As The Hunger Games brandishes a bloody sword over its vanquished box-office competitors, much ink has already been spilt on Suzanne Collins’s dystopian fantasy about teens forced into gladiatorial combat by a tyrannical regime. Watched and adjudicated on live television, 24 combatants will enter the arena, with only one meant to leave.
The reasons for the book’s phenomenal popularity are numerous, but key among them is the simple fact that killing is good entertainment. It puts bums in the seats and makes money. We used to flock to watch gladiators, public torture and executions. In more recent times, our appetite for mortal violence has been sublimated in sports, photorealistic video games, film and literature.
Children killing children, however, typically tends to evoke a little more reticence and moral circumspection. It’s somewhat disquieting that the same parents and educators who are horrified by the notion of child soldiers have bestowed upon The Hunger Games a double mantle of critical praise and global bestsellerdom. While paintball guns and first-person shooter games are often the targets of parental distaste and public debate, literacy is considered such an endangered skill in North America that, no matter how violent and sensational, it is seemingly immune from social censure because, hey, “It got my kid to read.”
The Hunger Games has a clever premise, an inventive love triangle and a plot that is undeniably exciting, but when I finished reading it, I felt a little sullied, and saddened by the novelist’s shrewd expectation of an audience so jaded by mass culture and mediated experiences that it could only be titillated by something as appalling as teens killing other teens.
To be sure, the novel allows for more thought-provoking readings: a cunning satire on our bovine fascination with reality TV and our addiction to violence; or perhaps even an allegory of Western culture’s rapacious – even murderous – consumption of human labour and resources for its own advancement and entertainment. These may or may not have been on the writer’s mind. But they do not explain the vast popularity of The Hunger Games. For its intended teen audience (and its massive crossover following), what the story offers is the considerable satisfaction of watching a resourceful heroine prevail, despite scant resources and overwhelming adversity, and also plenty of lurid violence. Some may reasonably argue that the violence is a necessary part of the story and an indictment of violence in our own society. But everyone already knows violence is regrettable, so a banquet of carnage seems less like trenchant social commentary than an appeal to our baser appetites.
Even more interesting and unsettling is the story’s political subtext. Dystopian literature has been enjoying a vogue of late, mirroring our fears of environmental and natural disaster, pandemics, terrorism and even economic annihilation. In its depiction of an America divided into feudal districts and exploited by a tyrannical capital, the novel caters to a deep-seated paranoia (especially prevalent since 9/11) that its audience is under siege, and that freedoms and liberties are at risk of being stripped from us at any moment. Just as George W. Bush kept a nation in a state of unceasing fear with colour-coded alert levels, a storyteller can keep its readers in sweaty thrall with a gripping, high-stakes narrative in which people must be perpetually ready to fight to the death. In such a fictional scenario, murder can be excused as righteous anger or self-defence, and therefore enjoyed by the reader rather than condemned. The world of The Hunger Games is a paranoid survivalist’s dream.
Ironically, no totalitarian coercion is necessary to stage the actual hunger games. If a casting call went out today, there would doubtless be no shortage of people eagerly volunteering for gladiatorial combat – provided that it was covered by a national network and that the winner would come out with the latest iPhone and a lifetime unlimited data plan.
Kenneth Oppel is the author of Airborn, Half Brother and most recently This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein.