I don’t often read along with the trends, but the movie trailer for The Hunger Games looked so enticing I couldn’t resist. I read the first book within 24 hours and the other two within the next week and a half. That’s fast for me— I like to savor fiction.
A Quick Review
What makes this series so consuming are its (in this order): plot, setting, and characters. The plot is like a racecar, but luckily it takes more than just left turns— I guess it’s more like driving a sports car down a country highway. The only time it slows down is at the beginning of the second book, Catching Fire. The setting, a futuristic North American country devastated by war and environmental devastation, is fascinating. Props to Suzanne Collins for creating a place that seemed realistic enough to possibly exist in the future. As for the characters, there were some that I loved, others that I hated, and some that I had a love/hate relationship with— particularly Katniss, the main character. Sometimes she was fickle and others just plain annoying, but I always found myself rooting for her nonetheless.
What is troubling about The Hunger Games is that it seems tough to find good “takeaway value” (as my college writing professor would say). When it comes down to it, there doesn’t seem to be a grand message or theme. But is The Hunger Games just entertainment and nothing more? I think if you dig a little deeper, you might be surprised at what you find.
Morality, violence, redemption, flawed characters, and guilt are all elements that Collins doesn’t shy away from. Of course, she also doesn’t deal with them in outright, conclusive ways— which is probably why readers might tend to forget their prevalence. However, instead of analyzing these themes, I want to talk about the one idea in the series that convicted me the most:
Bread and Circuses Aren’t Free.
Let’s go back to the setting. The fictional country of The Hunger Games, Panem, takes its name from a word meaning “Bread and Circuses” in Latin. This refers to the lifestyle of the citizens of the Capitol, the controlling city of Panem. They live in a sensory smorgasbord— easy access to entertainment, food, fashion, and any kind of pleasure you can imagine. The Capitol pampers them, and they don’t ask questions or bother their government about how they are able to live in such ease.
Meanwhile, twelve specialized “districts” in various locations outside the Capitol provide the city with its resources. People in the districts often live in poverty and cruel conditions. Because of an uprising by the districts decades earlier, each year one boy and one girl (all teenagers) from each district are forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a violent competition in which there is only one survivor. The whole atrocity is televised to all of Panem and the people are forced to watch.
Though we may not have an event like the Hunger Games, I cannot help but see how much the culture of the United States today parallels the culture of the Capitol. Entertainment, pleasure, and instant gratification are kings. “Bread and circuses” certainly sounds like an accurate slogan, doesn’t it? And aren’t the majority of our products and resources made, mined, and processed for us elsewhere, by people working in conditions far less than acceptable?
I have to wonder if the disgust Katniss feels toward the people of the Capitol is anything like the disgust the people who make my stuff feel toward me. When there are 27 million slaves in the world today, we can’t see Panem as an entirely imaginary dystopia. We can only shudder at its similarities with our own society and step up to change them and prevent further similarities. There may not be a government-sponsored killing competition, but there are children dying from malnutrition and unsafe conditions— children who make the things we wear, eat, and play games on.
Father, forgive us for being so foolish and ignorant. Bread isn’t made without harvesting wheat and circuses aren’t set up without driving tent pegs. There is a cost to our leisure. And that is a bold statement for a young adult novel to make, whether or not it was intentional.
COMMENT: Have you read The Hunger Games series? What did you think? Did you get any takeaway value?