Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is set in the world of Panem. There’s a capital and twelve districts which annually participate in the Hunger Games, a massive televised event. It is required viewing for every citizen—in which each of the twelve districts sends two randomly chosen teens, 12–18 years old, one girl and one boy.
These teens, quite appropriately labeled Tributes, participate in what is basically a reality game show, quite similar in structure to shows like Survivor, where contestants are taken to a dangerous setting and eliminated one by one—with lots of commentary by the remaining contestants and by game show pundits—until only one remains.
In the Hunger Games, of course, the elimination isn’t just a handshake and a thanks for trying. Elimination equals death.
The Novels and the Protagonist
As one would expect in this kind of scenario, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is from District 12, the poorest of the districts, and although she is feisty and inspiring, she is also small and starving. She is exactly the underdog people love to love.
The novels also have excellent pacing. Collins uses a limited first-person perspective, so we only know what Katniss knows, and often that’s not quite enough, so we want to turn the page to find out not only what happens next but also details about the world.
And, of course, this wouldn’t be a young adult blockbuster without a romance plot, and the erotic triangle at the center of The Hunger Games is a tried-and-true trope that also keeps readers going.
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The Echoes of Contemporary Politics
In The Hunger Games, it’s hard to miss the importance of war in understanding the politics of the series. The first novel of the series came out in 2008, during the height of war weariness, as every American wondered about when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end.
There are lots of ways to read the immediate success of The Hunger Games as linked to concerns about the ongoing wars in the midst of economic chaos.
In the first novel, we see the 74th Hunger Games, which means that for the 74th year in a row, children are being chosen—and poor kids have much higher odds of being chosen—and sent far away, where they are forced to fight to the death against other children as part of a macabre and sinister spectacle that makes sure everyone knows where power lies—in the capital.
On one hand, the Hunger Games looks like an athletic competition— it’s like the Olympic Games or the Pan American Games. But still, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s a space where children kill and die for what are ultimately political reasons.
And there’s something chilling about the use of Games to describe this. We use war metaphors a lot in our reporting on sports—the battle, the warriors, etcetera—and we do it quite lightly. And sports make up an enormous part of our cultural industry, so it hints that Collins is interested in teens thinking about these relationships a bit more deeply.
By the time we get to Mockingjay, the third novel of the series, Collins’s interest in representing war can no longer be ignored. The final book is not set in a game arena, like the first two. Now the war is real as the districts undertake a large-scale revolt against the capital.
And Katniss Everdeen, the Mockingjay of the title, is at the center of not only the fighting but also the planning.
In terms of war representations, we have a lot of realism here. So much so that Collins has been criticized by some for including so much darkness in a series intended for teens.
Not Glamorizing the War
The success of the series, of course, suggests that teens welcome this dark take on the world. Because really, teens know. Teens know that even today, joining the military is one way to get college paid for; that’s a long way from the practice in Collins’s fictional world of teens voluntarily increasing their odds of getting chosen as Tributes in order to gain extra food rations for their families. It’s different, but not illegible.
Further, teens know that kids their own age and maybe even younger are dying in wars, some of which the U.S. is involved in, others of which we hear very little in mainstream news. And Collins is very careful not to glamorize the war that is the central action in Mockingjay.
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A Symbol for the Rebels
Katniss becomes a symbol for the rebels because of her celebrity status in the Hunger Games, but being a symbol doesn’t mean she isn’t also a fighter. Collins clearly doesn’t pull her punches, in terms of the narrative tension or the implied political critique.
There’s behavior modification of a captured soldier through torture and quasi-science-fiction memory modification techniques. There’s a moment in which Katniss, in the heat of battle, kills indiscriminately, knowing she will regret this for the rest of her life but is unable to stop herself.
The final novel of the series is devastating. And, of course, extremely appealing because of this. In a New York Review of Books podcast, Collins speaks about the appropriateness of bringing hard, real-world representations like this to young people.
Young adult dystopia is and will continue to be a crucial element in stories for young adults. Tapping into the anxieties of young people, and providing suitably harrowing settings in which young heroes can truly make a difference, dystopia is a genre that provides the right balance of stresses and potential solutions to appeal to young readers and viewers for the foreseeable future.
Common Questions about The Hunger Games
In the novel The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist. She is from District 12, the poorest of the districts, and is feisty and inspiring.
In the novel The Hunger Games, the Hunger Games is a reality game show. Teens, quite appropriately labeled Tributes, participate in a structure similar to shows like Survivor, where contestants are taken to a dangerous setting and eliminated one by one.
Katniss Everdeen becomes a symbol for the rebels because of her celebrity status in the Hunger Games.