Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Literary Analysis: The Hunger Games

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*Warning: Spoiler Alert! If you have not read all three books of The Hunger Games Trilogy, you might want to wait to read this review*

In the not-so-far-away future, what once was North America is now Panem- a country of 12 districts, ruled by a single city, the Capitol. Seventy-four years ago the districts rebelled against the Capitol and were defeated. As punishment and an ever present reminder of the Capitol's total domination, each year one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is randomly selected from each district, and sent to compete in the Hunger Games. The Game is a fight to the death, televised in a giant Romanesque arena.

The Trilogy, covering the experience of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, explores a plethora of issues. Poverty, hunger, oppression and violence- and the effects they wreck on youth. What is unsettling to the reader is the eery familiarity of it all; Suzanne Collins writes of a time not far from ours, in a voice that sounds like ours, of the place that we call home.

Interspersed with the modern America feel are throwbacks to the ancient Roman empire. Prominent characters from the Capitol are named Caesar, Flavius, Octavia and Portia. Much like their Roman counterparts; Capitol citizens worship their bellies as god, idolize fashion, and pursue pleasure as the highest good, even and especially at the expense of others.The Hunger Games themselves are a horrifying combination of reality television and the Roman Colosseum.

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 Why such a bizarre combination? Further thought leads one to the realization; Rome allowed gluttony and idle pleasure to sway it from political and moral responsibility, leading to the collapse of its rule. The Capitol heads down the same road and is also sacked. Suzanne Collins fuses the decadent and self-absorbed cultures of ancient Rome and modern day America as a warning for society today; any nation that neglects its civil and moral responsibilities in reckless pursuit of pleasure is doomed for destruction.


The Capitol's tight-fisted rule has created a stark contrast between its own citizens and the people of the districts. While the Capitol feasts extravagantly, the Districts are starving. The Districts work back breaking jobs for long hours to support the Capitol's unceasing recreation. The Capitol delights in the Hunger Games, the Districts dread them. Capitol citizens undergo drastic alterations to become more "beautiful," much like the American obsession with appearance and plastic surgery, but their unnatural finery is strange and alienating to the plain, ordinary district folk.

Katniss observes the idleness and frivolity in her days of preparation for the Games: "What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?...The whole rotten lot of them is despicable." Again the reader is reminded of Rome and its affluent citizens, with full bellies and extravagant wardrobes, finding entertainment in the arena deaths of gladiators, slaves, and prisoners.

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While Americans may not enjoy actual murder as entertainment; one must think of the violence in television, video games, and movies. We may not kill 23 children annually for a thrilling show, but we've murdered millions through abortion (the American holocaust of the unborn has far outnumbered Hitler's death count). Consider our obsession with fashion and frivolous amusement, and our lack of concern for weightier matters. In the words of Neil Postman, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death.

This obsession with self and personal pleasure leads to a total disregard for others. As Katniss notes of her stylists after she escapes the arena, "It's funny, because even though they're rattling on about the Games, it's all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred... Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena." As the tale unfolds, it is the careless trampling of the District people that leads to another rebellion, this time ultimately collapsing the Capitol.

If there are any doubts to Suzanne Collins deeper meaning, they will be silenced in the third book of the trilogy, Mockingjay. Plutarch, a Capitol figure heavily involved in the District's revolution, explains the Capitol's predicament to Katniss: "in the Capitol, all they've known is Panem et Circenses...It's a saying from thousands of years ago, written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome...Panem et Circenses translates into 'Bread and Circuses.' The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power."

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Ms. Collins has drawn a definite connection between Panem, the country ruled by the Capitol, and Rome. The Capitol's defeat becomes identical to Rome's defeat. What does this have to do with us? If you cannot see the remarkable similarities between the Capitol and America today in regards to a careless disregard for life, an all consuming passion for pleasure, an obsession with physical appearance, and a lack of fiscal, political, or moral responsibility, allow Katniss' more direct indictment to convince you.

"Frankly, our ancestors don't seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn't care about what would happen to the people who came after them." Who are these ancestors? Remember, Panem is North America in the near future. We are the ancestors. 

Will we hear Katniss' indictment? Is America too far gone in its quest of amusing itself to death? We would do well to heed The Hunger Games' warning: if we neglect our moral and political obligations in our passion for diversions, we are headed for the same fate as Rome and the Capitol. A sobering thought.

The only thing about The Hunger Games trilogy that disappointed me was the Twilight-esque love triangle. However, unlike the Twilight series, The Hunger Games is rich with meaning and purpose, as this post has hopefully convinced you. I'll have to go along with Stephen King on this one, for unfortunately, "the love triangle is standard for the genre (of adolescent lit.)."

Have you read The Hunger Games yet? What were your thought? Do you think my assessment is accurate?

*Thank you Mary Beth for loaning me the Kindle version of the trilogy! I appreciate it! Hopefully you find time to enjoy them soon :)*

8 comments:

  1. "Suzanne Collins fuses the decadent and self-absorbed cultures of ancient Rome and modern day America as a warning for society today; any nation that neglects its civil and moral responsibilities in reckless pursuit of pleasure is doomed for destruction." Reminds me of the book "Dawn to Decadence," and also John Mark Reynold's assessment of a culture on the verge of destruction... I definitely will have to put these books on my reading list!

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    1. Oh Abi, be warned, once you pick them up you won't be able to put them down! I scarfed them in like three days.

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  2. Wow Rachel! THANK YOU for this thorough review. I literally just accepted a loan for the first book from a friend TODAY and I really had no idea what I was about to read -- several people suggested I read it, so I am.
    Now I have a little background. Thank you so much!

    And thank you for your comment on the Allume blog post for small(er) bloggers. There will be some technical aspects included. :)

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    1. You're welcome Christin :), glad if it was helpful! I really enjoyed them. Beware their addictiveness :).

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  3. Love this--I've only read the first book, so I didn't allow myself to read the end of your review! :) Also, I wanted to let you know I read your whole preemie story--what a testimony to God's grace and goodness. My daughter was born on July 11 as well, in 2008 though. Blessings! From "The Purposeful Mom" :)

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    1. Thanks for your encouragement Jenn :). So nice to "meet" you.

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  4. I read and teach the book to middle schoolers in a character education class, because of the many life lessons and historical references it allows me to embrace!

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    1. It definitely has a lot to say, I'm afraid I've only covered one of the many elements. You could almost write a book on all the different social, political, and cultural messages tucked into this trilogy!

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