Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hunger Games

I have been reading the first two books of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular YA science fiction trilogy, THE HUNGER GAMES, and I am seriously disturbed.

Not by the extreme violence of the books. I think it's now a given that young readers can accept violence. Nor do I think this is due only to video games, current movies, etc. My own teen-age reveries, which consisted of stories I constantly made up for myself , were also pretty violent, and then was back in the early Triassic. Imaginative kids know how violent the real world can be.

And Collins' books have a lot to recommend them: fast pace, some nice writing, a lot of excitement, an appealing heroine, Katniss. Collins is even able to reconcile Katniss' likability with the fact that she kills people, mostly by showing both the dire necessity to do so and Katniss' deep regret and remorse.

What disturbs me about these books is their total implausibility, and the fact that this apparently bothers no one, neither young readers nor the journals that give the novels glowing reviews (BOOKLIST, LIBRARY JOURNAL, PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY). Here is the set-up: a future United States is conquered by a brutal "Capitol" that suggests a high-tech ancient Rome. Each year, each conquered District must send two children to compete in televised gladiatorial games to the death, to which the Gamemakers also contribute various devices and procedures of agonizing torture. This has been going on for 75 years without uprisings from the Districts. We're expected to believe that torturing their children keeps parents passive, rather than as enraged as a she-bear with cubs.

I don't believe it. Parents would not passively send twelve-year-olds, year after year, to torture. An entire population would not watch these televised Games without a resistance movement arising sooner than 75 years. Not even Rome featured child gladiators. And since District 12, unlike the others, is guarded by fairly benign soldiers who participate in its black market and don't guard the fence around the District very well, at least some adults would slip through to hunt the plentiful game in the woods outside. But, no, only two teenagers, Katniss and her friend Gale, do so. It is, of course, a tradition in YA that adults fade into the background, but here all adults are either passive, incompetent, or brutal.

And this is not fantasy, but SF. Katniss, unlike Harry Potter re Dumbledore, has no particular magical talent or inherited status to justify being relied on by adults. It's just that all the adults are inept, cowardly, or both. What really bothers me about all this is that apparently SF does not have to be psychologically believable. Suzanne Collins is selling hundreds of thousands of these books, and I find that discouraging.


ClothDragon said...

As a Mom, I might agree, but I haven't lived in a dicatator society on the edge of starving to death -- and she does a good job of showing the emotionality of the characters -- involving us in their lives. (I also didn't read it as "The Capitol" conquering the US, but the capital and the districts coming out of some unspoken apocalyptic event so that might have some bearing on my willingness to follow along.)

The story itself was taken from mythology:

The tribute of 14 children that Athens was required to offer Crete yearly to feed the minotaur. (No, I didn't place it myself, sadly. I actually happened to catch a reference on one of the blogs I follow after I read the first book.

But I get your point. Starting off with a reference point of today's world, the idea of offering up our children for violence is far from believable. I LOVED Torchwood until the Children of Earth special. Now I don't know if I'll be able to watch it again even if James Marsters comes back.

teflaime said...

I think it appeals to the same brain string that Battle Royale pulls at. It doesn't have to be believable, it just has to be bloody and gruesome.

Nancy Kress said...

The tribute of kids to feed the Minotaur wasn't televised yearly as required watching throughout all of Greece. Also, when religion is involved, justifications take on an entirely different cast that is missing from THE HUNGER GAMES.

Joe said...

I thought that the books mentioned that anytime the barest hint of an uprising came around, the Capitol stamped down hard - with the biggest example being that of...oh, what was it...the 13th District? The "lost" District that was destroyed and was theoretically a wasteland.

Otherwise, I agree with Grumpy. I don't necessarily have to be able to believe that this was a plausible timeline of events, just that it did "happen" and then bring on the nasty. It's sort of like Stephen King's The Long Walk. I don't buy an America where that's a plausible event, but I loved the book.

Unknown said...

I just finished reading book one after all the Twitter posts about it being fabulous. I have to agree with you. I liked the way she wrote the characters and she certainly did the fast-paced tension well. However, the topic of the book (children killing children) disturbed me, as did the inconsistency of the environment.

