Review by Emily Gould
In a New Yorker roundup of dystopian teen fiction published in June of 2010, Laura Miller posited that the “Hunger Games” books appealed to teens because the daily struggle for survival in the arena that heroine Katniss Everdeen confronts in the books functions as an allegory for what happens in the halls of the average high school. Maybe this argument resonated because of our current cultural focus on the social minefield that school can be for kids who don’t fit in, which has been magnified by the addition of online bullying to alpha teens’ arsenals.
Dystopias for adults are didactic, the theory goes, but the ones written for teens aren’t meant to warn or scold: “It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening — it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”
High school as dystopia seemed like a plausible explanation of the series’ popularity to me at the time I read Miller’s piece, but now I’m convinced that doesn’t come close to capturing the phenomenon — especially because of its cross-over appeal among adults.
Since she wrote it, Americans have risen up in widespread protest of bank bailouts, foreclosures and mass unemployment. Coupled with horrific scenes of police violence against Occupy Wall Street protesters, it’s started to come into focus: America has never been hungrier for a popular entertainment that excoriates the ultra-rich.
“The Hunger Games” is, at its core, a critique of winner-take-all capitalism — a writ-large version of the same struggle that’s given us the Occupy movement and the idea that America’s top 1% is ruling badly and unjustly, with disastrous consequences. Again and again, the books contrast Katniss’s poor but noble hometown, full of dying miners and starving children, with her country’s corrupt Capitol, a fortress city where overdressed aristocrats vomit during banquets in order to stuff themselves again.
Readers of “The Hunger Games” could be forgiven for assuming that Collins is summoning them to the barricades, or at least paving the way for Katniss to lead her fellow workers in revolt in the later books (after she’s done winning the reality show, of course).
This is a complicated critique that the books are a little too ideologically incoherent to sustain, which isn’t a diss — I’m not suggesting that fast-paced novels for teenagers carry the burden of being macroeconomics primers. Still, the essential ethical questions “The Hunger Games” raises are likely to stay with viewers and readers after they’ve forgotten which of Katniss’s love interests they were rooting for.
Is it right for a small percentage of the population to utterly control access to wealth and power? Is it exploitative when we watch as members of a lower socioeconomic class scramble and fight over scraps of money and potential fame, as they do on many real reality shows and, indeed, in many real televised sports? The gladiatorial Games are a metaphor for the high-stakes games that poor people must play in America to merely survive.
And these days, they’re also not a metaphor. They’re just a mild exaggeration of a culture where one of the only ways for its least privileged citizens to escape their circumstances seems to be risking public pain and humiliation as cameras record their every move.
Readers I’ve talked to, adult and young-adult, tend to express strong dissatisfaction with the second two books in the trilogy. (Spoilers ahead!) Instead of leading her own rebellion, Katniss is mostly used as a pawn by a splinter colony, where everyone wears identical uniforms and daily schedules are temporarily tattooed on everyone’s forearms each morning. These citizens have been there all along, plotting the revolution on their own terms, and they want to use Katniss as a pawn.
These dour revolutionaries are the only alternative to the existing government, but they’re a lot less fun; they might not kill children for sport on TV, but they’re willing to do whatever it takes to advance their agenda.
Maybe the movies will tweak the series’ unsatisfying conclusion; I’m certainly not alone in hoping this will be the case. I found it irksome that Collins went from vilifying the ultra-rich, who feast while the vast majority of their fellow citizens starve, to vilifying the revolutionaries, in their individuality-quashing matching outfits.
Then again, maybe it’s informative, in and of itself, that Collins couldn’t manage to portray an alternative to either vast economic inequality or communism in its most fascistic form. Even for one of the most successful fantasists of our time, it seems, it was impossible to imagine a future where the odds are ever in the non-ruling class’s favor.