Brandon's Notepad

February 3, 2014

The Hunger Games


I never intended to read this book, but with the second movie in the theaters, I thought it was high time to get caught up. There is a lot of information about this story online, including this very informative wiki site, so I chose to provide a brief synopsis and to expound on a few observations I made while reading the book.


Synopsis

This synopsis is on the book. At the time of this writing, I have not yet seen the movie, so I do not know how faithful it is to the original story. Based on what I’ve read in the wiki pages I know that there are at least a few minor differences.

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

The story is set in a future North America, now called Panem. Following the destruction of modern civilization by natural forces, a totalitarian government called the Capitol arose and established rule over twelve districts. Each district provides different goods and services to the oppressive government. After a failed revolution by the districts against the Capitol, the Treaty of Treason was enacted. It contained penitential provisions including the institution of an annual contest called The Hunger Games in which every district must enroll one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, chosen by lottery, to fight to the death in an outdoor arena controlled by the Capitol’s Gamemakers. These youth are called tributes and the lottery is called the reaping. This is the story of the 74th Hunger Games.

District Twelve is one of the poorest districts and has not had a Hunger Games victory in a long time. The tributes from Twelve, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, make a stunning impression during the opening ceremonies and are cast as star-crossed lovers. The 74th Hunger Games begin as normal, but as it becomes more likely that Katniss and Peeta must face one another as enemies in the arena, the Gamemakers change the rules, announcing that if the final two tributes are from the same district then they will be declared co-winners. This results in the formation of natural alliances between various remaining tributes, including Katniss and Peeta. The team from Twelve eventually win, but when the Gamemakers retract the rule change, Katniss proposes a suicide pact. She presumes that the Gamemakers will not allow them to end the games without a winner for if they were both to die then they would be martyrs in resistance against the Capitol and that could lead to civil unrest and even rebellion within the districts. When the Gamemakers realize what they are about to do, they quickly announce the two tributes as winners just before their plan can be fully executed.

My Initial Reaction

I really wanted to hate this story. Pitting children against one another in a death match, much less making it a game that some youths spend their whole lives in training to win, is not what I consider a very wholesome theme. To be honest, the thought still turns my stomach. What’s more, I heard nothing about the movie but how violent it is. This is why I didn’t read the book or see the film for so long. In the end though, I did enjoy the book, not just because it was fairly well-written with good characterization and subplots, but because it did not glorify the murder of children as I had first expected. Instead, it actually reinforced moral arguments against it.

Analysis

Basis. The story was much easier digest once I understood that it was loosely based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In one version of that story the city of Athens must give up nine courageous boys and nine beautiful maidens every nine years as a tribute after suffering a major military defeat to Crete. The children are sent into Daedalus’ labyrinth where the Minotaur monster lives, and there they are killed and eaten. Theseus, who is secretly the son of the Athenian king, volunteers as a tribute with the intention of killing the Minotaur and ending the bloody ritual. With this in mind, I was able to force myself to stop pondering how the surviving descendants of Americans living in Panem could totally abandon Judeo-Christian morals in favor of the Capitol’s version of justice and focus more deeply on the story at hand.

Self-Sacrifice. The only overt expression of the Christian ethos is Katniss’ choice to volunteer to be a tribute in place of her younger sister, Prim. One might hope to see the tributes stand united, refusing to fight one another and accepting death at the hands of the Gamemakers. In this way, they would resemble early Christian martyrs. But this is not the plot the author chose, so we must trudge forward toward a less edifying treatment of the human condition.

Violence. Insofar as the book is concerned, the depiction of violence was no worse than any war novel I’ve ever read, and was actually far more tame than some. Fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker have no voice in this debate whatsoever. Some of the tributes are developed as characters easy to hate, the career tributes in particular since they are trained to be killers. Katniss is different. She is not a killer but a survivor and all of her ‘kills’ are presented as justifiable. Glimmer and the girl from District Four die from stings when Katniss drops a nest of genetically enhanced wasps on them. Katniss was cornered at that time, trapped in a tree, and if she had not done this then her own fate was imminent. She shot the male from District One after he kills her only ally, Rue. This happened so quickly that I interpreted it as an instinctive reaction, the elimination of an immediate threat, and not a vengeful murder in cold blood. The slaying of her final adversary, Cato, was depicted as a mercy killing for he was already being torn to shreds by mutant beasts created by the Gamemakers. As for the suicide pact with Peeta, that scene was reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.

