‘The Hunger Games’ Novel Roundtable Discussion

Just in case you haven’t read The Hunger Games books (2008-2010) yet and plan to, or plan to see the film, there are heavy spoilers below. Proceed with caution!

Mike Mierendorf: In early 2011, when I lived in Chicago and took the L on my daily morning commute downtown, nearly everyone I saw was reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Hunger Games (THG, 2008), Catching Fire (2009), or Mockingjay (2010). Up until my move to Denver in July of 2011, I hadn’t read any of these books. I was certainly intrigued by their popularity, but it wasn’t until I heard that a movie adaptation of The Hunger Games was coming out that I picked up the novel.

Upon reading the first few chapters, it was obvious why it was being adapted for film. However, the basic story of 24 children forced to fight to the death in an arena while the world watches seems to be almost a cliche (think ancient Rome but with kids). The reason 24 children fight to the death is that long ago, North America destroyed itself in a war. After a failed uprising against it, the government (the Capitol) established 12 Districts. Each District was forced to sacrifice two of its children to fight to the death as a continuous punishment for their failed uprising. (We learn there was a 13th district, but it was destroyed by the Capitol in another attempted uprising.)

Why is the book important when considering the state of our rigid and divided political environment?

Mike: How can THG be compared to our current political climate? I’m not sure that it can. Historically, it’s more comparable to ancient Rome, as I previously mentioned. The war suggested by THG author Suzanne Collins parallels the conflict that ended the Roman Republic and initiated the Roman Empire, which was initially led by Augustus. To state that THG is an important piece of literature that exposes readers from capitalist countries to alternative governments may be a stretch.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is somewhat comparable, however. In a broad analogy, the 1% could be looked at as the Capitol and the 99% the citizens of Panem. As we learn in the THG sequels, there are a few districts that are closely aligned to the Capitol and therefore establish a closer connection to the OWS movement. While the Capitol separates the connections within Districts – therefore establishing an isolationist sentiment – the overall thought process of the citizens is, again, solidified from the collective excitement and political build up of the Games.

Courtney Udischas: The people who comprise the lowest rungs of society have always been underrepresented and the most marginalized throughout history. But seemingly powerless people have been responsible for starting movements that, with enough organization and persistence, have given political power to activists who are willing to lead. Katniss Everdeen is a character who leads with her heart, is encouraged by the populace of her District, and challenges authority; she embodies the noble spirit prevalent in the political activism occurring across the country with OWS. As the political theorist Howard Zinn put it, “Ordinary people can be intimidated for a time, can be fooled for a time, but they have a down-deep common sense, and sooner or later they find a way to challenge the power that oppresses them.”

What are the book’s success and failures? How will they translate to the screen?

Mike: THG is an interesting book to dissect when reviewing its successes and failures. It ultimately succeeds as being extremely entertaining and engaging. It isn’t often that the main character is a woman, let alone a reluctant heroic teenager. Katniss is put in an interesting position. Her sacrifice to protect her sister is heroic, as is her protection of Rue and Peeta. Collins succeeds at making you care about Katniss and the sympathetic contestants in the Games. While initially twisting your impression of Peeta, Collins does a good job of keeping a few of the characters’ intentions vague.

I think the greatest failures of the book are the basic plot of how Panem was established and the relationship of Peeta and Katniss. First, the idea that the Capitol government is able to control territories by forcing them to sacrifice their children yearly is almost laughable. That’s exactly the type of threat that would cause a revolution. As most revolutions have shown, it’s not the military power of the governments that usually wins but that of the masses. In the case of fiction – and as a driving point for Katniss and her political motivations to stick it to the Capitol (whether or not she fully realizes them) – the all-powerful Capitol that controls territories through fear and food scarcity is far-fetched.

As for the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, it’s a hollow at best. The red herring that Katniss eventually has to kill Peeta to win is one of the strongest story lines. But it seems like a nice pretty way to wrap up the story by having them trick the Capitol into letting two winners make it through the Games. This leads you to think that if the Capitol is so hellbent on killing 23 teenagers every year, why would it care if no winner comes out in the end?

