I love to read, although sometimes one wouldn’t know it. In searching for an after-graduation job, managing a new teaching position, and working on the dissertation and other writing projects, I haven’t had much time for reading anything non-school-related.
Recently, that changed when I was hit with a fourth bout of bronchitis in as many months. Too sick to leave the house, too uncomfortable to sleep, and too medicated to write, I started reading Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular trilogy, The Hunger Games.
I gobbled up The Hunger Games, the first book in the series, in a matter of days. Gorged, is more like it: At night, tucked in bed with my tissues and inhaler, I plowed through the novel in marathon-stretches.
For me, the book was so pleasurable because of Collins’ world-building. According to Scholastic’s promotional website, the novel is set “in the ruins of a place once known as North America.” A new nation called Panem has emerged, and it consists of a wealthy, ruling “Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by the Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, [which are]…televised for all of Panem to see.” Stephen King describes the Hunger Games as “a bloodthirsty reality TV show in which [participants] fight each other in a desolate environment called the ‘arena.’ The winner gets a life of ease; the losers get death.” Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the Capitol uses the Hunger Games to ensure its supremacy. (Intrigued? Scholastic makes the first two chapters of The Hunger Games available for free.)
World-building involves landscape description, but also the creation of a logic that dictates what happens within a space that is as social as it is physical. Katniss Everdeen, District 12’s female tribute for the games, lives in a poor neighborhood called the Seam. Physically speaking, the grittiness of her surroundings contrast sharply with the verdant forests bordering it–a natural world that is forbidden to District 12’s citizens but one that Katniss and her friend, Gale, nevertheless escape to daily. There, they hunt for food that their families so badly need, but they also draw psychological sustenance from their trips into the wild, as well. Socially speaking, class distinctions within District 12 are not as sharp as those that divide the Capitol and Panem’s districts. Still, they are palpable, and Katniss astutely registers and navigates these imbalances of power in order to keep her family alive and safe.
Collins’ skill with world-building is apparent throughout the novel, particularly in her descriptions of the Hunger Games’ training facility and the arena itself.
Although The Hunger Games is an immersive, pleasurable reading experience, I question whether the novel is compelling in terms of its social critique. Collins attempts to evaluate modern society’s beliefs and institutions as well as their trajectories, yet her remarks on state power, surveillance, and voyeurism, seem underdeveloped and contradictory.
Laura Miller asserts a similar view of the novel’s social critique in her review of Young Adult dystopias. She claims that if the games are regarded as propaganda or a disciplinary tool, then they “don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into [reality television] celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience.”
For Miller, then, the televised games don’t function as a convincing “disciplinary measure” because there are too many inconsistencies between (1) the design of the games, and (2) their reverberations in Panem. For instance, Miller notes:
Given that the winning tribute’s district is ‘showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,’ why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes [who usually win the games], instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?