Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Hunger Games is almost an anti-violence novel

I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy a year ago — the novels are set in a futuristic America that has been at once neatly simplified and reordered beyond recognition. Collins does this in order to discuss politics without hurting anyone’s feelings. Something on the level of “in this world, there are HUGE disparities between the rich and the poor! this world glorifies violence! what a scary future,” etc.

In the end, it touts itself as a trilogy exploring the horrors of war, the callousness of totalitarian governments, and—yes! COOL BATTLE SCENES! A SLOW ELIMINATION OF OPPONENTS THROUGH KARMIC DEATH AND OCCASIONAL PLOT TWIST! In a nutshell, the energy behind the message of The Hunger Games runs counter to the energy of its plot.

A French director named François Truffaut was famous for saying “There is no such thing as an anti-war film.” Why? Because war always looks exciting on the screen. It’s the same with The Hunger Games: for all this time we hate the Government for setting up the infamous gladiatorial Hunger Games, we also love Katniss for being good at it.

We get the same kind of pleasure out of The Hunger Games as we get out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We love to see people get picked off. We especially love it if we think they deserve it. Elimination gives us a sense of movement, of progression, of karmic retribution—and so the first novel barrels ahead into the fray.

Particularly important is this detail: the main character is not Peeta; it’s Katniss. It’s not the wimp who bakes bread—the kind of person that most of us happen to be—the precise kind of person who doesn’t tend to thrive in a war environment. The main character is Katniss, the resourceful hunter, the cunning gladiator. The Hunger Games is ultimately a fantasy of being stuck in a war game—and winning it. Peeta functions first as love interest, but second as the pacifist element of the novel that is simply not badass enough to take center stage.

The latter two books try to alter this momentum, but it isn’t entirely possible. The contradiction is simply built into the narrative. We all secretly groan and we all secretly shout with glee when the Hunger Games start up again in the second book—including the twist that re-involves Katniss and Peeta. But Collins realizes that she can’t keep playing that game—and so the latter two books have to change direction in a serious way.

For me, that makes the third book Mockingjay a more successful anti-violence book than the first two — although the first book is sadly the most fun to read. But really, what’s at stake is our society’s ambivalent relationship to violence — we know it’s wrong, but god, Katniss is so cool shooting that bow-and-arrow.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the Hunger Games! And I think you're totally right about Mockingjay. It's one of the reasons why I loved it so much, even when so many people HATED the way she concluded it. Great post!