The Twist. The rule change made by the Gamemakers was very predictable in my opinion, and because it came at the point in the plot where it did, its reversal was even more so. Though I wasn’t necessarily expecting Katniss’ suicide wager, it was an obvious course of action given that neither tribute could bring themselves to kill the other and then pretend to live a normal life afterward. The biggest question left on my mind was whether or not the rule change (and/or its retraction) was announced to the watching public or only within the arena. After all, the Gamemakers do control what footage is released to the masses. That the star-crossed lovers had formed an alliance under the assumption that one of them would eventually be killed at the hands of another tribute would not have seemed unusual, and a final battle between them should they be the last two standing would have provided the ultimate in entertainment. The Gamemakers did not expect the suicide pact, however, and if Katniss and Peeta had succeeded then the secret rule change would have been exposed and the two from Twelve would had won the games together, at least in principle, for the Capitol would have had no way to cover up their rebellious act.

Etymologies. As long as its done well, I really appreciate it when authors give meaningful names to their characters. It just adds a different dimension to the characterization, a deeper sense of personality. Subtlety is key.

The name Katniss is a prime example, referring not only to an edible plant, thereby underscoring her ability to survive off of the land, but also to Sagittarius, the famous archer in Greek mythology, as a testimony to her skill as a hunter. Peeta is the son of a baker in District Twelve and so he known to Katniss as ‘the boy with the bread’. I found no official word that this pun was intended by the author, but many have noted online that the sound of his name is strikingly similar to ‘pita’ which is, of course, the name of a pocketed flatbread. (Because I was listening to the audiobook version, I thought at first that his name was actually Peter and that the narrator was pronouncing it with a slight English accent, that is until I looked it up online.) The names of some of the other tributes were really just nicknames, such as Foxface, whose name was derived not only from her red hair and slender facial features but also from her stealthiness. Similarly, Thresh’s name is certainly derived from the agricultural term, he being from District Eleven where agriculture is the primary industry. He seeks refuge in a wheat field because he is familiar with that type of terrain and knows how to prepare food from the crop. Moreover, the threshing of grains involves beating them until they separate from the chaff, and Thresh’s primary asset is his strength, which he uses to crush the head of Clove with a rock. I do find the selection of Cato’s name puzzling in a way. Based on baby name sites, it means wise or all-knowing. I find this ironic, not because he wasn’t a smart contender, but because we was immature and emotional, traits that overshadowed any real wisdom he may have possessed.

The application of meaningful names isn’t limited to the human characters in this story but extends to places and things as well. Consider Panem. At first glance one might assume it is a futuristic transliteration or abbreviated form of “Pan-American”. Indeed, the author may have banked on this illusory reference, but anyone who has studied even basic Latin should pick up on the root word for bread. The Latin phrase panem et circenses (“bread and games”) is used to refer to a superficial means of appeasement of the people through the satisfaction of shallow needs (i.e. the need for entertainment in this case). This phrase was used to describe Rome during its decline when the people lived in luxury with an insatiable appetite for entertainment, including games in which human captives battled beasts in an arena. Though the term was certainly borrowed from the Theseus myth, the word tribute literally means something that is paid, such as a tax paid to a ruler for protection. Tessera is a Latin word for inscribed stones or tiles that were commonly used as theater tickets. In Panem, tesserae are tokens for food rations given to a youth in exchange for additional entries in the reaping lottery (or to put it more morbidly, extra tickets to the Games).