It should be interesting to see if the backstory of how America becomes Panem is explored in the film to the extent it’s suggested in the novel. In the end, the film will benefit the most from the detailed and exciting arena that Collins developed. Although it is very similar to The Running Man (1987), Battle Royale (2000), or even elements of the novel Lord of the Flies (1954), THG arena is exciting and should translate very well to the screen. With the extremely talented cast and crew, THG has a lot going for it. Jennifer Lawrence is an inspired choice and should be excellent as Katniss. The best casting choice, however, is Woody Harrelson as the seemingly apathetic drunk Haymitch. At the helm, the extremely talented director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit (2003) and Pleasantville (1998)) looks to have crafted an exciting adaptation of the novel.

Courtney: Suzanne Collins started her career as a screenwriter but went on to write young adult fiction, with The Hunger Games being her most remarkable achievement. It’s an impressive novel and a familiar story, in which a future dystopia underlies our current preoccupations with individual freedom and class inequality. Anyone can appreciate this novel and will be hard pressed to put it down after a few chapters. The characters are well fleshed out, but the plot is what drives the reader to keep reading.

Collins obviously has the talent to captivate a wide audience and, along with co-screenwriters Ross and Billy Ray, attempts to do exactly that in the movie adaptation. She also co-produced the film. This is slightly off-putting to me, especially because the world that she creates is down-right terrifying. It would be interesting to see how a skilled movie producer working alone would recreate her world. Instead, the audience will have to rely on the author’s and her collaborators’ vision, which might resemble the book too closely. There’s no way to fuck up a premise in which kids are randomly chosen to slaughter each other while the country watches.

With a PG-13 rating, it’s unlikely we’ll see Tarintino style blood-lust, and the heavier themes might get lost in translation. Realistically, we should see emaciated children trudging to the “reaping,” which decides who will represent the district in a sadistic reenactment of a bloody rebellion. But instead, we’ll probably see Hollywood euphemisms of poverty and total government domination.

How do voyerism and surveillance affect the main characters’ sense of free will?

Mike: One of Collins’ best ideas is blending the concept of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) into the THG. The obsession of audiences with watching children slaughter and murder each other says more about our current standards of reality TV and the desensitization of violence than anything else. Knowing that the entire country of Panem will be watching their every move, the characters shift their motivations to play at the heartstrings of the sadistic audience. Before the games, Peeta says he hopes to die in his own way and not at the control of the Capitol.

I look forward to Katniss and Peeta’s relationship being adapted for the screen – specifically how Katniss takes care of Peeta. Katniss plays to the audience to gain favors and gifts to help her save Peeta’s life. We are never sure if she is doing this because she actually cares for Peeta or just to play to the cameras, as Haymitch had suggested earlier. Later, we are introduced to Katinss’ manipulation of the Capitol through her and Peeta’s apparent suicidal berry eating suggestions.

The cameras remove virtually all senese of free will for the characters. While Katniss’ decisions seem to be her own, she is constantly thinking of the audience (and her friends and family) watching at home and how what she does will affect the game.

Courtney: Katniss Everdeen finds solace and safety in the woods at the edge of District 12, but more importantly, she finds food and friendship with her hunting companion, Gale. They both feel in control of their lives when hunting animals who can’t conceive of free will. Outside of the forest, the Capitol’s pervasive control over their lives mimics the same power dynamic. They are as powerless as animals.

When Peeta and Katniss are chosen as the district’s tributes in the 74th Hunger Games, they both take a different approach when being paraded around for the country’s entertainment. Katniss hesitates to appease the Capitol citizens, while Peeta effortlessly amuses the crowds like a circus elephant. Katniss’ integrity and stubborn nature make her rage against the oppressive Capitol that would rather watch her die. She lives for the few intimate moments with her family and even her fellow competitors in the arena. In these moments, she claims her independence from “Big Brother.”

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