Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it's contained.

The first I'd heard of The Hunger Games was three years ago, when the movie had just hit theatres. I remember it being one of the most awaited movies of the year. After all, it was based on the most successful Young Adult novels in recent times. The studio's extensive publicity combined with fans eager for an on-screen adaptation had led to much hype. But even with high expectations, I found it to be a well-made and riveting film. However, it's nothing like the sucker punch to the gut that the books deliver.

The story is set in Panem, a dystopic future version of North America. It comprises twelve districts and a dictatorial Capitol that wields all the power and wealth of Panem with a heavy hand. A thirteenth district had once existed, but the Capitol obliterated it as punishment for a failed rebellion and warning to the remaining districts which were all involved. As an additional reminder of its power over them, the Capitol orchestrates the titular Hunger Games every year. A boy and a girl from each district are "reaped" as tributes, to participate in gruesome fights to the death until a lone survivor remains. These televised games become a source of much entertainment and speculation to the Capitol's citizens, who seem all but oblivious to the unimaginable distress and perverse sadism involved.

The premise is revolting to say the least. I could not get over how inconceivable it is for such games to be used as a device for coercing people into submission. If anything, they would only serve to keep the rebel fire alive, inciting further attempts to topple the Capitol. Right? And what sort of civilized society would be entertained by the spectacle of hungry, scared children forced to kill each other?


As if empires in history never used cruelty and violence to keep citizens in line. As if war victors of our past never subjected the surrendered to ghastly horrors. As if gladiator games never happened.

Themes of war and its consequences, Roman gladiator games and distorted reality television had apparently been major influences on Collins's writing. Sadly, the movie does not often delve into such complex issues. The focus is instead directed on maintaining a fast-paced, action-packed narrative. It makes for an engrossing cinematic experience, no doubt, but demands a certain suspension of disbelief.

Not so with the books, which seem to have been crafted with the intent to strike hard and resonate deep within the psyche. Collins perfects the task of creating a believable world within an improbable framework. Panem, however distressing it may be, pulls you in.

Katniss Everdeen, our young protagonist from District 12, triggers events beyond her control by volunteering to be a tribute in place of her sister. With sharp survival instincts gained from years of hunting - after her father dies in a coalmine explosion, she's had to take it up to keep her mother and sister alive - she may actually stand a chance of surviving the first few days. Maybe even a remote chance of winning. Katniss has never killed a human before, but as her friend and hunting partner Gale reflects, how different would it be, really?

In the arena, there is no time to grapple with the philosophical implications of murder; no place for friendship or mercy. But Katniss encounters them all, in herself and a few others, most notably in her partner tribute Peeta. Her dynamic with Peeta is further complicated by her feeling indebted to him, for a simple act of kindness in their past that gave her much needed hope in a difficult time. But to win, she would have to kill him, or at least hope for his death at the hands of another tribute. Could Katniss really do that and still be herself? How much of their own self does a victor return with, anyway?

Uncomfortable questions, and not just for Katniss. Collins's stance comes across as anti-war, especially where children are used as pawns in battles. As for the notion of Panem being so impossible to exist, enough elements emerge from the story to show disturbing parallels in our own world. In brainwashed teenagers ready for war in conflict-torn countries. In regimes that force children to be their first line of defence. In organizations killing children to supposedly prove some twisted point. In debilitating poverty and hunger that compel children to grow up before their time. Need I go on?

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