I rarely talk about books that I like; most of the time I just bitch about what bugs me in writing that doesn't work. But having just seen The Hunger Games movie, I thought I'd do an analysis of why I like Suzanne Collins's trilogy, and just what makes it awesome for me.
I was partly inspired because I went to the movie with a member of my writing group and her friends, who spent most of the pre-movie time talking about the romance aspect of the books. Meanwhile, the Alamo Drafthouse played highly appropriate clips from Running Man, Battle Royale, and, of all things, dystopian-themed Lazer Tag commercials from the 80s. When I mentioned that Hunger Games had elements of Stephen King's The Long Walk in it, I received a few blank stares, and someone said, "Well, it's impossible not to borrow from other stories, you know." (Thereby completely missing my point.)
I won't talk about the romance aspect of the book, mostly because I don't care. Romance as a genre I tend to avoid, because it so very often manages anti-feminist and misanthropic messages. Not that Collins herself is guilty of that; in my opinion, that was just not what the story was about. I feel that anyone who was outraged that the romance got a backseat in the third book is missing some serious forest for the trees, so screw that noise.
Collins effectively makes brilliant and relevant social commentary. That is why I love her series. The movie did a good job touching on the major themes of the book in different but highly effective ways. For those of you who've read the books, nothing I mention about the movie is going to spoil things for you. If you haven't read the series, don't bother reading this.
Commentary on violence: This is the biggest thing Collins comments on, and in my opinion, it is the greatest message of the series. It deconstructs the role of violence in society and how we, in real-life, are just as complacent about it as the Capital fops. There were several moments in the movie where I thought "Holy crap, it's CNN or Fox News." Human anguish and pain are sensationalized, filtered through marketing and other economic systems (commercialism, sponsorship, etc.), and received as entertainment by a complicit population well aware of said suffering. The difference between dystopia and real life is not the presence of violence, but our level of closeness to it. Collins is pointing out that we aren't that far from it, not when the latest school shooting, an ordeal just as vicious and cruel as any Kat goes through, which result in the brutal deaths of children the same age as Hunger Games competitors, is given a dispassionate click of a mouse or a five-second lead in. Collins asks us to experience the fear and the frustration and empathize with Kat, while simultaneously pointing out that we are the Capitol. We are the crowd watching, anticipating death and trivializing it. We, just like the society in the first book, shrug our shoulders at the status quo, because the alternative is too much trouble and the complacency is so easy and fun.
Commentary on society: The Reaping scene in the opening of the movie draws heavily on the short story by Shirley Jackson, The Lottery. It's a magnificent homage to another dystopian piece of literature. There is a social contract in place that makes people offer up their sons and daughters as if they were paying taxes, but the social contract is corrupt. And while awareness is there, anything beyond that is nonexistent. Not just because a brutal regime is in place to enforce it, but because the society accepts their lot. This corrupted social contract is shown again when the tributes parade in chariots in front of huge crowds, an effective nod to our real-life history, that we as a Western society really used to watch human chattel battle to the death for our entertainment. And that that entertainment was used as a way to control society (bread and circuses.) (This is also done deliberately by Collins by the country being called Panem.) The awareness without action reflects our real-life armchair outrage, as the Kony 2012 debacle most recently proved. We can be aware, cluck our tongues, even rage against the machine as characters like Sinna and Gale do, but without action our feelings are ultimately useless.
Commentary on media: Gale has one of the most pointed lines in the film when he insists to Kat that the Games would have to change, "If everyone just stopped watching for one day!" The coverage of the Hunger Games is a massive and obvious metaphor for the 24-hour news cycle, both on cable and the Internet. Both manufacture sensationalism out of human tragedy and suffering, both can be distractions from the real issues at hand, and both are devoured by a population that feeds the beast. Like the Games being a distraction from the fact that children are being asked to murder each other, the latest vitriol from a pundit or a polemic often distracts from the real issue being an unfair tax code, corporate plutocracy, or civil rights. We don't ask our media to tell the truth (like, for example, there's a reason Fox News doesn't exist in Canada, because in Canada there's a law against lying in news). We just keep watching. If we punished the system that does us no favors, we could change it. But we don't, and in Collins's world, that is why the Hunger Games still exist.
Commentary on classism: This was more heavily felt by me in the film, just because the visual contrast of Kat's poor, trash town compared with the sleek opulence of the Capitol was much more visceral. Nonetheless, the moment where Kat climbs on the train and sees food in abundance reminded me of the starving millions all over the world, and those who have never used the Internet, seen a laptop, or used an iPhone. Again, we are meant to see things from Kat's point of view, and realize that her upbringing has been disenfranchised and poverty-stricken as a result, but Collins again points out that we have more empathy for Kat than we do our real-life fellow man. And the only line that separates the two is the virtue of knowing the story behind the individual. If the Capital is not meant to represent rampant, mindless consumerism at its worst, I don't know what is. The concerns of the upper class are not the concerns of the poor, and even though they're asked to give tribute, they ensure their own start with a leg up on the competition. I chose to interpret this as the metaphorical opportunity level a rich kid starts on versus the opportunities open to a poor kid, say, looking at colleges. While the chance is there, just like in the Games, that the odd, unexpected underdog can rise to the top, over the years, some have won more consistently than others. But really, it can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, another brilliant facet in the series.
Commentary on morality: No dystopia can be written without challenging a moral status quo, and The Hunger Games is no exception. However, Collins points out a real life truth: that cooperation on a human level is possible even in the worst of circumstances, despite societal machinations trying to manipulate otherwise. Especially in American discourse at the moment, society is screaming in moral absolutes, insisting that cooperation is a weakness and acquiesance to "the other side". Kat manages not only cooperation with the little girl Rue, but friendship and respect. Her ethically sound behavior in her treatment of Rue's death not only spares her life later on, but sparks a deep chord in the Districts watching, inspiring some of them to action at last. Collins (and here I'm not sure if she even meant to do this or not) is pointing out that sound ethics and morally correct behavior will resonate with the society that receives it. Just as it will echo bad morals and poor ethics. The attitude of "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" is rejected by Kat even in the midst of a deadly free-for-all, and it is not ruthlessness that wins her the day, but compassion, cooperation, and integrity. Collins evokes the doomed moral victors of real-life, like Sophie Scholl and The White Rose, aspiring to greater justice and igniting a cause.
This is why I love this series. Because it is more than the sum of it parts; it is evocative, thought-provoking. Unlike trash like Twilight who managed the message of "Like OMG izn't troolove da greatest evar!?!?" , Hunger Games asks "What is your role in society? How much of a product of your society are you? When it comes to the needs of total strangers how much of yourself are you willing to give? To risk?" It holds up a mirror to how we live, and shows us reflections that are chilling in their lack of distortion.
Listening to: Kokia - With Reflection
Reading: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Watching: Full Metal Jousting