enjoyed by the people. The people of Panem — excepting those who live in the Capitol– live on the government’s sufferance.
As she begins her training as a Tribute in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss moves from one discovery to another: all the Districts are forced to produce goods and services for the Capitol while their own people are kept in miserable poverty. Farmers toil in the fields from dawn to after dark; workers run the factories for almost no pay; and miners labor in the deep mine shafts where sometimes explosions or cave-ins occur and lives are easily lost and no bodies are found. Children are not children — that is, they are denied their childhood because the moment they are able to walk and are able to take instruction, they are immediately sent to work. Food is plentiful, but with no money to buy with it, people live half-starved. Diseases are treated with herbs despite the great advances in technology and science in the Capitol.
Katniss begins to questions the inequality, the harshness of the social circumstances the poor people of District 1-12 are forced to confront on a daily basis when she witnesses for herself how those living in the Capitol live in comfort and luxury. Her anger and outrage grows over the indifference of those who have regarding the poverty and suffering of those who have not.; but her fury is reserved for the government led by President Snow and its Hunger Games.
The descriptions of how Katniss survives the Hunger Games are, again, very violent. It’s like watching the reality show “Survivor” except the contest is to the death. What is more violent than the confrontations between the Tributes is the unwritten, the unspoken:children coming to terms with the necessity of killing for no other reason than to save one’s self.
At the same time the Tributes know that outside the Games’ arena, they also exist in a state of war: a war of daily existence where there is no food to be had; where to fall ill is to automatically have one foot in the grave because there is no money for medicine or for consultations with a health professional; where there are often no options for the poor but to either steal or starve or go insane from hunger and desperation. It is because of this that the Tributes, including Katniss, justify wanting to win: it will provide some escape from the war of hunger and want. There is an awareness that grows that it is much easier for one to accept the possibility of one’s own death than to admit the necessity of having to kill others, but kill they must.
With every killing she makes, Katniss loses more and more of what was left of her innocence.
Awareness and responsibility
Coming to terms with The second book, Catching Fire, deals with Katniss coming to terms with what she has experienced in the Hunger Games and its aftermath. She is forced to become a celebrity, but a celebrity that knows the falsehood of her fame and the hypocrisy of those who made her one. She makes a Tour of Victory in the Districts, forced to become an envoy of sorts of the Capitol, but what she sees and hears worsens the nightmares of her recent experience as a Tribute in the Games gradually pushes her to make a decision: will she hide or run from her new awareness of the evil that is the cruel and corrupt government and system, or will she stand and fight it?
As Katniss comes to a decision, readers are also made to think about their own responses to problems and conflict, whether personal or outside their own immediate sphere of existence. The world as we know it is far from being a realm of goodness and peace, and in the last 50 years after World War II, worries of nuclear annihilation has not completely left the public’s consciousness. In the meantime, the international economic crisis caused by capitalism’s unstoppable self-destruction has resulted in chaos: millions of workers globally losing their jobs; once powerful business conglomerates including banks crashing and closing; homelessness and hunger are on the rise especially in the so-called First World countries.
One cannot hide from these realities, and even the once politically indifferent and the socially apathetic have become aware that much is not right in the world. The question is whether one simply resigns oneself to these problems : from the endless traffic jams to the ‘deterioration of social services; to worsened corruption in government and human rights violations of the armed forces against the citizenry; or take action against them.
Katniss takes action against the horrors of her own world.
Rebellion and watchfulness
The third book, Mockingjay, sees the struggle against the Capitol erupt in full force. Her victory in the Hunger Games and how she succeded in defying the Capitol (albeit undeliberately) was witnessed by the whole population of Panem, and the people’s long festering anger can no longer be contained. The death toll rises as the war breaks out, and Katniss accepts her role as the Face of the rebellion.
Those who have accepted that there is a need to speak out and act against injustice will take note of Katniss’ hesitation. Katniss had difficulty trusting leaders who declared themselves to be one with the people and against oppression, but did not participate directly in the fight for freedom. She feared against trusting those who never knew how it was to starve or be victimized, and never shared the pain of those who did. She was warry that those who lead the movement only seek power for themselves in a set-up similar to that established by those they want to bring down.
By the end of the book, her decision and final act of defiance are cause for shock, but it also ellicits understanding and respect for her bravery.
The last pages of Mockingjay reveals a Katniss with no more illusions, and it is primarily the fear that the Hunger Games and the government she helped bring down will return that keeps her awake at night. She has children of her own, and they play in a meadow that was only a decade before a massive graveyard of civilians killed in the war against the Capitol. She lives from day to day, afraid to hope, and but always in her heart prepared to once more fight against anything that threatens to bring back the system that created the Hunger Games.
Katniss learns that injustice and the wars that erupt of because of it destroy more than structures or countries, but the innocence of children and any hope there can be of a future where war is only a memory. And a counter-war, a movement of opposition and liberation that does not keep at its heart the determination to never repeat what the oppressors have done will do nothing to help the cause of humanity for true peace.
There are other characters in the Hunger Games books that influence Katniss and her decisions. For the most part Katniss has no true goals of her own apart from keeping her sister and mother safe and alive; but her friendship with two boys, Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne help her decide the paths she will follow. The relationships she forms with other Tributes, primarily the little girl Rue from District 1, also make their mark on her life and is direction in the context of war.
Peeta is the voice of compassionate reason. In the midst of conflict and even as his life is directly threatened, he firmly clings to keep his humanity. He struggles against any course of action that will compromise what he believes to be humane and just, even if will save his life.
Gale, is also an idealist, but his ideals embrace retribution and revenge. He has Machiavellian instincts; and while he cannot be immediately blamed for it living as he did as an essential slave of the Capitol, the crucial decisions he makes in time of war serve to fuel continuing hatred instead of strengthening resolves to do justice.
The Hunger Games is rife with metaphors for how governments of the powerful nations of the world today send the working people to their death by denying them their economic rights, by violating the rest of their human rights, and by systematically creating a climate of impunity wherein the armed forces maim and kill those who chose to voice their dissent.
And at the end of everything, its always the children, the younger generations who suffer the most, and unless one takes a stand, the suffering never ends and the Hunger Games continue.