Drawing inspiration from sources such as 1984 and The Running Man, as well as the gladiatorial games in ancient Rome, Suzanne Collins raises the bar in the dystopia genre with her gripping trilogy about survival and mass media gone too far.
In the not-too distant future, society has collapsed. Risen from its ashes is Panem, a collection of city-states, “districts,” held together under iron-fisted totalitarian rule. Districts close to the capital benefit from that nearness by having a higher quality of living, faster services, and luxuries. But life in the outer, poorer districts is a grim scramble just to meet basic needs, to make it from one week to the next.
The three books – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – tell the story of 16-year-old Katniss. Living in district 12, one of the poorest districts in Panem, she has spent her life since the death of her father doing everything she can to make sure she and her mother and sister don’t starve. She manages it through hunting and gathering outside of the district fence – an offence punishable by death if she’s caught. But she’s the only one in her family with has the skills to do it, so there’s no real choice.
Into her precariously balanced world, the Hunger Games intrude each year. Functioning as both intimidation of the districts and a gruesome form of entertainment, the games are akin to Survivor and reality TV in general taken to horrific extremes. Two young adults, one male and one female, are chosen annually from each district by lottery to compete together in one arena where it’s kill or be killed. Only one will survive.
Each year since she was 11, the age of compulsory entry into the lottery, Katniss has put on her best clothes and waited with the other eligible young adults of her district to see if her name is chosen. Each year she was lucky. This year she’s passed by again.
Her 11 year old sister, Prim, is chosen instead. Katniss is presented with a difficult choice: let her little sister go to certain death or take her place and face nearly certain death herself, leaving her family with no one to feed them. In the end, she makes the only decision she can. At ll, Prim has no chance; even at 16, Katniss knows she doesn’t have much of one either, but it’s more than her sister does.
She and Peeta, the boy chosen from district 12, go to the Games. Katniss intends to win, no matter what, but in doing so, she sets off a chain of events that make it impossible to go back to the life she once had. The effect of her actions ripple outwards until Panem itself is rocked to its foundations with the consequences. Not that Katniss foresaw it, or even wanted it; all she wanted was to survive.
Katniss herself is very different from most characters you’d find in a story like this. She isn’t a genius, she isn’t a great beauty, isn’t blessed with a plethora of incredible talents; she’s us, the average person. She’s normal, and that makes her so much easier to identify and empathize with than if she were exceptional in some way.
The people around her, however, are anything but normal. It’s in them that we find the talents, the beauty, the brains, and the deep self-sacrifice we’d typically expect in the main character. Among these gifted, exceptional people, Katniss stands out by her own normality.
When she becomes a symbol, an inspiration for revolutionaries, it’s entirely despite herself. Katniss didn’t seek this and even sought to prevent it. She has no political aspirations, no drive to change the world. She’s propelled into the spotlight by the needs and ambitions of those around her, made to stand as a rallying point for change, even when it’s obvious that she’s not suited for the role. Which is where the media comes in, again. What Katniss doesn’t possess naturally can be faked, tricked, and manipulated on screen. The revolution is as much a creation of the media as the state itself.
The media machine is very nearly a character itself in The Hunger Games trilogy. It is massive, all-consuming, a juggernaut that rolls over the minds of everyone in its path, telling them what to think, feel, how to live. The revolutionaries hijacking it for their own use doesn’t make it any less of a malevolent force, only the same one redirected to a different path. It’s a cautionary tale about relying too much on the TV to dictate direction in life.
The entire trilogy is rife with such warnings: absolute power begetting absolute corruption, the consequences of removal of basic rights, the subjugation of human beings, and what happens when someone has nothing else to lose. Dystopian society in freefall.
When some pigs are more equal than others, sometimes the smallest act of defiance can be the spark that catches the world afire.
Read the first chapter of The Hunger Games.
Watch the book trailer for Mockingjay.