The Hunger Games, a young adult book published in 2008, focuses on the experiences of 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen as she faces death in a gladiatorial arena in the futuristic country of Panem. Many of the dystopian novel’s central themes revolve around the conflict between survival and humanity and reveal how freedom of choice offers the possibility of defiance within a cruel and totalitarian regime. Of particular note is the way the author, Suzanne Collins, gives razor-sharp focus to the invasive and corrupting qualities of reality television and technology. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel mirrors our own society in a way that is fascinating and disturbing.
The Hunger Games is the first book in Collins’s trilogy that follows Everdeen in her struggles to fight for freedom in a country ruled by a tyrannical government. (2009’s Catching Fire and 2010’s Mockingjay complete the triology.) Panem has arisen from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic North America destroyed by floods and other natural disasters. The country is divided into poor districts that serve and are tightly controlled by a totalitarian government seated in the wealthy, technology-centered Capitol. The Hunger Games, deadly gladiatorial contests, are mandated by the government as a means of oppressing the residents of the districts: Each year, two children from each district are selected as tributes to enter an arena and fight to the death, reminding the districts of the Capitol’s power and control over their lives.
Collins has said that the book was partly inspired by channel surfing on television. While flipping between a program with footage from the invasion of Iraq and a program depicting contestants in a TV reality show, she found the two concepts begin to “blur in this very unsettling way.” Other touchstones Collins relied upon in creating the book include the Greek myth of Theseus, a story that informs Katniss’s character, and the Roman gladiatorial games, which clearly provided a foundation for the novel’s Hunger Games.
Written in a simple style that employs strong, visceral language and nearly constant suspense, The Hunger Games has become immensely popular. The film version of the novel, which was released in 2011, was also a huge success and only increased the book’s visibility and notoriety. Many critics point out that the novel’s popularity results in part from the themes Collins develops, themes that resonate with modern teenagers, including the idea of the “pack mentality” with the strong preying upon the weak and the notion that style and appearance can trump substance. Also, despite the futuristic setting, the struggles of the teenage characters are depicted realistically. Many of the decisions they must make are morally complex, requiring the ability to perceive how forces beyond themselves attempt to manipulate them.
Although this dystopian novel is filled with dark passages and scenes of terrible violence, ultimately it offers a message of hope through its strong themes of friendship, compassion, and unity. The Hunger Games is a compelling and thought-provoking introduction to the genre of dystopian novels for young adult readers.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Reference themes, plot points, and characters in the novel in discussing how The Hunger Games explores freedom of choice as a means of resistance in a society that dehumanizes individuals.
2. Explain how and why the totalitarian regime in the Capitol evolved in this society and identify the means by which it creates and maintains control of the districts.
3. Identify the dystopian elements throughout the novel; in particular, discuss how the Capitol’s totalitarian government works to control language, law, and even nature.
4. Explore the Capitol’s relationship with District 12 and discuss the effects of the social inequality it creates.
5. Compare the way media control and manipulation function in our society with how they function in the novel and investigate how media affects the quality of life in each society.
6. Discuss how the novel explores themes of love, friendship, and unity, offering specific examples from the novel.
7. Investigate the actions of those who are oppressed by a culture of fear and live in a society with cruel, inhumane laws. Which of their actions does the novel appear to condone?
8. Discuss the connection in the novel between deprivation and survival and explain how learning survival skills can build qualities such as strength and dignity.
9. Describe the setting in the arena and the ways in which the Gamemakers use both physical and psychological tools to control the tributes and orchestrate the Games.
10. Explore the ways the author inverts the ideas of civilization and savagery and for what purpose.