The starving nature of district 12 when everything is also televised didn't jibe well with me. Nor did the arena itself, featuring 80-foot trees and entire lakes that can be drained at will.

I give it 3 stars out of 5, since it was engrossing and had some good writing but overall didn't really do it for me.

June G said...

I just bought the Hunger Games because of all the hype and I had to find out what all the fuss is about. I can't judge what you've said because I haven't read the book, but it's good to see someone thinking outside of the box. So much that is negative, becomes accepted as the norm, people don't bat an eye or even question it. That is disturbing...and scary.

MonsterAteMy said...

I consider these dystopian, like "1984" or "Brave New World". I guess you could take issue with the way she's extrapolated her version of the future, but on the other hand, it's fiction. She has no obligation to be plausible. This kind of novel, for me anyway, rests beneath the larger canopy of speculative fiction, but does not mesh perfectly with a straightforward SF or fantasy label.
This is one of the great things about the YA section right now. Books all along this spectrum are sitting comfortably side by side, and no one worries about whether to put a rocket or a (sword? unicorn? ...can't think what icon is used for fantasy at the moment...)on their spines.

SQT said...

I look at it this way-- the books are written for teenagers. What teen hasn't felt alienated by their parents? Or been in that know-it-all stage where they're convinced mom is too stupid to understand anything? These books are an exaggeration of that in my opinion. They're meant to make the teen characters seem to be far more capable than the useless adults so the teen readers can vicariously live through the characters. It's not meant to be realistic, just something the young reader imagine they relate to.

Most YA fiction I've read has similar devices that take the parents/adults out of the picture so the kids can be on their own to solve the big problems. Obviously those of us who have kids know how silly the plot device is, But try telling that to a 13-year-old.

TheOFloinn said...

I'm reading Morris' biography of Teddy Roosevelt, and it seems the young boy used to make up stories of adventure, which he told to his brother and sisters. They all involved improbable adventures involving a young boy of Teddy's age fighting strange and monstrous animals in unexplored parts of the world.

(He also had the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History in his bedroom. That dude would have been One of Us had there been SF at the time.)

I'm also thinking of the Heinlein juveniles, most of which involved absent, dysfunctional, or well-meaning but inept parents. Cf. Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky, Between Planets, etc.

In some cases, the Young Hero must kill someone; but more often does not or instead rescues someone. Only in Tunnel in the Sky (IIRC) does he have children killing children.

IOW, I think there really has been a coarsening of the culture.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

I agree that Collins' dystopia leaves much to be desired. That was my least favourite part of the book, because, as you point out, Collins is very vague about how the Capitol maintains power. I think it's possible to cobble together a defence just using the book, but it's a stretch.

I would like to agree that parents would never continue to send twelve-year-olds off to die, I'm not that optimistic. I look around and I see children dying the world over, children fighting as soldiers, and children being abused on reality television. No one is staging a rebellion to liberate the Gosselin siblings.

I'm not trying to compare the adults of District 12 to warlords. My point is that humans are remarkably adaptable, but that adaptability goes two ways. Often we have adapted to and tolerated injustice when we should have stood our ground and said no. Collins definitely could have provided more insight into how this mindset has settled upon the Districts instead of merely insisting that it has. But the lack of rebellion alone I find plausible, if not well-explained.

Anonymous said...


Paul Genesse said...

Dear Nancy,

I'm a fan of your books on writing, and agree with you 100% that the plausibility of the Hunger Games novels is the biggest issue, no doubt. If you're a writer, which a bunch of us who follow your blog posts are, you probably see the cracks in the foundation right away. I've voiced the plausibility idea with friends and fans of the books several times and found few people who even questioned it.

However, I do enjoy the characters and their story arc. I also love it that people who say they don't read sci-fi are reading and loving these books. I also love that when I do school visits now the kids are talking about Hunger Games and less about Twilight, which I detested.

As far as pop books that are pushed by the media and publishing industry go, the Hunger Games novels are pretty good ones overall to have out there front and center.


