This post does not go into nitty-gritty details, but
there are some plot spoilers for the trilogy of
‘Hunger Games’ books and also some for the ‘Twilight’
series of books that some readers might prefer to avoid.
You have been warned.
Guest Author: fuckpoliteness, who lives in Sydney and wants the world to make more sense.
I’m inclined to set down my thoughts on The Hunger Games. First, I should clarify that I’ve read the three books, but I haven’t seen the movie. Second I should say that I’m no literature critic – I was vaguely aware that it was not a book where I fell in love with the language, but rather that the plot propelled me through to the end. I’m not arguing for where it should stand in some Great Ranking of the Best Books of All Time. I’m interested in addressing it as an instance of popular culture that again has kids tearing through books, hungry for more, at the controversy and ‘moral panic’ that it seems to be creating, and in looking at the elements of what, for me, made it something out of the league of the ‘Twilights’ of the world.
I will say that I had to push through Twilight as if walking through molasses. I felt vaguely nauseated by the prose, I felt frustrated by the slow pace, the action only picking up in the last chapters, I hated a lot – I hated the ‘romance’, I hated the guilt, I hated the incessant ‘I’m so helpless and hopeless’, I hated the revolting pregnancy and birth, and I hated the imprinting. While much of this contributed to my sense that these were ‘bad books’, it’s also worth expanding out into the critique of the representations of gender, love, sex, commitment and politics or ethics. It was also not like reading The Da Vinci Code where I was happy to try to stick to the plotline but kept feeling as though his descriptive language was jarringly striking me as awful, awful, awful. The prose is quite stripped back, quite sparse, and is arguably mediochre, but I just did not care. For one thing that terseness fitted the voice of the character to my mind, but more importantly, I was driven on, compelled by the fate of Katniss, her family, the others from District 12 – what would happen to them, what would she be forced to do, would she be able to live with it?
Likewise, I’m sure it is possible to critique the ways in which a books’ ‘world’ is set up and criticised. It at times felt a bit simplistic in the way ‘evil’ was represented etc. But at the same time I thought it did a much better job than, say, the Harry Potter novels of examining motivation, perspective, politics, gender, love, commitment and ethics. As for the Twilight series, The Hunger Games simply blew it out of the water.
Here we have a female protagonist – much as I love Harry Potter, the frequent ‘Harry and Ron roll their eyes about Hermione’s girlish perspective’ (never mind that Harry and Ron were frequently idiots and Hermione was much more frequently able to see the reality of the situation) grated my cheese. Harry was the protagonist, Ron was the favoured side-kick, Hermione was valued to some extent, but was marginalised and/or mocked quite a bit. And let’s talk about Mrs Weasley, Ginny, Fleur and Tonks in terms of marginalisation of women, and Mrs Weasley and Ginny in particular for being written as representing women as irrational, jealous, petty. Again – hands in the air. I love the series, I read them again and again, I like Ginny etc…but the tendency to set the female characters up to laugh at their silly female ways shat me to tears.
In this book it was all about Katniss. Katniss dealing with her fathers death, and her mothers’ withdrawal. Katniss blaming her mother, but grappling with the fact that maybe she’d judged her too harshly. Katniss trying to protect her little sister. Katniss the family provider. Katniss the hunter, finding skills that sustained so many, that she enjoyed, that she was good at. Not supernaturally good like Buffy, not ‘gifted’ from on high, but skilled though a combination of talent and practice. Katniss, friend of Gale, Gale criticising the Capitol in the woods, her only reprieve from political control. Katniss, aware that there might be ‘something else’ between her and Gale, but too busy working and surviving to bother ‘working it out’. Katniss, suddenly in danger. Katniss reacting in ways that surprise her. Katniss defiant, Katniss scared, Katniss surviving, Katniss making friends through alliances, Katniss grieving those she was supposed to fight and kill. Katniss negotiating being forced to ‘sex it up’, Katniss negotiating being told to ‘play the relationship angle’, Katniss working out that there might be more than ‘play’ now, but again, being too busy to have the time, much less the capacity to ‘work it out’. Katniss finally rebelling. Katniss being caught back up, again and again. Katniss surviving, just hanging on.
