Liberating The Hunger Games

As legions of fans descend on theaters this March to watch the The Hunger Games, I wonder how many will have also recognized in Suzanne Collins‘s books another theme that may well give her trilogy a shelf life equal to that of that of another great social critic, George Orwell. While Collins’s story includes most of the critical elements needed to fit the sensibilities of modern movies—the ever present potential of its teenage protagonist’s death, oppression by a barbaric central government, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting—another theme is equally and perhaps more important: The quest for personal liberty.

Katniss Everdeen, the trilogy’s lead character, struggles with the effects of violence and a desperate bare knuckles existence from the very beginning of her young life. But it’s the yearly trauma of the Hunger Games, and the certainty of death it brings, that becomes the visceral element essential to her character’s evolution and the common thread that links the novels.

The terror comes from living under a militaristic, totalitarian government and the toll it takes on individual initiative, identity and liberty. The residents of Katniss’ District 12 are subdued and compliant, careful not to upset the prying eye of the Capitol’s “peacekeepers.” Collins does a masterful job of making readers feel the full depressing weight of the implications of violent political oppression. It’s Everdeen’s battle for her own freedom, not even those of her friends and fellow district residents, that motivates her into an initially reluctant and eventually active rebellion against her rulers.

The Hunger Games is a young adult trilogy for modern times. As George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 shaped the perceptions of his generation (World War II, the rise of totalitarian socialism, and the atom bomb), Collins’ world emerges contextualized by terrorist states, ruthless individual and small group attacks on innocents, and the inexplicable (to Western sensibilities at least) motivations of suicidal extremists. Today’s generations have more exposure to the genocide in Darfur, the tyranny of secular and rigidly religious states such as North Korea and Iran, and the uncomprehendingly sacrifice of the innocent by Jihadists than to the hegemony of totalitarian states, the Cold War, bomb shelters, secret police prying into our living rooms, or the fear of the imminent nuclear war.

In The Hunger Games, Collins has crafted a protagonist who is instinctively individualist and cynical of collectivism. Her decision to enter the Games in place of her little sister revolves completely around her own self-interest—preserving the one person in her life she knows in her heart she loves. Indeed, she has worked her entire life to prevent her sister from being sacrificed to the Capitol. So, Katniss steps up when Prim’s name is pulled from the lottery. It is a heroic move, but her actions are decidedly not motivated by commitment to high-brow concepts of social justice, the social value of freeing the denizens of her hometown district, or overthrowing the Capitol to establish a just society.

Readers could certainly have accepted this outcome if Collins had written it. Katniss harbors the same anger and resentment toward the Capitol as her best friend, Gale Hawthorne. But she is more reserved, circumspect, and self-referential. Gale allows himself to be consumed by thoughts of overthrowing the Capitol; the classic noble revolutionary who goes on to serve another government. Not Katniss. She’s motivated by equally heroic and noble values. But those values are hers, and they are very personal.

The theme of the individualist quest for freedom is strengthened in the third book of the trilogy, The Mockingjay. Collins could have easily imbued the rebels from District 13 with more conventional and traditional pro-freedom values: The prescient Founding Fathers of the nation of Panem. Instead, District 13’s political leader and her inner circle emerge as people willing to use tactics as ruthless and inhuman as the Capitol to secure political control over the fractured and terrorized nation.

In fact, in a pivotal scene, the leader of Katniss’ squad lays dying after an ambush. His last words to Everdeen, referring to the leaders of the Rebels, are: “Don’t trust them. Don’t go back. Kill Peeta. Do what you came to do.” In other words, stay the course, don’t deviate from your personal quest, don’t succumb to the pressure to conform to the collective, even if they are fighting against The Capitol.

The Hunger Games is a young-adult trilogy for its times, and hopefully the movie version doesn’t shy away from this freedom message. Suzanne Collins’s distinctive, parsimonious, first person narrative makes all three books a quick read. That style alone would establish this series as a literary classic. In the end, however, the innovative way in which she grapples with the issues and values of our times, including the essential value of individual freedom, may be the element that allows them to endure generations, and rival the greats, including George Orwell.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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