Critical Lens Essay On Hunger Games

As a longtime fan of dystopian fiction, I’ve been meaning to read this series for ages – especially given its unique premise and runaway popularity. When I saw it was being offered on Kindle for less than $5, I knew it was a must-read…and truthfully, this is one young-adult novel that lives up to its hype.

In the wake of a second Civil War, America has been segregated into twelve Districts, parts of the nation of Panem. Panem is ruled by the affluent residents of the Capitol, a centrally located territory responsible for establishing order. As an annual show of loyalty to the Capitol, each District must send two young Tributes – one male, one female – to compete in the national Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an extended gladiatorial competition in which twenty-four young people fight to the death…until only one remains. The victor’s district is subsequently lavished with food and other scarce commodities.

Young huntress Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Hunger Games in lieu of her younger sister. She is joined by baker’s son Peeta, who has long harbored feelings for her. Upon arrival at the Capitol, they are swiftly trained before being thrown into the arena. It’s a simple premise, but author Suzanne Collins successfully creates a nuanced, savage world that engrosses the reader.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had serious trouble putting a book down. “The Hunger Games” is a blistering, lightning-tempo read that refuses to let go. While some of the early chapters are a bit slow (and feel amateurish), the story goes into overdrive once the Games begin. The world of the arena (a gigantic forested environment) is described in lush detail, but never feels overdone. Collins’ characters, while somewhat stereotypical for the genre, are serviceable in their roles.

In addition to being a riveting action novel, “The Hunger Games” also works as a biting satire of the media. In ways that most younger viewers will fail to appreciate, Collins mocks modern audiences’ appetite for “reality shows.” Since the Hunger Games are a nationally televised event, contestants must behave in ways that will earn them “sponsors.” These sponsors can then air-drop needed supplies (food, medicine, etc.) into the arena. In retrospect, I wonder whether this novel is itself a form of irony: “The Hunger Games” is filled with elements that appeal to audiences (romance, children in peril, intense violence, girl-against-the-odds storytelling), even as it simultaneously satirizes them.

As one might expect in any story like this, worldview elements abound. Chief among these is the utter sense of desolation and despair that pervades the novel. While many dystopian novels evoke this emotion somewhat, most offer some sort of hope (however fragile). The universe of the Hunger Games, on the other hand, feels cold and godless, in which life is truly “nasty, brutish and short.” While the main characters clearly strive to act nobly, they frequently do so based on emotion, rather than ethics. In this sense, “The Hunger Games” is something of a disappointment. The novel’s grinding cynicism, though often incisive, becomes wearying. Having not read the others in the series yet (there are two books more), I hesitate to pass judgement on the trilogy as a whole…but “The Hunger Games” is bleak indeed.

Concerns have been raised over the violence in this book – and for once, I can say that these complaints are not unfounded. This is a story about children murdering other children in gladiatorial combat – graphically. I’m by no means squeamish when it comes to gore, but this book contains some genuinely grisly moments. I’ll be interested to see how the violence is toned down for the film adaptation’s inevitable PG-13 rating. This book is certainly not appropriate for readers under 13 or 14, and may be disturbing to older teens as well. There’s no language or sexuality (with the exception of some mild teen-romance elements), but the violence is brutal and gruesome.

So, is it worth reading?

Older teens and adults who are fans of the genre will find much to like here. “The Hunger Games” is one of the best-written young adult novels I’ve read in years (since the Mortal Engines quartet, probably). It’s exciting, intense, and thought-provoking…though it certainly feels despairing at times. If Collins is in fact an atheist/agnostic, “The Hunger Games” is not a militant attack on faith. There’s no mention made of religion…but it’s conspicuous by its absence. Readers aware of this undercurrent in advance will likely not find it problematic.

This book, however, is simply not appropriate for many of the age who will want to read it (especially after the forthcoming movie is released). This doesn’t feel like fairytale or fantasy violence…it feels like bloody barbarism. And though that’s precisely the point Collins is making, it doesn’t make the novel any more appropriate for preteen audiences.

I liked this book a lot. But not everyone will – or should.

VERDICT: 9/10
An extremely compelling – but dark and violent – portrait of a dystopian future.

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  • 1

    In what ways is all of Panem complicit in the horrors of the Hunger Games?

    Though the Capitol most actively runs the Games, it could be argued that the entire society grants its support by refusing to boycott or challenge the ubiquitous Games. Katniss does note that law requires citizens to follow the Games, but throughout the book are indications of the population's wild support. When Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place, her district shows its dissent against the Games by refusing to applaud, which suggests that refusal to honor the Games is an option, even if it might carry punishment. Though capable of rebellion (they did revolt once before), the population of Panem lacks the strength to question and challenge their system, instead allowing themselves to be led through spectacle.

  • 2

    Discuss the ways in which Katniss's poverty has shaped her.

    Katniss's poverty proves both useful and debilitating to her. Because of her lack of privilege, she has been forced to learn several skills that prove useful in the arena. In addition to her hunting and gathering aptitude, she comments several times on how she knows how to scrounge and her body is able to manage hunger better than those accustomed to luxury. However, her class resentments blind her a bit to certain other assets. Most tellingly, this happens with Peeta, who she considers "soft" and inferior to Gale even after Peeta begins to show his fortitude.

  • 3

    Contrast what Gale and Peeta signify for Katniss, and how each helps her succeed in the Games.

    For Katniss, Gale is a symbol of the toughness engendered by poverty, where Peeta is a symbol of selfless kindness. Much of the novel is her learning to accept that both elements are a part of her character. Gale's influence proves extremely useful in the arena, as Katniss uses her stoic demeanor and hunting aptitude to stay alive. However, her ultimate victory comes for being able to trust others, a virtue she first learned when Peeta gave her bread years before. Even in the arena, Peeta's kindness continues to affect Katniss, until she ultimately refuses to win the contest unless they win together.