For once (in terms of the Big New Thing) we had a female protagonist who was a fully fleshed out character – she had a past, she had emotions, she had will, she had strength, she had vulnerabilities, reactions she couldn’t explain, she was thrown back on her own resources and she didn’t get saved by supernatural skills thrust upon her, or by the ‘hero’ (characters saved each other). For once we had a girl who had boys in her life that she liked, and maybe loved, but did not get corralled into ‘This person is the love of my life, amen’. She felt love for both of them, she had no idea what was happening – she reacted to where she was, what was happening. She was coopted back into other peoples’ power plays again and again, and she fought hard for a solution she could in some way live with.
The recent scaremongering over the levels of violence in the book surprised me. The violence was disturbing – but to my mind it was not ever presented in the way that leads to a desensitisation, except possibly in the final parts of the last book in which things are happening so quickly it’s hard to keep track. To my mind the entire point of the book was a critique of violence, control, and the worst aspects of capitalism and consumer culture – some living lives of luxury while those who produced their goods starved and worked under oppressive conditions with little freedom, entertainment based on exploitation, a ridiculous fixation on appearances at all costs, the corruption of power, the politics of control. It’s to be applauded, to my way of thinking, that a book would deliberately provoke teenaged examination of these issues – you simply cannot read The Hunger Games without both being appalled at what happens in Katniss’ world and bringing it back to the world we live in – it seems just an extreme version of our own world.
The final tipping point for me was a recent review in the Sydney Morning Herald which claimed that: the books perverted heroic rebellion, that survival ‘justified’ killing, that characters are ‘desensitised to sexualisation’, there was ‘no love’ in The Hunger Games, only ‘selfish mockery’, that ‘feelings replace right and wrong’, and an allegation that the book cannot critique the sensationalism of violence when it ‘does the same itself’. Like the criticisms of Harry Potter for ‘making children want to be wizards’ it seemed impossible to come out of these books with this simplistic a view of them unless you went in to reading them determined to find these issues.
No, Katniss is not some ‘uncomplicated hero’. She has grown up restricted and controlled, she’s seen death and deprivation, and she survives – she is thrown in to extraordinarily gruesome and violent scenarios and has to ‘do the best she can’. The idea that she’d be a better hero if she’d sat passively in protest in the middle of the arena and died swiftly is ludicrous – how can you explore power in the ways The Hunger Games do if you simply protest and get shot in the face in the first chapter? Beyond that somewhat facetious point, the point of the whole series, it seemed to me, was how you grapple with the things you need to do, how you cope with the guilt of being implicated, how you manage to find a way through, to survive, let alone how on earth you can rebel when power is already always one step ahead of you ready to coopt any rebellion you manage for its own purposes. Katniss is not represented as purely virtuous, as the simple ‘Harry’-style ‘good’ to the Capitol’s ‘Voldemort’-style evil. The book tries to explore the difference in perspectives of the citizens of Panem in general and the citizens of the Capitol. Whether it always manages what it aims for, the series, to me is a commendable attempt to examine manifestations of power, control, violence and oppression, and the fact that it is impossible in any world to simply be outside and ‘above’ the ugly aspects of your society.
Nor do I think it ever ‘justified’ killing – again the whole series involves the examination of how Katniss will cope with what she will need to do, the different approaches of Katniss, Peeta and Gale, the understandable shift in Gale’s attitudes, but the exploration of where a hardened attitude of vengeance leads, and an examination of various approaches to trying to maintain an idea of ‘self’ when you are forced into situations in which you do the unthinkable – vast tracts are devoted to anguished self examination, and Katniss never finds herself ‘blameless’, in fact she reckons on a high culpability for the body count, even of those she tried to save.
The characters explicitly address their revolt at being ‘sexed up’ to murder each other. Katniss repeatedly talks about her preference to leave her own body alone, her hatred for the plucking and soaking and sprucing. The exploitation of appearance, bodies and sexuality is explicitly addressed, particularly in the later books – I’m not sure how much more explicitly the books could have objected to it.
