Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games: An allegory for our time

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins. Although classified as science fiction and directed especially to young adults, this novel has become highly acclaimed by a wide readership. The addictive nature of this book is due to not only to the style of the author -- although there ares some evident weaknesses -- nor even to her memorably complex and fascinating heroine but especially to the allegorical nature of this work. It is an allegory for our time, a novel that has become the story for the Great Recession.

I am not in the habit of reviewing books in this blog. This post is thus not a review but rather a brief analysis of a literary phenomenon. However, I will refrain from providing the entire plot, which is ingenious, except to cite a few important details. Collins has written a work that resonates with many people and not only young adults at many different levels, and has thus achieved an almost unprecedented success.

There are numerous themes that can be discerned in this book. Whether the author introduced all of them intentionally is disputable, but I would like to mention several to illustrate what makes The Hunger Games an appropriate allegory for our age. This novel is a stark vision of class conflict in which the poverty-stricken heroine struggles to survive in a cruel social order ruled by a wealthy and amoral elite.

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games was first published on September 14, 2008 (which happened to be the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy). It is the first novel in The Hunger Games trilogy; it was followed by Catching Fire, published on September 1, 2009, and Mockingjay, published on August 24, 2010.
The Hunger Games had an initial print in hardcover of 200,000. It was also released as a paperback, an audiobook and an e-book. Amazon has announced that Collins had become the best-selling Kindle author of all time. It has been translated into 26 different languages. It has also been well-received by many critics.

A film adaptation was co-written and co-produced by Collins herself. It was directed by Gary Ross and released worldwide on March 23, 2012. The film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth, grossed more than $155 million during its first weekend. Sequels to this film based on the rest of the trilogy are already in the works. The first sequel is scheduled for release on November 22, 2013. A mention of the film on the BBC first alerted me to this phenomenon and made me read the book.

The heroine of the story, Katniss, who is the female tribute from District 12
The Hunger Games is written in the voice of sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem. The countries of North America have been decimated by a series of ecological disasters and wars, and now the Capitol, located in what was once the Rockies, holds absolute power (think of the 1%) over the 12 districts that remain after they rebelled against the capital city. The 13th was obliterated. These districts are all impoverished -- the middle class has disappeared -- and most people eke out an existence where they rarely have enough to eat (think of the third world, or two-thirds world, as I prefer to call them).
The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 from each of the 12 districts are selected by lottery -- they are called tributes -- to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive since it is a "fight to the death." These games are not only intended to deter further rebellion but, as the ultimate reality show, they provide spectacular entertainment every year. Far from being a fair fight, the odds of winning the games are stacked against the poor, who are more likely to be selected, and must face well-fed and well-trained opponents from the richer districts. Spoiler: Katniss and Peeta, the other tribute from District 12, are the joint victors of the games that year, something that never happened before and generates much of the drama for the other parts of the trilogy.

Collins says that she was inspired to write The Hunger Games while watching television. On one channel she observed people competing on a reality show and on another she saw footage of the invasion of Iraq. The combination of these two provided the idea for the book. She explains that she has woven together the Roman gladiatorial games with the Greek myth of Theseus. But other themes are also apparent. Even if the author may not have intended them, post-modernism encourages us to discover and discuss these themes.

The games, for example, are a surrogate for war. This is how sport too functions in part in modern societies. The games provide a catharsis, which was the function of the Roman circuses. The name for the country, Panem, by the way, is derived from the Latin phrase Panem et Circenses (Bread and Circuses) and refers to the famous Roman method of keeping the masses pacified.

Collins apparently puts a great deal of thought into choosing the names of both the people and places in her books. Anything to do with the ruling elite clearly has a Roman influence, while the poor have nature-linked, earthy origins. In Panem the “haves” who live in the Capitol thus have Roman-type names, while the "have-nots" who live in the impoverished districts make do with plain names. (Katniss is named after a plant, while the name of Peeta, who is chosen as the male tribute to compete alongside Katniss, and comes from a family of bakers, suggests pita bread. They live in District 12, which the coal-producing part of Appalachia and has a population of only 8,000. Other districts also have small populations.)