  • 4

    Trace Katniss's growth from determined stoic to a fuller human being, using examples to illustrate each phrase of her character growth.

    At the beginning of the novel, Katniss is a committed stoic, who keeps her features in an "indifferent mask" to aid her survival through tough conditions. After being named tribute but before going to the arena, she is confronted both with her guilt at not helping the Avox, and with Peeta's "purity" of wanting to stay himself until death despite the barbaric pressures of the arena. Peeta's seeming betrayal convinces her a stoic philosophy is best, but she nevertheless allies with Rue and comes to accept her emotional side when she plans Rue's funeral. This happens in larger scale when she decides to help nurse Peeta back to health, and falls for him despite herself. Finally, she refuses to win the Games unless they win together, even if the cost is suicide. By the end of the novel, Katniss is far more confused than at the beginning, but this confusion indicates that she is becoming a much fuller person.

  • 5

    Discuss the influences of ancient civilizations on The Hunger Games.

    The influence of both Greek and Roman civilizations is significant in the novel. The Greek influence starts with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, which is a similar tale of children forced to fight to their deaths, a strategy used by the ruler to keep the population in line. The idea of the Roman games, brutal events that gave the lower classes a spectacle to discourage rebellion, is also central to the conception of the Hunger Games. Several of the names in the novel help further this connection, as does the idea of tesserae.

  • 6

    Explain the various methods used by the Capitol to keep its population in line. How does the Capitol keep citizens from connecting with one another, and why are these strategies successful?

    The most obvious strategy is the spectacle of the Hunger Games. By distracting its population from the true injustices of Panem, the Capitol keeps them from considering rebellion. This strategy is successful in no small part because it makes the population somewhat complicit in the brutality. Class divisions are another way the Capitol discourages dissent. By separating the Districts from one another along strict lines of wealth, and then encouraging class resentment through tesserae, the Capitol keeps citizens distrustful of one another so that they will not turn their eyes collectively towards their true oppressor. Lastly, the Capitol keeps the Districts from knowing much about one another. Katniss learns this when she talks with Rue about District 11, and notes to the reader that the Capitol is probably not airing their conversation in order to discourage education.

  • 7

    What do you think is the reasoning behind Haymitch's unified front stategy for Peeta and Katniss? What are the effects of the strategy, and why does it work?

    The most direct aim of Haymitch's strategy is to create a narrative in the Games that will attract sponsors and hence help Katniss and Peeta in the arena. Haymitch likely gets the idea when he realizes Peeta is in love with Katniss, and knows that their "love story" will make them popular. But the effects of the strategy are more wide-reaching. Katniss, so conflicted by her commitment to stoicism and her class resentments, might have had more trouble trusting Peeta if she hadn't had the excuse that it was all part of the show. By using this defense, she is able to delude herself that she isn't actually falling for Peeta, even though it's clear to the reader that she has feelings for him. Finally, the strategy has a touch of rebellion to it. The whole concept of the Hunger Games is to keep people separate from one another, to discourage rebellion. But this plan actually suggests community, and that manifests in Katniss's suicide ploy at the end of the Games. She uses the love narrative to protect herself once they return to the world, but the rebellious sense of community has already been suggested.

  • 8

    How does the first-person narration help establish the themes of the novel?

    Most of the story's themes involve Katniss's growth as a person. The theme of identity and the contradictions Katniss feels are aided by the irony that exists between what she observes in herself and what the reader observes. It is clear to the reader that Katniss is slowly learning to accept her emotional side as a strength, but because she is narrating the story in present tense, she isn't always able to recognize that in herself. This is most clear in her relationship with Peeta, where she insists that her affection is mostly for the show, even as her feelings are clearly genuine. The theme of rebellion also manifests even as the narrator does not recognize it. She learns to accept community as a source of strength throughout the novel, though her primary stated goal remains survival. Because Katniss is our only lens to the story, it explores how our identity is shaped even when we don't recognize it.

  • 9

    Suzanne Collins has stated that reality television, which offers usually the appearance of reality rather than reality itself, is one of her influences in the novel. How is that influence manifested in Panem?

    The Hunger Games is meant to offer Panem a brutally realistic glimpse into human nature and adventure. However, the entire event is in truth about superficial image rather than reality. This is clear from the first stages, in which the tributes are introduced to the audiences through high-profile events. The amount of work that goes into shaping their images suggests that what the audience sees are not the tributes themselves, but rather a shaped image of them. Katniss goes through much preparation with her prep team and Cinna, and she and Peeta stay near each other not from any true feeling, but because Haymitch has told them to. And then in the Games themselves, the Gamemakers frequently change the rules and the environment in order to up the entertainment value. Overall, the appearance of reality is all that matters in the Hunger Games.

  • 10

    Discuss the use of fire in the novel, and what it tells us about the protagonist.

    Katniss's story is one of adolescent growth, as she learns to accept her passionate side as a strength, and additionally to translate that into a revolutionary zeal. Fire is traditionally an image of strong passion. But the irony is that when Cinna establishes her as "the girl who was on fire," she doesn’t yet realize what he sees in her. Through the novel, she learns to rely on this part of herself, which is reflecting in her desire to keep her fingernails painted. By the end, she no longer needs the spectacle of fire to accept her firey personality. Fire is also the key to survival and strategy throughout – lighting fires is how she tries to distract the Careers in several cases, and the Gamemakers use fire at one point to attack her. All of this suggests that strength for Katniss will come first from accepting her passionate side, and then afterwards learning to control her passions to become a powerful figure.

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