Catching fire: Thoughts on themes in the ‘Hunger Games’

I finally finished reading “The Hunger Games” series this weekend, and what a ride it was. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a series of books that excited me as much as this one has, and I think it deserves the hype it’s been getting. The narrative pulls you in right from the first several chapters, and once I started the series, I couldn’t put it down.

The three-book young adult series has clearly resonated with readers: “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” all have become bestsellers, and the film based on the first novel in the series has taken in more than $350 million in the United States and has broken box office records.

Yet what exactly is it about the Hunger Games that has attracted this much interest, and why have people seemed to find the books so relevant?

Although the books are thought-provoking and smartly written, they aren’t always easy to read. The narrative is rather dark and gritty at times, even for adult readers. The story takes place in a civilization called Panem, a post-apocalyptic society in North America that’s divided into 13 districts. Years ago, the districts of Panem tried to rebel against the oppressive government but were brutally crushed (the 13th district was even obliterated). As punishment for the rebellion, the government started the “Hunger Games,” a televised gladiator-style competition where teenagers are forced to fight to the death.

The names of all 12- to 18-year-olds are placed in a lottery, and each year, two names are drawn from each district (one boy and one girl) to compete as “tributes” in the Hunger Games. The tributes are trained and then placed in an arena with weapons and a limited number of supplies. The last one standing wins.

It’s a rather disturbing and brutal concept, and while author Suzanne Collins doesn’t cheapen the violence and write just for shock value, she doesn’t try to whitewash the content, either. That’s why it’s all the more sickening to watch how the citizens who live in Panem’s prosperous “Capitol” are sheltered from the violence and poverty plaguing the Districts, turning a blind eye to the suffering.

Through her novels, Collins forces her readers to take a hard look at several serious topics, such as politics, social injustice and entertainment, and her narrative serves as a sort of warning about what could happen to our culture in the future if we aren’t vigilant.

Some of the major themes in “The Hunger Games” include poverty, and how it’s easy to forget the “have-nots” when all our own needs are cared for; government control, and the question of how much freedom we’re willing to sacrifice in order to feel secure; and the idea of civic duty, and the responsibility we have to stand up for injustice we see occurring in our communities.

There’s probably a critique on our culture’s obsession with reality television to be found within the pages of Collins’ series, as well. Although there’s nothing on television as brutal or violent as the horrific “Hunger Games,” a lot of reality shows do encourage contestants to do whatever they can to get ahead, no matter who they have to push out of their way (it could be argued that the hit series “Survivor” is a watered-down version of the Hunger Games, the only difference being that contestants don’t actually try to kill each other).

Reality talent competitions frequently humiliate contestants who can’t sing, dance, etc., as well as they think they can. We as the audience laugh at the contestants’ misfortunes, even though sometimes the coverage may boarder on the insensitive or even cruel. Does this make us as bad as the people of Panem’s Capitol? Or is Collins’ point a little subtler? The people at the Capitol are so far removed from the brutality of the Hunger Games and the struggles of the Districts that maybe they cease to view the games as reality — it’s just slickly-produced entertainment. That’s almost the way we view reality television; we consume so much entertainment that what we watch starts to lose its impact, and the line between what’s real and what’s manufactured (which, truthfully, is probably most of “reality” television) becomes blurred.

The book includes plenty of political food for thought, as well. Cinema365, a blog I follow on, brings up a good point in that the Hunger Games could be used as a metaphor by both sides of the political spectrum. Activist groups like the Tea Party might identify with the Districts of Panem, viewing Panem’s controlling Capitol as a symbol of the United States’ slow movement towards more government oversight and socialism. Conversely, the “Occupy” protesters might also identify with the repressed Districts, and they might see the Capitol as a symbol for the privileged “1 percent” who are living the good life while the rest of the “99 percent” struggle to get by. Or, one could even make the argument the Capitol is a symbol of the United States itself; is our nation too comfortable, content to take our freedom and prosperity for granted, while people living in third world countries are suffering from poverty, violence and starvation? It’s definitely a question we should consider.

I don’t think Collins is trying to argue for one side or the other (especially since she started her series before the Tea Party and Occupy movements began to gain in popularity). I also don’t think she wants to let us off that easily by taking a particular stance. “The Hunger Games” is intended to make us stop and think, and I believe that’s exactly what these novels have done for our culture. The series is definitely worth a read, and I hope it continues encouraging people to take a closer look at tough topics and make sure we don’t become a “Panem” further down the road.