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20 March 2018 11:47 (South Africa)

What's all this about The Hunger Games?

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games, you soon will. A movie version of the bestselling young adult book trilogy has smashed box office records in a way, which has astonished even industry experts. To find out what it’s all about, REBECCA DAVIS read the first book so you wouldn’t have to.

Let’s start with a confession: I sat down with a copy of the first book of The Hunger Games in a mood of high derision. I was expecting a Twilight redux, low-hanging fruit for parody. Indeed, I only intended to read a chapter or two – just enough to get the gist of its mediocrity to issue a devastatingly snarky critique.

There’s just one problem. The first book in The Hunger Games series puts up an astonishingly good defence against literary snobs or journalists in search of easy pot-shots: it is intensely readable. Compelling, even. Hell, it’s riveting, unputdownable, literary crack. I tore through it one sitting and found myself three chapters through the second book before I remembered I had an editor to appease.

There are some young adult novels which, though ostensibly aimed at teenagers, present the reader with such richness and complexity they can be read on multiple levels, and hence have the ability to transcend that genre to attain the level of literary fiction. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy is one of these, drawing on everything from philosophy to theology to string theory. The Hunger Games does not fall into this category, however much cultural theorists are now agonising over its significance. It is simply a stonking good read. 

Some caveats: It has the air of a book which was not expected to sell quite as well as it has, and was consequently not given as rigorous an edit as it deserves in its pre-publication phase. The writing, from a technical perspective, is unexciting but functional, though occasionally feels a little lazy. Certain characters and time periods are entirely glossed over.  But it is football field more interesting than the likes of Twilight, and teenagers are miles better off reading these dark, dystopian thrillers than saccharine vampire romances. The Hunger Games’ heroine, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is a strong, capable and resolutely independent female who serves as a refreshing counterpoint to Twilight’s Bella “I just want a vampire boyfriend” Swan. 

The Hunger Games’ success owes much to the same formula as Harry Potter: The creation of a detailed alternative world, with its own rules and internal logic. But like the adventures of the boy wizard, this world is not totally alien to our own. The Hunger Games is set in the landmass that was once North America, but is now a country called Panem. The vast majority of the citizens of Panem live in abject poverty, just on the bread-line, so to speak, except for the seat of power: the Capitol, where inhabitants live lives of utter affluence propped up by the toil of the peasants in each of 12 outlying Districts.

The set-up is strikingly reminiscent of modern-day North Korea, in fact, where the show city of Pyongyang features pavements washed by hand and grass verges trimmed with scissors, while the rest of the country ekes out survival dependent on foreign rice aid. But of course, it is also a situation analogous with any country where there is a vast disparity between conditions in the “metropole” and rural areas.

The inhabitants of the Districts, during a period known as the Dark Days some time before the novel’s setting, rose up against the Capitol and attempted to seize power. Their rebellion was crushed, and the Capitol effected two punishments. Firstly, the complete destruction of one District, and secondly, the annual tournament known as the Hunger Games. Each year, one girl and one boy aged between 12 and 18 would be selected from each District via lottery to compete in a week-long televised spectacle where they must kill each other for one to emerge as eventual victor. This show is high sport for the residents of the Capitol, but is hated and feared by the Districts, who must nonetheless watch from start to finish.

What happens when the Hunger Games begin is the stuff of Lord of the Flies on speed: The teenagers kill each other off by any means available, including stabbings, archery and harnessing poisoned wasps. The book manages to just about avoid descending into stark horror by mobilising our support for a few contestants and vilifying others, but there is nonetheless something decidedly dark about this scenario. One of the book’s successes is to draw on our familiarity with the genre of reality TV and programmes like Survivor, or even the singing contests like Idols, and subvert our “harmless entertainment” into something far more chilling. Just as is the case with our current reality programming, the Hunger Games contestants are instructed to highlight poignant “back stories” and are groomed to look as attractive as possible, despite the fact that all but one will end up dead.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that our current reality TV shows are already harmful. Individuals like Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish housewife who caused a sensation on Britain’s Got Talent, are plucked from their ordinary lives, fed through a wringer of media hype and image-overhaul, and then left to somehow cope, even when they clearly lack the wherewithal to do so: Boyle was admitted to a psychiatric clinic the day after the TV show’s final. Most competitive reality TV show participants are deprived of sleep, cut off from their families and placed under extremely stressful circumstances precisely in the hope of some sort of dramatic blow-out.

Increasingly, too, there seem to be few no-go areas for reality TV shows. 2004 saw the screening of a British reality show called There’s Something About Miriam, where six men competed to be chosen as a partner for a Mexican model only to be told in the final episode that she was transgendered. It caused outrage from transgender advocates as well as reviewers, one of whom called it “the cruellest reality show idea yet”. A Dutch show broadcast in 2007, which purported to show a terminally ill woman choosing a transplant patient to receive her kidneys was later revealed to be a hoax, but the fact that so many people believed that The Big Donor Show was real is telling in itself. Earlier this month it was reported that a Chinese show called Interviews Before Execution had become a hit to rival American Idols, interviewing prisoners on death row sometimes minutes before their execution as they begged for forgiveness.    

From this perspective, there is something chillingly plausible about a Hunger Games scenario, which adds to the book’s dark appeal. But it is most interesting from a political viewpoint. Author Suzanne Collins has said her inspiration came from channel-surfing between footage of the Iraq War and reality TV programming, but because she has not elaborated on any particular political messaging, the books can stand for pretty much any point you want to make, at a stretch. Fox News suggested The Hunger Games were taking a shot at big government. Others have said it clearly reflects the Occupy movement, although the first book’s publication does pre-date that by three years. A woman called Julie Clawson has even written a book called The Hunger Games and The Gospel, in which she explains that they are an allegory of Christian love. A Huffington Post blogger recently suggested that the Hunger Games tournament closely resembles the current Republican presidential campaign.

It’s fair to say that many of the teens flocking to see the newly released movie adaptation aren’t terribly concerned with these parallels. The movie had the biggest-grossing opening ever in the US for a non-sequel movie last weekend, stunning industry experts who predicted it would go big, but not this big. Even more surprisingly, the film, which will be the first of at least three, garnered pretty good reviews, with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calling it “supremely effective entertainment”.     

Lionsgate, the studio which took a chance on The Hunger Games despite relatively modest sales of the books at the time they purchased the rights, must be rubbing their hands with delight. The LA Times reports there are now frenzied bidding wars underway between film studios to win the filming rights to other fantasy novels for young adults, as this is considered the safest growth genre for films at the moment. The rights to relatively unknown novels of this kind are reportedly going for up to $1-million – so if you’ve always felt you had a book inside you, now might be the time to crank it out. If you need inspiration, the film opens in South Africa on 13 April – a Friday. DM

Read more:

  • The Hunger Games smashed US box office records, in The Guardian.

Photo: The Hunger Games – utterly readable. And possibly watchable.

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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