Paul Genesse
Author of The Golden Cord

Najela said...

I'm sure there's a more logical reason that the author knows about, but we get the story through Katniss's point of view and I'm pretty sure she's filter fed some BS about the horrors of her world and the origin of the Hunger Games just like we're fed some watered down history of the US. There was never an opportunity (maybe in the 3rd book?) for her to learn more. I'd like to think that there was more to it than that, but I might be reading into things too much.

Tabitha said...

Your post here is currently being discussed on The League of Extraordinary Writers blog ( So far, I'm the only one who has publicly agreed with you. :)

If someone tried to take my kids and put them in a situation where it was almost certain they'd be killed--or, if they survived, they'd be seriously emotionally scarred--I would put up one hell of a fight. My mom would have done the same for me, too. However, I'm not so sure her mom would have done that for her. She just doesn't have that much fight in her, like Katniss's mom. But Katniss is willing to take her sister's place in order to protect her. I just don't buy that, in 75 years, no parents would have felt the same way and tried to do something about it. Someone, somewhere, would have.

Tere Kirkland said...

I think we here in the very privileged US, it's hard to think of a world like this. But the fact remains that it is indeed a DYSTOPIA that Collins is writing about.

Would you let your kids get insane plastic surgery at age 16 to assimilate into what society deems normal, like Westerfeld's Uglies? No, because we can't imagine our country coming to that.

And in Westerfeld's world, it was essentially the destruction of petrochemicals and our reliance upon them that led to this dystopia. Seems like a huge leap from that cataclysm to "Pretty" surgery, but I like to think that both Westerfeld and Collins created these worlds our of frustration with various parts of our society.

Reliance on oil, the importance of physical beauty, and the nature of war and the media are all important problems that today's youth are smart enough to be able to glean from these books.

And if we can get kids to talk about these things, to analyze them and really get it, then Collins and her colleagues deserve the praise their books have received and more.

Okie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Okie said...

Part of what appealed to me in Hunger Games (in addition to the writing itself, the character development, etc) was the creepy reality of the story.

As we look at our current society as it exists right now, I'll agree that if the government was to round up kids for a fight to the death, there would be outrage.

However, as another poster pointed out, there are similar situations in history and in the world today...and while these situations often receive protest and outrage (sometimes even formal force against them such as in the case of sex trafficking, etc), they still happen and the population at large is helpless to actually stop it.

Looking at the Games, I suspect that in the backstory of the Capitol's first Games there was outrage and fear...but it was likely subdued quickly by the forcibly strong hand of the government. In the end, the sacrifice of 2 children from each community was made in order to save the lives of hundreds and thousands of others living in the country. While the hatred and contempt for the institution still exists, it is held in check by fear of the power and the desire to maintain a level of peace and decorum for the greater good.

So there are situations where we literally sacrifice our young ones by sending them off to war (granted, they're older than the kids in the books) or other horrific experiences. In these cases the 'kids' are sacrificed to fulfill the whims and rules of others.

I look at other situations where the parents are actually sending their own children off as lambs to the slaughter. I'm thinking of parents who (nearly from birth) are pushing their kids to be fashion models, sports stars, music stars or something else. The freedom of the kids is taken away as they are pushed into a lifestyle. They grow up in such a rigorous situation that it seems normal.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think it's great for kids to be passionate about something and to get involved in sports/music/modeling/acting/etc if that's what they want.

But I see a sort of parallel in the fact that there is a sacrifice of freedoms and, to an extent, their entire life (a child who from birth is destined to be the next big singing star loses many freedoms of choice in terms of developing their own desires or even just "being a kid").

Sure, there are some elements that are unbelievable based on our own current context and perspective. But that's the way it is with anything set in a fantastic world. When Orwell wrote 1984, a lot of similar conversations happened...and yet in current society a lot of people are comparing modern government oversight and involvement to some of his Big Brother ideas. We're not yet to the same extreme Orwell suggested, but there are plenty of glimpses of truth.

So, we may never (hopefully) reach the extremes presented in Hunger Games but I see many of the nuances as being not only possible but sadly inevitable in some cases.

