Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Beauty of a Well Written Character Amidst the Brutality of the "Deadly Game"

Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games (book one in the Hunger Games Trilogy)

Read the first chapter or purchase the book for $8.99 at Amazon.

In Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins revives a science fiction staple: the "deadly game." Collins sets her story in Panem, a country that arose from the ruin of the United States. The story stars Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who is doing all she can to feed her family and hold them together despite the tragedy of losing her father. But further tragedy awaits the Everdeen family when Katniss's younger sister is chosen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, an arena battle to the death starring the children of Panem. Katniss volunteers to replace her sister and the balance of the novel tells of her experience preparing for and participating in the Hunger Games.

The “deadly game” is a well-used trope in the science fiction genre. Often the setting is a prison where convicts get the opportunity to compete against other inmates in a battle to the death with the winner securing a pardon, for instance in the movies Running Man (1987), Death Race (2008), and Gamer (2009). Children battling to the death for sport has also been done before, for instance in Battle Royale by Koushun Takami and the movie of the same name (2000).

Collins' innovation on the popular theme is the motivation behind her deadly game. Often the spectacle is offered for the brutal entertainment of the public. Sometimes it is just to fulfill the sick fantasies of the warden. In Battle Royale, the Japanese children are set against each other as a warning to a generation of young people to behave or else. Collins proposes a more overtly political motivation.

In the world of Hunger Games, Panem is ruled from an ostentatiously wealthy and style-obsessed capital in what used to be the Rocky Mountains. The capital is surrounded by 13 districts. Each district contributes some good or resource to the wealth and well-being of the capital. The near districts provide luxury goods and are depicted as reasonably wealthy. The further out districts, like Katniss's home, contribute natural resources or food and are depicted as essentially impoverished prison camps. At some point in the past the districts fought the capital for power and a terrible weapon was used to destroy an entire district.

The capital stages the Hunger Games as a brutal reminder to the districts of its dominance. Each year, each district must choose by lottery one of its boys and one of its girls to participate in the Games. In this way, the Games remind the districts that they are so subservient to the capital that they willingly give up their children to slaughter for the entertainment of the capital's citizens. As a plot vehicle, it serves to establish a clear moral hierarchy between the districts and the capital. All readers can safely judge that Panem is an oppressive tyranny. While Hunger Games does not focus on the struggle between the districts and the capital, it is my sense that the other two books in Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy may take the story in that direction.

This lack of subtlety in the novel’s political background makes the character of Katniss even more impressive. Collins has constructed a uniquely multifaceted heroine. Katniss really does not fit into any of the usual character molds and especially not those usually sized for female characters. She is sixteen and the default head of her household since her father’s death and her mother’s withdrawal. She is a hunter, so proficient with a bow that she is ranked at the top of the competitors in the lead-up to the Games. But she is also feminine, admiring pretty clothes and admired in them. She is sufficiently manipulative to fake love for the boy from her district in order to gain favor with the Hunger Games's audience, but sufficiently tender to memorialize a fallen competitor though it exposes her to injury and death. She is smart, but not the smartest person in the room and she is capable of arrogant and wrong-headed behavior. Most impressively, all of these traits hold together plausibly given the background that Collins’ provides Katniss.

Part of that background is the lottery imposed by the capital on the districts. One of the interesting aspects of the Hunger Games lottery is the way that it shifts what we would commonly think of as adult responsibilities onto children. From age twelve to eighteen, children have to make a yearly entry into the lottery, so in their first year of eligibility they have one chance of being selected, but by their final year, they have seven chances of being selected. However, the districts, especially the outer ones, are terribly impoverished. Children are offered the opportunity to get a yearly ration of food and supplies in return for an additional entry into the lottery. And for further entries, they can receive a similar ration for their siblings and parents. So for instance, each year Katniss has made four entries into the lottery, one that she had to make and one each for a yearly ration for herself, her mother and her sister. Parents are not eligible for the lottery and thus cannot make the same sacrifice. As a result, among the poor, familial responsibility has shifted, at least in the small sample size that Collins portrays, from parents to elder children forced to make sacrifices for the welfare of their families.

I do not know quite what to make of the Games themselves. Collins very carefully details overwhelming violence directed at children, not only by competitors but by the adults running the Games. As that violence is presented to the citizens of the capital for entertainment, so is it also presented to the reader for entertainment. Enjoying that violence, which makes up half or more of the book, is very uncomfortable. It implicates the reader in the crimes of the capital. And while I admired Katniss's creativity, some of the scenes of violence and death are gut wrenching.

While some aspects of the novel are one dimensional and the subject matter is brutal, Collins’ construction of the character of Katniss is so deft and so unique among the galaxy of science fiction heroines that Hunger Games is definitely worth a read.

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