Mon
Mar 5 2012 1:00pm

We’re Glad to Reread The Hunger Games Because It Means We’re Not In Them

The Hunger Games rereadDeath-defying heroics in any adventure story is huge part of why we love popular fiction. Stories in which characters are literally or figuratively hanging off cliffs are fun because they make us turn the pages with half-fear and half-delight. The first Hunger Games novel is gripping because it’s both relatable and fantastic; she and her fellow tributes are almost super-powered in their agility and scrappy survival skills.

Personally, I wouldn’t have lasted two seconds in The Hunger Games and would have likely died at the cornucopia. And I bet most people would have, too. But this is a story, and a good adventure story asks you to make several leaps of logic. Luckily, if The Hunger Games lack believability, it manages to get away with it through old-fashioned heroics.

In Genre in the Mainstream last week, I talked about the literary tricks the book employs, specifically the notion of the first person present tense. While I think this has a lot to do with why the novel is so engaging, the book also makes use of genre-fiction hero-story pacing. I bet literary novels with a similar story would have spent more time establishing Katniss’s life in District 12, certainly a lot longer than having the selection of the tributes practically open the novel. Instead, the only sort of real-time pre-games action is Katniss hanging out in the woods with Gale while hunting. From this point on, the plot gets moving almost immediately and any backstory, including Katniss’s prior interactions with Peeta, memories of her family, memories of Gale and memories of previous Hunger Games, are dealt with as the present action occurs.

Within the first chapter, the reader is quickly familiarized with the reason The Hunger Games exist. A long time ago, the districts tried to rebel against the Capitol, and the Capitol beat them down. The Hunger Games are designed keep everyone in line. The Capitol says: give us your children, and watch them fight to the death, if you don’t, you’re cut off.

If you want to sit down and try to figure out how the economics and structure of this world actually works, be my guest. (I’m sure many have.) The book is so fast-paced you don’t really have time to think about it upon a first read. Before you know it, Katinss is volunteering to fight in the games in place of her younger sister Primrose, and in what feels like minutes of reading, she’s on the train bound for the Capitol where they’re going to get her ready for the big event.

Crammed into all this plot stuff, we get to know Haymitch, the only guy from District 12 who has ever won The Hunger Games. Making him a drunk is a great move, because he’s both unsympathetic and comical at the same time. How could this person be remotely helpful? He’ll be very helpful eventually, because that’s how a good adventure novel works. It sets up a premise, then subverts a little, but gives you want you want too.

The reader is then given a reprieve from worrying about Katniss dying The Hunger Games, as the designers and prep team get Katniss and Peeta ready for the opening ceremonies. Personally, I feel safe in these sections of the book because it introduces this pseudo-Alexander McQueen fashion sensibility into this future dystopia. We have now met the enemy and... all they want to do is make us look nice. The why behind the fashion and presentation is always present, but it’s hard to think about being groomed for a fight to the death when you’re surrounded by people worrying what shade of dress matches your skin tone. Here, Suzanne Collins bravely asserts that this stuff is just as much a part of society as war and politics. So, I’m comfortable here. But once the kids are all on their platforms, ready to make a dive for supplies and weapons, I’m totally terrified. What if it were me on the platform? What would I do? Personally, I’d probably start bawling my eyes out.

And that’s where the book comes to my rescue. Katniss doesn’t lose her shit right then. Instead, she’s a hero. She runs for the backpack, grabs it, and proceeds to spend the rest of the book meticulously planning her every move. If you ever want to feel like you’re disorganized about what you do in a given day, then read The Hunger Games. Not only are these kids really in-shape, and talented, they’ve also got awesome prioritization skills. Well, Katniss does anyway. Peeta doesn’t seem to think ahead as much, and when they’re eventually reunited, Katniss’s heroism turns to a little bit more of a caregiver role. This works for me only because not too much time is spent on this notion, and that she also isn’t just in love with Peeta for the sake of being in love with him.

Once the games begin, I, along with Katniss, started doing a death toll. I started “watching” The Hunger Games the same way someone in one of the districts would. Why do heroes get little confident smirks on their face with they’re about to do something brave? Maybe it’s because they know they have an audience, and in this fictional world, they do. Further, the notion of the audience has not only a meta-fictional layering, but a practical plot-function as well. The little silver parachutes necessary for survival come from the sponsors, who are in the audience. Almost nothing that happens then during the course of the games is without meaning or simply action for the sake of action. All of this stuff, from the mockingjays to the tracker jackers, to the little song sung by Rue have a good reason for being there. Everything comes back in small or big ways, and almost never exactly as you predicted it.

The novel does something deeply satisfying: it lets the hero do things you yourself might not have been able to do. It lets Katniss fight in the games instead of you, and so when you’re rooting for her, you’re making yourself feel better about not being selected in the reaping yourself.

Oh wait. What did you say? The Hunger Games isn’t real? Shhhh.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

This article is part of The Hunger Games on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
14 comments
Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
SPOILERS ABOUND.