Okie said...

Oh, and because I don't want to have my reply mistaken as inflammatory or provocative, I do want to comment that I really like your blog (just found it) and I felt like this post is thoughtful, insightful and very well stated.

Thanks. :)

Unknown said...

I'd like to think I'd fight for my kids too.

At the same time, I was able to suspend belief while I read the Hunger Games trilogy because ... there are a huge lot more sheep than goats in the world. I just figured the natural dissenters had already been eliminated.

Remember the Holocaust. While it wasn't an exact parallel, the dynamics were similar in many places.

plantfood said...

Thank you for your review. I thought I was the only one who was bothered by this. As a parent, I would die before I would let my children be murdered. I would never have had children knowing this could happen to them. And I certainly don't believe people would get make a big party and enjoy sending their kids off, like some of the districts do. I would be more likely to believe it if no one remembered it being any other way and people saw it as necessary. But not in this context. In history, when we've allowed children to be killed for no reason, they are children of others, outsiders who are brought here, slaves, people of different colors who we can delude ourselves are different.

I know adolescents need books that make them feel empowered and play on their frustration with their parents, but the horrible adults in this (all of whom had to have been on the lists as some point themselves) just make me angry.

HeavyMetalMonster said...

I myslef am a teen who has read this amazing book. Of course, it isnt very realistic when you think about the fact that adults would never send 12 year olds to the hunger games, but it is just nice to read something so out of reality, so different. Not everyone will enjoy this book, but i think it is interesting and very well written. Sometimes, it is just cool to read something you've never heard of, and maybe never want to hear of again. so, i think your opinion makes sense, but everyone sees the book in a different way.

rose said...

I think that The Hunger Games are so dramatic book but I love the dramatic things and I think that that's a very good book.
You can follow me:

HowLynnTime said...

Ok I love the books and hate them at the same time.
Could it happen? Why not?
Our rights have been slowly going away and other than a few facebook rants - nobody is doing much about it.
Think we are free or have rights of any kind? Lets look at the 'child support' game. I am not in any way debating that dads are a huge thing in a childs life - nor do I want to say they should not support the children they father. This system does nothing to help anyone. It doesn't help the mom, the kids and sure not any male. Remember this is what you are willing to leave your sons Momma Bears.
It is not necessary for any male to father a child to be required to have his income confiscated. He is without any avenue to stop it - the only reqirement is to be "named" as the father and the custodial parent apply for welfare. The state will persue.
Now - you don't get to offer to pay what you can afford gentlemen, and don't loose a job or become ill. If you die - they will go after your estate.
The money does not go to the children - they have no right to it or any say in how it's spent. Yes lots of moms spend every dime on the children - but there is no requirement for this to take place.

Say Dad wants to be the good guy and sends a large cash amount to help with stuff - this is a gift and does not count toward the governments demand.

It can't be waved. It can't be taken away in bankruptcy. It is due no matter if he is in a coma, in service of our country, or homeless.

when he reaches a stage of 2500$ behind - his drivers licence is revoked as is his passport. Think he may need to make a living?

If he continues to be poor - unable to work thanks to being on foot -any licence he has to make a living is revoked. Then like the old days of debtors prison - he will be put in jail until the full amount is paid.

His crime is that he had a rough patch - he was called to duty - he lost his job.

We won't even begin the hostile visitation issues - where his children are basicly stolen from his life and at the mercy of good will of the custodial.

The suicide rates have gone insane and nobody cares.

This is the world you are inviting you sons to grow into.
Does taking away any ability to support them - help the children? So is it ok to make the children suffer to punish someone who has had some normal life setback? But we are all for it.

Like I said - not in any debat that parents should parent - support and love. I am explaining what we are willing to accept from our government right now - and how it affects children. Nobody cares - they believe the dead beat band wagon - because we are told to believe it. Half our population is now subject to slavery which does hurt children - no matter the good intent.

How does all that have anything to do with hunger games?

HowLynnTime said...

How does all that have anything to do with hunger games?