The story is set in an apocalyptic future that bears an uncanny resemblance to the present. A wealthy nation recruits its warriors from the ranks of the impoverished young, dresses them up in uniforms, and packs them off to wage war against the impoverished young of other nations. The children of the rich, however, do not have to fight. Wealth is distributed inequitably: the 1% gorge themselves and enjoy unimaginable luxuries, while the 99% are becoming poorer by the day, yet have to pay a disproportionate share of the taxes.

The tributes from the 12 districts in the film

Meanwhile at home, the media rush to televise the conflict. This is war as entertainment, pointing cameras in eager pursuit of bigger audiences and swollen coffers. Individual soldiers are then sought out for their human interest value and, when the bloody circus turns tragic, the callow victims are heralded as fallen heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace.

The teenagers who have read the book and will flock to see the film may not aware of the various themes that are interwoven in this story, but many adults will be troubled by the parallels with our own age. The book (and the film) are an allegory that is intended for our world today. Collins may not have consciously intended everything that some readers will discover in this powerful trilogy, but she was certainly aware that she was writing more than a love story for young adults. If that were the case, the book would already be gathering dust in bookstores.

Allegories, like parables, use metaphors to make their point. Parables generally make a single, unambiguous point, but allegories often have multiple non-contradictory interpretations, and may also have implications that are ambiguous or hard to interpret. The Hunger Games is an allegory that can be read a many levels with a multiplicity of interpretations, and some details are indeed ambiguous and hard to interpret.

A poster for the film

By being simultaneously retro and futuristic, this novel holds a mirror up to the present world and in it we see an ugly reality that we do not necessarily want to face. Yet face it we must.

It is ironic that Collins, who does not refer to religion in this book, has written a work that functions much as the Bible does. The Bible too is a mirror in which we can see ourselves, in this case as God sees us. That picture too is not always pretty. Yet neither The Hunger Games nor the Bible end on a note of despair. On the contrary, there is a strong note of hope in both that inspires people. 

I am not equating The Hunger Games with the Bible. Yet part of the appeal of both is the stark reality they portray as well as the hope they exude. In the novel the heroine is a strong figure who can inspire teenagers and older people as well. While there is a deep, pervading bleakness that inspires this book, hope wins in the end. It is too easy today to wallow in despair when we look at our world, but then we overlook the good that is also present. Good will always triumph over evil.

The popularity of this work is therefore understandable, not only for teenagers but also for their parents and the older generation who have been captivated by the story. While far from being the perfect novel, The Hunger Games is nevertheless an allegory for our age that has attracted many people to both the book and the film. I would like to thank the author for this remarkable creation.


  1. Peeta is a Greek name, a Greek girl's name actually and the boy's name Peter founded the Roman Catholic Church - Peeta / Peter means stone/rock. Also Mitch as in Haymich is Hebrew and means who is like God. Great article - thank you. Just wanted to toss out those two ideas.

  2. Good summary. The analysis is interesting, especially if you despise the U.S. in particular, and Western Civilization in general, and your ultimate goal is to destroy what is good in the world because you're upset at the accompanying "unfairness" that necessarily follows success and wealth. I have a slightly different perspective of the book and movie. See it here: http://littlejoedigginglife.blogspot.com/.

  3. This is a great analysis. Thanks for posting it. I enjoyed The Hunger Games series for many reasons. I wrote a short (and less formal) analysis also It focuses on the empowering aspects of the main character and on the mental health impacts of war: http://pageoneprojects.blogspot.com/2013/12/catching-fire.html

  4. I've been writing about this for a while now. She did make a pretty amazing allegory,intentional or otherwise.
    Don't listen to that fool up there practically accusing you of treason in the self-serving interest,evidently, of promoting his site..., Your observations are indeed relevant and important. :)

  5. It is very intresting to know the names of the tributes.