As you can see, the author’s borrowing of terms from antiquity is far from trite and should earn for her some respect from the intellectual reader. I just find it curious that a culture having limited knowledge of history beyond the previous seventy-five years or so employs so much ancient vocabulary in their vernacular, especially since the meanings of the words often depend on historical context. Perhaps those in the Capitol are not so ignorant, and knowing that knowledge is power, they keep the inhabitants of the districts uneducated about the culture of their ancestors.

The Art of War. I’ve read a few books on military strategy in my time and I couldn’t help but notice how some parts of the narrative sounded like the excerpts from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. For example, Katniss preferred not to travel in the valley, because she felt exposed to predators, but would much rather traverse the hills, allowing her to fight down hill. She also knows how important it is to learn your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, skills and tactics, and to know your own limitations as well. She uses incendiary warfare to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines. The Gamemakers understand that there are different types of terrain (ground) and that the tributes may enter them only under certain circumstances. They use disruptions to guide the tributes’ movements. Espionage and alliances definitely play a role. It should come as no surprise though. Sun Tzu is a short treatise on warfare that can be easily digested and is probably used quite often as a quick reference by authors when writing battle stories. Plus, she’s the daughter of an Air Force officer and Vietnam War veteran, so she has a subject matter expert close at hand.

Rule By Fear. The Hunger Games has an effect beyond the simple penance they impose. They reinforce the Capitol’s dominion over the districts, but they also hinder the districts from organizing an effective force against the oppressive government. There is the preparation for the games themselves. That several districts raise and train elite youths to be tributes expose where their resources are expended. Other districts are poor and must work hard to survive. Rivalries between districts also reduce the likelihood that rebellious alliances will form. Over time, the Games have been accepted as part of life in Panem, as horrific and as wrong as they may be, and the people are desensitized to the violence. To paraphrase the author, after the children are reaped everyone in the district rejoices save but two households, which close tight the shutters on the windows and figure out how they are going to make it through the coming weeks. This is a potentially volatile environment, so the Capitol is careful to put down any action that might encourage resistance or rebellion through police action.

Political Message. I was told by a friend that the book was published shortly after the tragic events of 9-11 and (more pointedly) the passage of the Patriot Act…well, by shortly I mean within a year or two. The implication was that Panem and the Capitol are warnings of what will happen to the U.S.A. should we continue to follow leaders like George W. Bush. Now, this is just his opinion mind you, though he did said “he read all about it on the Internet”. Honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to substantiate his claim, but if I have a chance to do so in the future then I will update this section with my findings. All I can say is that The Hunger Games wasn’t published until 2008, and it appears that the author was quite busy writing other books in the meantime. One might surmise that the timing of the book’s first publication less than two months before the 2008 presidential election was a little too coincidental. But then, the case can also be made that political conservatives could be just as likely to interpret the work as warning against the “evils” of a possible liberal administration. Just maybe, if any political message was intended at all, it was kept vague and flexible enough to make the story seem timely regardless of the current political atmosphere. If that was done with purpose, then well played, Mrs. Collins, well played indeed!

Conclusion

Though I enjoyed the story as it unfolded and the opportunity to reflect more deeply on its intricacies, I still question whether or not this book contains a theme too mature for pre-teen readers. I remember reading the story of Theseus and the Minotaur around that age, and fighting against a vicious beast to survive may be acceptable, but I do not see the need for a twelve-year-old to wrestle with the moral dilemma of being forced to kill their friends, classmates, and neighbors. With regard to the culture statement made by this work, I ended the book with the notion that the sequels will contain the story of a second revolution, a small seed of hope that liberty will indeed survive the wrath of the Capitol. When I mentioned this to a friend I was reassured more with a smile than with words that I won’t be disappointed in the outcome. With that, Catching Fire is already loaded into my vehicle’s six-disc changer and I brace myself for another eleven hours of agony and adventure.


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2 Comments

  1. Nice job, Brandon! I enjoyed reading this very much. I await your reaction to Catching Fire!

    Comment by tlsouthard — February 4, 2014 @ 6:18 am

  2. Great post! Not my kind of book, however. I have seen a lot about it and it is wildly popular but no, not for me.

    Comment by melissaboyettbrinkley — February 5, 2014 @ 7:21 am


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