Not Oprah’s Book Club: Hunger Games

Maya and I decided to take on The Hunger Games in tandem. Check it.

Court: The biggest tension for me in this uber-popular young adult fiction book, which is set to be turned into a film, is between my absolute thrill at reading about such a dynamic, strong, complex teenage girl protagonist and just being put off by the never ending violence that she’s surrounded by and implicated in. I get that, just like in gratuitous but purposeful violence in movies, Suzanne Collins is making a point about the undeniable violence that pervades our society and could, if gone unchecked, get worse. But it still just feels exhausting. Did that bug you Maya, or were you down for the reality show dystopian bloodfest?

Maya: Well, I don’t know if I was exactly down for the bloodfest. But the violence actually didn’t bother me all that much. Maybe because I grew up reading The Giver, His Dark Materials trilogy, and, of course, Harry Potter. That said, I do think the Hunger Games takes the violence to new level. In Harry Potter, for example, although the books got increasingly dark as the series went on, the scary stuff was balanced by lovely descriptions of the everyday lives of the young wizards at Hogwarts. And even when the carefree times of butterbeer and balls became few and far between, that memory of normalcy was there. In the Hunger Games though, it’s a “dystopian bloodfest,” as you say, pretty much from the get go–and the moments of beauty have to be found or created pretty much entirely within that brutal reality.

Court: I also loved how the class dynamics play out in this book. Using a sort of caste system set-up, Collins reveals just how economic class and political power, domination and manipulation, play out, not just in this terrible future land, but in our own contemporary society.

Maya: Absolutely. She really shows how the class/political system functions in both direct ways and more covert ones–that aren’t all that far off from our own society. For example, children from poorer families are more likely to be chosen to compete to the death in the Hunger Games because they are forced to put their names in the (supposedly fair) lottery more times in exchange for necessary food. If we codified in an overt policy the systemic disadvantage embedded in our own society, how different would it really look from that?

Court: Seriously. Great point. If you look at the ways in which we stack the odds against poor kids through a dysfunctional public education system, unequal access to fresh food and spaces to create and play, and constant policing and pathologizing, it’s hard to argue that we’re so far off.

Maya: The book also does an excellent job of illustrating the way the system oppresses everyone. While the power differences in this society are clearly defined and strictly enforced, nobody is free. Everyone–with various levels of relative privilege and ignorance–is stuck playing a game they didn’t choose that forces them to do terrible things to each other. There are no evil people in this book–just an evil system that dictates their destinies. That makes it scarier–and more realistic–than the “good vs. evil” battle of a book like Harry Potter.

Court: And unlike Harry Potter, which can sometimes make you feel like you might be a little bit magic, Hunger Games makes you so very hungry. I’ve had multiple friends tell me that they found themselves contemplating how they might kill ducks and squirrels in the city park if they had to.

Maya: Seriously. I also really love how Katniss is this super strong, independent, no-nonsense heroine but also clearly needs Peeta and Gale. It’s refreshing to see a female hero be painted as strong but also dependent on others–not in a weak, “girlie”, damsel-in-distress way but in a way that is just real about the fact that human beings need each other to get through tough shit.

Court: Full-disclosure, I’ve only read the first book in this three book series, so don’t give anything else away.

Maya: Okay, til next time…

Join the Conversation

  • Amanda

    I’m a huge Hunger Games fan. I love Maya’s point about the system oppressing everyone because this was something that stuck out to me in all three books- while Katniss looks down on the shallow people from the Capitol, I think it becomes more clear to her as time goes on that they are stuck in their roles just like she is, and that they are just as scared. Also, the Hunger Games are kind of a great leveler- once the Games begin, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or beautiful or even powerful on the outside.
    The violence of the books doesn’t really bother me, but the hunting scenes did make me squeamish. I’m a vegetarian, so I definitely didn’t enjoy reading about Katniss’s need to kill animals to feed her family- although I certainly understood that the circumstances of her world are different from mine!

    • Emily

      Not so sure I have a point, but as to this “the Hunger Games are kind of a great leveler- once the Games begin, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or beautiful or even powerful on the outside,” I don’t agree 100% percent. Being more wealthy did have advantages in the games. The “career” tributes were better fed, stronger, and prepared than the tributes from the poorer areas. Though it could all come to naught even with just bad luck, it was an advantage for the privileged districts.

      • Gretchen

        To further that idea, Emily, once you are in the games, your looks and clothing choices become so important. More important than they are outside of the arena.

        Katniss herself plays into this new system to survive. The whole reason Katniss has some sort of chance early on is because of Cinna and Portia who turn them into objects. I mean Cinna made her into the “Girl on Fire.” The costumes created are supposed to make them alluring and intriguing so that the audience will care about them. Like in our current reality TV, the people who continue on are not always the people who deserve to. The point was to make Katniss and Peeta appealing to the audience.

        The Hunger Games act like an equalizer on only one level, but once you enter the games a whole new system emerges. Yes, all 12 districts are reaped, but once we involve the audience the evenness suddenly disappears. While, Katniss and Peeta are relatively poor before the games, in the games you could say they are very rich. After all they get special dishes and medicine delivered to them. So once you enter the game you are playing on a whole new hierarchy system. Katniss goes from being flat brook to using relatively rich in terms of what she receives.

      • Ingrid

        Even Katniss acknowledges that the careers from the more affluent districts are at a disadvantage. They are called “The Hunger Games” and despite those tributes being better fed, stronger; none of them have known what it is like to go hungry or know what it is like to have to survive. In that sense the games are the great equalizer. Sure, you may have been trained how to kill someone 50 ways from the neck up, but if you can’t find food or water because you have been pampered well . . . Also, the games in some sense reward creativity, like Peeta with his camoflauging skills, or Rue with her ability to leap the trees.

        • davenj

          That there are elements of luck doesn’t change the fact that careers are overwhelmingly more successful in general at the games. They aren’t at a disadvantage at all. They are advantaged in many ways. Imperfect ways, sure, but still advantaged.

        • Verity Khat

          I think we’re actually discussing two separate things here, privilege and advantages. Career tributes have been privileged in training, education, and access to food, which are an advantage for interviews, the Gamekeeper reviews, and the actual melees. Katniss is privileged to have Cinna in her corner and in knowing how to hunt (and deal with being hungry), which turn out to be advantages all over the place.

  • Verity Khat

    Read the other two! Right freaking now! Seriously, the first one is a dystopian gem, but Collins raises the stakes to a whole new level in the rest of the series. (I will warn you that parts will crush your soul, because, well, you see more and more of modern society reflected in Panem’s. But that’s the point of good dystopia.)

    Also, if they dumb down Katniss or the effed-up world she lives in for the movie, my nerdrage will be truly terrible to behold. It’s such a cinematic story to start with that I don’t feel like it needs much tweaking, so I’m terrified that Hollywood will turn it into a pale shadow of itself.