Back in 1951 a book called Farenheit 451 was written. In the book a contoling gov. banned all books. having one was a crime and If you found out someone had one - the firemen were called to burn them.
Back then (3 years before our highway system we know today) a ten lane highway was thought to be so horrible nobody could imagine anyone surviving such a terrible thing. Soon -there were 10 lane highways. Now we have 24 lane highways.
There are 18 symbols from 451 that are used in Hunger Games exactly - think I am kidding? What is Katniss' squad number in Mockingjay? 451
451 the temperature paper ignites.

The symbols of fire are used in both to convey both destruction and hope. The bird equals the rebel spirit in both. The highway in 451 - equals the trains to the capital - symbols of a world moving to fast to its doom.

television controls the population in both (in 451 called the parlor walls - most didn't own a TV then)

We are beyond much of what people once thought was dystopia 60 years ago. in 451 - Clarisse is afraid of children her own age because they kill each other - we have a bit of that now - gang wars-school shootings. Lots of mammas - still going on.

We rely on TV to inform us now. How much do we hear about the control of finances offered by our government to any wayward parent?

Rememember the first Survivor? Some of them came away with real health issues for the chance to win a million dollars - they have since done away with some of the Hunger Game aspect of the show.

You are voted off - not killed off - but you do suffer - for the entertainment of the masses.

How far are we really from the hunger games? We watch thousands of hours of brutality - and comfort ourselves that it's hollywood. We ban books if someone has sex or says an unlikeable word- but having their heads hacked off or any horrible way to die is fine.
What would it take to get some desperate poor mom to offer up a rebel smart mouth teen - going to join a gang and die anyway - for our entertainment? Is it really that far fetched? "My dear Miss Everdean, I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other"

Its disturbing to me - just my opinion - but I don't think it's that far

Wayne said...

NEW HUNGER GAMES NEWS! Jennifer Lawrence is going to play Katniss in the Hunger Games movie!

Unknown said...

I liked the book because it shows that anybody can survive in a society that has very limited resources to live off of. This shows that you can rely on yourself and try not live off of other people around you.

Wayne said...

I wonder who else is gonna be cast in the Hunger Games movie! Jennifer Lawrence wasn't my first choice bc she wasn't who I pictured, but she's such an amazing actress and they will make her look just like Katniss so I approve!

Wayne said...

I wasn't sure if I liked the casting for hunger games so far, but after reading this interview w/ gary ross and suzanne collins I think they are gonna do it right!

Wayne said...

RUE & THRESH have been cast. Great picks. Awesome!!

bright-eyes said...

I am completely engrossed by the books and don't think it has to be completely believable. It's the writing that makes it so.

I don't think it's meant to be read by a 12 and 13 year olds unless may be guided by an adult. I think it's more geared towards older teens and adults.

It's certainly an extreme critique of society at large though.
Have a read:

Svyettlana Parry said...

I love the Hunger Games books. I can't wait until they make a movie!

shaley said...

hey HowLynnTime, my sister have read all 3 books and i'm wondering if it's worth my tme reading it - and then you convinced me. I was concerned about the morality issues but then I read or watch it on the news everyday, so I'll definitely be reading. Hope the movie stays true to the book.

Teclord said...

Teclord said...

Crazy Children said...

chill out!!! its a BOOK!! im a kid and i love this!! its not all about what u said.... what about the love?? or trying to rebel??? gosh ur stupid

Alyc said...

As an anthropologist and economist, I agree there are a lot of implausibilities with the world-building, to the point where I wish Collins hadn't given us certain specific details because it throws me out of what is otherwise an engaging parable. Clearly, the technology of Panem is too far advanced to be coal-based. Even if it were, how could the production of one 8,000 person community support _all_ the other districts? With the clearly advanced technologies available to the Capital, why would they even be concerned with such a small community 2/3s of a continent away (Appalachians to the Rockies)? Why would anyone develop a totalitarian economic model where the other districts are arrayed like beads on a string along a single transportation line? It isn't the least bit feasible or sustainable.

Hunger Games works very well as a dystopian parable. I just wish it had been set in a secondary world where Collins wouldn't be tempted to give us details that break verisimilitude.