The Hunger Games and other dystopian ruminations

Hey, kids–

Some of you may be sitting in line right now to get into the next showing of the movie The Hunger Games. Some of you may have read the trilogy already, by Suzanne Collins.

Some of you may have been under a rock for the past…well, a while. Collins’ book The Hunger Games was first released in 2008, and started making a lot of buzz in YA circles, though it’s found a much larger audience with whom its themes resonate.
Want to know more about why that might be and what that’s about? Read on!

Collins’ book is considered “dystopian,” and thus joins some great company in the literary world. “Dystopia” refers to a society (usually at some point “in the future”) under the thumb of a repressive, controlling state that may or may not represent itself as “utopian,” thus contributing to the idea that no, you’re not actually in a repressive situation. You just think you might be. Or maybe you don’t, and you believe the hype and drink the Kool-Aid.

source: Bottom of the Glass blog (re-sized here)

In Collins’ book (and the movie), the repressive state is in North America. Twelve impoverished districts must give up two of their teens each year to the decadent, controlling Capitol to participate in a series of games in which youth battle to the death to survive. The games are broadcast, like reality TV, throughout the districts. The games are a payment the districts are forced to make because of the uprising of a thirteenth district. The rebellion was put down, but the remaining twelve are forced to remember it through the games. Our heroine in The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, and I won’t reveal much more in case you haven’t read the books or seen the movie.

Like other authors who write dystopian works of literature, Collins explores themes and issues that face us as a contemporary society. The corruption and decadence of a ruling elite with access to whatever consumer goods and comforts they want while a big chunk of the society is kept impoverished and beholden to the elite is one of those. She explores the nature of violence, and how we as a culture can become desensitized to it through constant repetition of it in popular media, so that the idea of teens brutally killing each other on a broadcast to a large audience is “just the way it is.” And she explores the idea of redemption, and how or whether someone can overcome these burdens to do something different, for a greater good.

I’d say, too, that the idea of “responsibility” falls heavily on our heroine. She has responsibility to herself to survive the games, but does she also have the responsibility to try to make things better for her family? For her district? For everyone who is not part of the elite, corrupt society? If she feels she does, and she fails, will she not put everyone in danger for even more brutality from the elite, especially in light of what happened when the thirteenth district tried and failed to rebel?

These are big questions, which may not have answers, and that’s part of the allure of dystopian fiction. They’re “what if” scenarios that reflect things we might all feel uneasy about in the common zeitgeist. Stories like this help us think about things like that in an arena that isn’t quite ours, though its themes might resonate with us. In that regard, we’re granted a bit of distance, if you will, and we can put a book down and think, “Wow. That was totally scary. Good thing it’s not really happening.” But in the backs of our minds, we’re able to draw parallels between the dystopia and our own contexts, and that makes us uneasy.

That uneasiness is what drives some writers to create larger-than-life scenarios, and that uneasiness attracts readers because as humans, we’re immensely curious about all kinds of things but we don’t often like to be told directly what we might be doing wrong. Dystopian literature and movies help us see some reflections/projections about ourselves and our societies that might make us think, without necessarily beating us over the head with them. In that regard, it can be an effective tool to explore the nature of us and what we do and what we think.

In the case of The Hunger Games, there’s a certain irony to engaging with the trilogy (and the movie), because it feeds our other human penchant for voyeurism, which drives reality TV and taps into the basest instincts and aspects of humans (akin to what happens at some sporting events). In order to see the mirror, after all, we have to go look for it.

At any rate, I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction and movies, because I think they offer interesting critiques on sociopolitical systems and human nature. So here are some links to help you, in case you’re not familiar with the range of this genre.

Snarkerati has a fab list of what they call the top 50 (plus a few more) dystopic movies. Here you go.

Of that, I recommend Children of Men (2006, and loosely adapted from a 1992 novel by PD James), about a dystopian England in which something has caused women to be unable to get pregnant because men’s sperm counts have dropped to practically zero. But when one woman shows up pregnant, the implications are, as you can imagine, astounding and frightening. I also enjoyed V for Vendetta (2005), another UK dystopian film about an all-controlling state (and based on a graphic novel). See also Brazil (1985), which really stuck with me more because of its subtlety than any giant screen effects. Also, Bladerunner (1982), which is one of my all-time fave films, based on a novel by Philip Dick. I also enjoyed Gattaca (1997). And don’t forget The Matrix. Personally, I think the first (1999) is the best of that series.

Top 12 dystopic novels, from Listverse.

I particularly think Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which was also a 1990 film, but the book has more impact, I think) has some scary parallels with what’s going on politically at the moment, and the avalanche of legislation geared toward curtailing women’s access to healthcare, reproductive care, and contraception (and the use of religion to justify it). Read it and see if you agree. I’m also a fan of William Gibson, and his Neuromancer is a must-read of dystopian fiction. It was also a sci-fi triple crown winner: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. And did you know Jack London wrote a dystopian novel, published in 1908? It’s on this list. Other classics include Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984.

Here’s another list of 12 more dystopian novels, via Peter Steinberg at HuffPo.

And another list, of the 13 best (judge for yourself, says I) dystopian novels.

There’s cool stuff going on in the world of YA fiction and literature. Here’s a link with 50+ YA dystopic novels. It’s an awesome list. Go check it out. SRSLY.

All right. That should keep you busy for a bit, yeah?

Happy reading, happy writing, and happy viewing!

7 thoughts on “The Hunger Games and other dystopian ruminations

  1. Carleen, read the books first.

    And Andi, have you read Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids”, issued in the US as “Rebirth”? If not, read it. It mirrors gay reality really, REALLY well, like the X-Men movies but from an earlier perspective.

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  3. Well, wowzers, Carleen! I agree with Fran–read the books first. 😀 There’s some good stuff coming out of YA these days.

    And Fran–I keep putting off reading “Chrysalids” because it sounds almost too scary and too close (LOL). I know, dumb reason. What’s fascinating to me about it is that it was written in 1955, bringing up some interesting historical contexts in which the author was working. But I’ll give it a read, and add it to my dystopic dysfuction. Heh.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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