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Monday, October 13, 2014

The Hunger Games Trilogy (spoilers)

As I mentioned a few posts back, my guilty pleasure this month has been to read the Hunger Games trilogy. Of course, as an adult reader who cut her teeth on George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Aldous Huxley and the like, I bring a different understanding to the work than the targeted audience might have.

I think I'm reverting to my college self, the English major who must analyze a book.

This is rather long, so I won't feel bad if you opt out ...

The story is set in the dystopian future world of Panem. We are told that in the distant past, ecological disasters and wars over dwindling resources have destroyed the countries of North America, leaving in their place a country called Panem (Pan-America?), comprised of thirteen districts and a Capitol to rule them.

The distant past is of little concern to the people of Panem. Of more concern is the recent past, an unsuccessful rebellion by the districts against the Capitol 75 years ago, which resulted in harsh, repressive measures against the people of the districts.

Although the phrase "panem et circenses" ("bread and circuses") is not uttered until the third book (Mockingjay), the analogy to Ancient Rome is evident early on. All roads lead to the Capitol, a city of excesses -- food, fashion and fun. It is an amoral society, unconcerned with matters outside its borders. The Capitol has created a servant class, the Avox (voiceless ones), whose tongues are cut out -- a punishment popular during the time of the Roman Empire. There is even a scene involving a vomitorium, based on the legend that ancient Romans would disgorge the contents of their stomachs so as to be able to consume additional delicacies at a feast. The citizens of the Capitol are shallow and superficial, caring only for their own pleasures.

By contrast, life in the districts, under the authoritarian regime of the Capitol, is harsh. The districts exist solely to service the needs of the Capitol. The people of the districts are regarded as little more than slaves, their lives of no value except in the service of the Capitol. They produce goods for the benefit of the Capitol while living at a subsistence level.

The focus of the story, at least initially, is the Hunger Games. Just as Ancient Rome had its gladiators, Panem has the spectacle of the Hunger Games. The combatants meet in an elaborate arena, where they must battle each other as well as the elements. Only one combatant will emerge as victor. It is a battle to the death. It is a battle among teenagers, usually considered to be a protected class.

The amoral society of the Capitol enjoys the pageantry and spectacle of the Games without giving thought to the consequences for the participants. A slave's life has no value; once he or she has fulfilled his/her role for the Capitol, the slave is of no further use to the populace and therefore of no interest to them. No one considers the ethics of sending adolescents into the arena to die for the amusement of others. Any pangs of conscience are quickly buried -- killing tributes in the arena is the lesser of two evils, better than crushing the population of an entire district.

But those who hold the power in the Capitol truly understand the nature of the Games. An adult slave, employed in the mines or or factory or field, has value to the workforce. Adolescents are expendable. And what better way to keep the rebels in line than to threaten that which they hold most dear: their children.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is District 13. Thought by most of Panem to have been destroyed in the rebellion 75 years earlier, District 13 is both literally and figuratively under ground. Interestingly, 13 is not portrayed as a utopian society. Life in 13 is very regimented, controlled with military precision. It is also "communistic". Each member of the society is entitled to the same level of food, clothing etc., and each must serve a role in providing for the community. Where excess is part of life in the Capitol, wasting resources is a crime in 13.

Life is considered valuable in 13, especially the lives of children -- we are told that the residents of 13 need an influx of immigrants from the other districts to remain a viable community, as many residents of 13 are sterile, unable to have children.

District 13 is the center of the rebellion against the Capitol. Yet little time is spent on what the rebels hope to achieve once the Capitol is overthrown. There is some speculation that a republic "like our ancestors had" will replace the authoritarian regime, but detailed plans are never discussed.

Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, and the story is told through her eyes. Katniss is a 16 year old girl from District 12. Although others see Katniss as intelligent, strong, self reliant, resourceful, loyal and caring, Katniss sees herself as a loner, unlikeable, selfish, aloof. As Peeta says, she has no idea the affect she has on people.

Katniss wants nothing more than to protect and provide for her mother and younger sister Prim. Since her father's death, she has been illegally hunting iwith her friend Gale in the woods outside the District, selling game on the black market to obtain necessities for her family. Others may express rebel views, but Katniss is too wrapped up in her own concerns to care about the broader picture.

Yet it is Katniss who wins the audience as a tribute in the Games, Katniss who defies the Capitol, Katniss who becomes the Mockingjay, the very symbol of the rebel cause. An interesting symbol, the Mockingjay is a genetic mutation of a mockingbird, able to reproduce the songs it hears. And all of Panem soon hears Katniss' song.

Katniss becomes the political pawn of both sides, first as a tribute in the arena during the Games, and later as a soldier in the larger "arena" of the Capitol. We see her grow from nervous tribute to hardened soldier, ever protective of the people in her life, determined to assure their safety. We see her eventual realization about how she has been manipulated by both sides, and her determination follow her own agenda to achieve her ends.

Thrown into the mix is her confusion about a Gale and Peeta, about love and her awakening passions. There are no neat answers in this romantic triangle, no easy resolution. Her emotions are all jumbled up, she has feelings for both men.

What is most interesting is the development of the characters. The psychological wounds and scars caused by living under an authoritarian regime, of being a tribute in the Games, of combat situations -- the characters are damaged by the brutality of their situation. Haymitch becomes an alcoholic, Joanna turns to drugs, Finnick and Katniss suffer breakdowns. The psychological wounds may heal eventually. Even Peeta, who was subjected to mental torture, somehow finds his way back. But no one will ever be whole again, there will always be scars.

For Katniss, the scars run very deep. The very thing she feared most -- her sister's death -- comes to pass, and she is almost destroyed by it. She finds her healing by returning to the remnants of District 12 with the other survivors, by rebuilding her community and her own corner of the world.

Throughout the story, Katniss tells us that she will never have children, that the world she lives in is too dangerous a place. And yet, in the epilogue, we find that she has become the mother of two, that Peeta has convinced her Panem is now a safe place to raise a family. We are left with a vague understanding that conditions in Panem have improved, that Katniss and Peeta have built a good life.

I really enjoyed these books, and I am looking forward to the Mockingjay movie next month. The first two movies pretty much followed the books. They're making two movies from the third book, and I'm curious as to where they will end the first movie. Now that I've read the book, I can speculate ....

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