The claim that there is ‘no love’ is frankly laughable – did the author read the same book? Where Katniss wakes screaming for her father, where she volunteers to take her sister’s place, where she is gripped with fear for and grief over characters she didn’t know that well, where she loves and makes sacrifices for Peeta and Gale, as well as for many less central characters? Katniss explicitly addresses the horrors of being pushed into a ‘fake relationship’ for gain, and the confusion of actually caring for that person. There are long passages again addressing her confusion about these two boys in her life, how central they both are, how she loves each of them, but is unable to define exactly ‘how’, how she might have felt about them had her life been her own, and the fact that her emotions have been taken and manipulated again and again for the entertainment of others. Katniss, quite frankly is a character full of love but who has far more pressing things on her mind for most of the book – but her love, her concern, her sense of loss, her desire to protect are all through the series.
As for whether feelings replace right and wrong, I don’t think that they do in the series, but I think you have someone trying to make sense of just how wrong things are when she’s a child who has nearly starved to death, then been the family provider, and then has been thrown into a situation where she’s being constantly hunted – I don’t think Katniss has had much time for, assistance with, or access to, great works of philosophy on the concepts of right and wrong – perhaps the author would have preferred it had Katniss stopped to take lessons from the bible while being hunted. Lord knows that book has no violence, weird sex or horror.
Finally, there may be some element of truth to the issue with violence – by the end of the series you’ve read through so much horror and the final stages do seem a little ridiculous – I wasn’t really able to keep track of the losses through the tunnels and I felt that some of the deaths were for a final shock value. I did think at the same time that it would have been unrealistic to have only one or two losses of central characters, such as in Buffy, and I did think that right to the end this pulled through the themes of power, corruption, what you’ll do if you’re pushed to it in order to survive, the ruthlessness of gaining control, and Katniss’s opposition to violence. Not in an uncomplicated way – she’s not allowed to be someone with ‘clean hands’ – she kills to survive, but she keeps herself accountable, and she does what she needs to do to ensure as best she can that the cycle of horror stops. Does the series use violence as entertainment? It’s arguable – to my mind it uses violence to make a point about violence, and there’s no doubt that the books were gripping. But I don’t see that as necessarily exploiting violence for entertainment purposes and then simplistically criticising the same. I think it’s okay to represent a world where violent control is made constant and explicit, and to critique that and to engage with how you can remain yourself while trying to survive in that world without being told you are doing exactly what you are critiquing.
No, I don’t think the series is without fault, nor can it comprehensively cover all of the most subtle contemplations of power, politics, ethics and existence. But I do think that it stands as a series which encourages readers to engage with a critique of the Capitol, of a politics of control and oppression, of an unequal distribution of wealth, of entertainment relying on the distress of others, on ridiculous and perverse obsessions with appearance and bizarre grooming standards, and I do think it actively encourages the reader to engage with extending those criticisms to society now. We’re represented in the book as the selfish, greedy, destructive forerunners to the Capitol. I think that it’s a good critique of the extremes of capitalism, of ‘entertainment’, and I think it offers a strong female character without any of the usual ‘I met my one true love and now I am his forever’ bullshit. I think it encourages young adults to read and to think. I’m happy to listen to critiques of the series that actually engage with what is at stake in the series, just not a ridiculously simplistic critique based on misrepresenting the very point of the series.
Both my son and my stepdaughter have read the series and each of them was gripped to the end. Both of them have talked to me about what they like, what they think of the politics. Neither of them appear to have been ‘desensitized’ to the violence, or to have decided that violence is fantastic and sexualisation is fun. They are both able to enjoy a series, to critically engage with it, and to discuss it on its merits, something that seems to have been beyond the author of the critique published in the Sydney Morning Herald. By all means take aim with whatever problems you find in the text, but don’t misrepresent the themes and content to fit the simplistic critique you want to make. Anyway – that was my rant on The Hunger Games – I’d love to hear yours.