- One minor correction - there was one prior District 12 winner before Haymitch, but that person is no longer alive.
- Haymitch's alcoholism makes complete sense in story. District 12 tributes are typically underfed and weak, so they typically die quickly and horribly (such as two who had no chance from the year before). Haymitch can try to help them but then has to go through the emotional pain as they (inevitably) die and he can't share the burden with other past winners. It is better for him to not care and remain anesticized via booze. He finally snaps into some semblance of shape when he realizes he has not one but two potentially strong tributes.
- The story of Haymitch's own win is touching but is only told in a later book, so better not discuss now.
- I'd argue pretty strongly that Katniss does not have her sh*t together right out of the box. She panics quite a bit, for understandable reasons.
- Conversely, I would argue that the text suggests that Peeta has his own strategy, not discussed in with Katniss in advance, that he executes pretty successfully, at least until the tracker jacker incident and aftermath. Katniss ended up being the beneficiary of Peeta's strategy and her helping him later becomes a form of payback, as well as the result of self-interest.
-All of these angles are fascinating, and add to my enjoyment of the book.
Matthew B
2. MatthewB
I always felt that the setup of the series was pretty weak, but that the rest of it was so good that you were obliged to not think too hard about it.
But really - here's a peace treaty that spells out you allowing us to slaughter some of your kids every year for entertainment. If anything is going to inspire people to fight to the bitter end, that's it. They might have been willing to give up some adults, but not kids - no way.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
Yeah, the setup does not withstand in-depth scrutiny. But it feels "good enough" that I absolutely wasn't thinking about it until after I finished the books. Can't wait for the movie.
Jennifer McBride
4. vegetathalas
Spoilers, maybe?

I have a fan-wank explanation for Haymitch's drunkenness: the Capital kept killing off people he liked/loved until he agreed to start publically making a fool of himself. No revolution can be led by a laughingstock. So the Capital made Haymitch start drinking, and when he was enough of a public embarrassment, they left him alone. He was an alcoholic, but it was his deliberate strategy to keep his district safe.
kgs43
5. kgs43
It's "Capitol," not "Capital."
Debbie Solomon
6. dsolo
Mathew@2 While the people might not want to give up their children, they really have no power to stop it. They were already defeated, so they were in no resources left to use for resistance. In third world countries today, children are being exploited as cannon fodder, prostitutes, slave labor, etc and their parents are either powerless to stop it or are profiting from it. Semi starvation is a good tactic for controlling a population, as it weakens them both physically and mentally. Children are especially vulnerable, as 90% of brain development occurs in the first 3 years of life. Deprivation of critical nutrients during that time period can not be overcome later. Continue it for a few generations, and you have created a permanent underclass.
The whole tesserae system was just a way to ensure that there was no resistance to the Hunger Games, as it would jeopardize extra food rations. The whole system seems crazy, but look at N. Korea and the Middle East and see what happens when people are controlled by a system more invested in maintaining power, than improving the lives of the people.
Matthew B
7. MatthewB
@dsolo
Not buying it. If "this could really happen" is an important part of the Hunger Games experience for you, then justify it however you want.

Speaking as a parent: No Way. The war would have been fought to extinction if those were the terms of peace.
Lauren W
8. laurene135
@dsolo and MatthewB
I think Africa is and Haiti are good examples of how this does happen.
In Africa there are constant civil wars where children are given guns and forced to fight. Yes, some parents resist, but they're simply killed.
In Haiti after the earthquake, many organizations brought and tried to bring food to help the people, such as Children's Hunger Fund. If you volunteered there packaging food for an afternoon they told you how strongly the government fought against CHF bringing food into the country.
The point isnt that no one tries to fight. It's that the government (or whatever organization is trying to take over the region) crushes the people that the goal is no longer "resist" but simply "survive." Yes, some fight and are therefore killed--or more commonly get the pleasure of watching a family member killed, raped, or both for their own actions. It's the type of things that break spirits,and causes people to try and make the best of what they have.

The picture Suzanne Collins paints is realistic. And the people did rebel at first, and got Dist 13. (I have only read the first book) There are sure to be more rebellions to come, but that does not mean they will be sucessful.
Matthew B
9. MatthewB
I know that terrible things happen in the world but i survive by believing that the people who do them are the exception, not the rule.

You cannot imagine how depressing it is to me (and in how many different ways) to hear that anyone could accept this is as a plausible scenario. I hope, for the sake of our entire species, that dsolo and laurene135's opinions are the minority, rather than the majority.
Lauren W
10. laurene135
@ MatthewB
Seriously? Since when does acknwledging that these things--in a way--already happen make us people who threaten society?
Accepting that this is a plausible scenario does not mean I would idly sit by and let it happen should it come knocking on my door.
Should it happen, I would fight, but I understand consequences and know that it would most likely get me and possibly others killed in the process.
Part of stopping evil things from happening is acknowledging that it can happen, and that it will probably take multiple tries and multiple failures before you succeed.
I don't see why understanding that reality is such a bad thing. Knowing evil is done, and doing it/letting it be done yourself are two very different things.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
11. tnh
kgs43 @5, are you defending Capital or just nitpicking Matthew B's spelling?
kgs43
12. Gerry__Quinn
MatthewB: "They might have been willing to give up some adults, but not kids - no way."

There is at least one mythological precedent, in the shape of the Minotaur.

Some think this reflected historical reality from a time when Crete dominated Greece.
kgs43
14. battlesysadmin
Unarmed people are unable to resist. Dependent people are unlikely to resist. This is why governments like to register, and take away, firearms from the general public, and why they discourage the questioning of authority.
Lauren W
15. laurene135
@battlessadmin
Excellent point. They say it's to "reduce crime" but seriously, as a criminal which scenario are you more likely to commit your crime:
You can rob the store clerk. Maybe he has pepper spray, but hey you have a gun. The store clerk most likely doesn't, because regulation is so strict.
Or
You can try to rob the store clerk, but the authorities where you are are pro second ammendment. Not only might the clerk have a gun, but so might some customers.
As a criminal, an environment where firearm regulations are very strict is one where I could better thrive--less risk of retaliation.
And we also know it's not about trying to keep firearms "in the right hands" because my father is a deputy sheriff and he talks about how the police force has been so overrun with politics they aren't allowed to properly do their job

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