The Hunger Games: Pleasurable? Yes. Compelling? Maybe.

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.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user natashalcd

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.

Map of Panem by Kaydicakes via

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?

Perhaps, though, the televised games exert more of a disciplinary force than Miller acknowledges. Viewing is mandatory for Panem’s residents, and large television screens are placed in public places so that as people watch the games unfold, their erstwhile obedience to the Capital can be monitored; even more troublesome, public viewing events allow Panem’s citizens to watch and supervise others.
Also, Miller completed her review in advance of the publication of the trilogy’s final installment, and so it’s likely she’s operating without full knowledge of the series.
To move further in the direction of full-disclosure, I’m working my way through Catching Fire and Mockingjay (books 2 and 3, respectively). Maybe my views about the levity of Collins’ social critique will change as I progress.
Thanks to twitter user @RachMcLennan for a series of exchanges that inspired this post.

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Posted in Books, Fiction
3 comments on “The Hunger Games: Pleasurable? Yes. Compelling? Maybe.
  1. Terry Brock says:

    I just read this book last week….in three late nights of staying up until 3 am…detrimental to progress on the dissertation, I can assure you.

    At any rate, I couldn’t help but constantly think of the TV show Survivor throughout this entire book. To me, the approach was, “what if Survivor was actually real? Instead of being ‘voted’ off, you literally did not survive?” I’m sure if I thought harder about it, there’s a critique in there of our current society’s obsession with “reality” tv: what if it really was REAL? What would that mean, exactly? Making the element of control that is apparent in the book more explicit brought out the underlying control that television companies, etc have over these programs…blah blah, corporate takeover, consumer society, and so on.

    At any rate, this book was a blast, and I’m looking forward to my next Kindle free library download so I can read the second one and lose another couple days in an imaginary world.

  2. Amy says:

    Speaking of our consumer society, I was in a bookstore the other day and came across some Hunger Games-related merchandise. In fact, it was merchandise related to the books and not to the upcoming film. Specifically, I saw a journal styled after the book covers with a “Down with the Capitol” slogan on the front. That’s a little troubling! I’ll be interested to see what kind of merchandise comes out in conjunction the films. Seems like Katniss dolls and “Team Peeta” t-shirts would threaten to turn Hunger Games fans into the very Capitol citizens they’ve been primed to reject!

  3. Molly says:

    I thought the world building was terrible here. People are starving to death all the time but they don’t go into the lush forest that is literally teeming with wild life and plants because of an electric fence and the off chance that they’ll get caught by a hover craft? That’s complete BS. People are starving but they leave a whole hill side dandelions? Nope, not how that works. People will attempt to at anything when they’re starving. They will eat grass. There shouldn’t be any pets, or goats or pigs. People who are starving will eat all of those things before they let themselves just die. I read a book about the siege of Leningrad during WWII, and those people were starving as well. They had resorted to eating bars made of glue glue and paper from books. That’s starvation. What’s going on in District 12 is starvation written by someone who has never missed more than a meal or two.

    The Capitol and tyrannical government was also badly executed. They practically begged the people to rebel. They gave them absolutely no reason why they should keep them around other than the threat of death, which isn’t that great of a threat then the people are barely living in the first place. The reason people tolerate an oppressive government like the capitol is because it does something that benefits them. they have a perceived need for it. The capitol doesn’t have that. it’s giving them every reason they need to rebel.

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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