In Panem, a girl takes the place of her sister in a deathly game, ultimately becoming the face of a rebellion against the government. If that sounds familiar, you’d be right. It is the synopsis of The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins. In this article, I want to dig a bit deeper into the text and give an idea of all the things that are hidden there.
The Hunger Games is set in a country with 12 districts, each being treated as slaves for the Capitol. In the Capitol the inhabitants are so privileged that they only need to think about beauty and banquets, while the districts are poor and have a hard time trying to survive. As a result of the previous rebellion from the districts against the Capitol, the Hunger Games were made to commemorate the horror of that rebellion. In these games, every district needs to send one boy and one girl into an arena to fight to the death. The one that outlives the 23 others is promised a life of luxury in their own district. We follow Katniss, who is sent to the Hunger Games and is used as a front to start a new rebellion, first by creating a doomed lover’s scenario and second by becoming the face of the war. Through help from a supposedly eradicated District 13 the war will be fought, and the last Hunger Games will be held.
Having a better idea of what this trilogy is about, we can dive in and start unveiling some of the things you might normally miss while reading. First, we’ll dive into the character of Katniss Everdeen, then the war setting and some historical references, and end with a couple of warnings about the modern-day society you can find hidden in the story.
The first detail that should be noticed is that the writing style uses pertinent phrases without elaborate descriptions and words you would have to google. In some interviews, Collins explains that this writing style is partly for the reader and partly for the character. With this style, Collins attempts to strengthen the idea of a young girl – the main character, Katniss – who has lost all other feelings than those she needs to survive. If we look at the first sentence this becomes a bit clearer. “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” It is short and straight to the point. Yet, since the whole trilogy is written like this, it gives you a deeper understanding of the Katniss’ naive worldview.
To get a bit of an idea of how Katniss is developed we can look at the life of the author. In her biography, we find out that Suzanne Collins is the fourth and youngest in her family. She tells us that she was often left to herself and needed to learn about the world either from her older siblings or by herself, possibly leading her to see the importance of an independent female character like Katniss. When reading a bit further into her biography we find out that Collins has created a couple of other female leads that could give us a clue about her perceived importance of female role models. This altogether could have given her the capacity to sympathise with and write a character like Katniss.
Another thing to point out is the lack of romance Katniss experiences, which is unusual for a female lead. There is only one person in the world she loves, and that is her sister. But as she gets into the Hunger Games and gets forced into the star-crossed lover’s role, we see an interesting dynamic. The girl that doesn’t know what love is needs to pretend to be in love. Then in the rest of the series we see the aftermath of this ‘fake’ love and her struggles with finding out what ‘real’ love is.
The way Collins describes the war is a beautifully crafted balance between the realities of war and the life surrounding it. Looking at her biography, we could see a potential place where Collins got this skill. Collins’ father worked for the military and she had to move around because of this. This could have given her another perspective of war than the ones we often have, making it possible for her to get it right in her books.
Suzanne Collins also hid her fascination for Greek mythology in the pages. She makes it clear in multiple interviews that the idea for The Hunger Games came to her as a mash-up of post-war documents and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which tells the story of twelve children sent into a labyrinth to fight the minotaur hidden in it. One of them, Theseus, gets help from his lover to fight the Minotaur and find his way back to her. Collins has confirmed that the tributes in The Hunger Games are like those twelve kids and the way they must fight.
This fascination for classical times is also found in some of the names. First off: Panem; the name of the post-apocalyptic country where the novels are set, could be derived from the Latin sentence: panem et circenses. This means ‘bread and circus’, and was the motto of the Roman Empire. The Emperor thought that the people would be satisfied with just food and entertainment, which we could link back into how the Capitol threats the habitants Panem, giving them food and the Hunger Games. Another interesting one is Seneca, the name of the producer of the Hunger Games themselves. He tries to show the people how it is to live in the arena. In the real world, Seneca was a philosopher who was interested in showing how to live a good life. The third is the use of the term ‘cornucopia’ as the place where they can find the needed items to survive. For the Greeks, it is depicted as a basket that always overflows with food and wine which are equally necessary to survive in the real-world as the weapons that it overflows within The Hunger Games.
To end this article, I want to give a glimpse of the warnings these books could provide about the real world. Collins made a point in one interview of them being a warning for the overuse of the media. You could find the warning that the government can use the media to control what you think and do. This could be seen in the way the Capitol makes a spectacle of the Hunger Games to prevent rebellion. Another warning is to be critical of what media you consume. You see the residents of the Capitol consuming the Hunger Games and not really understanding what they mean. They see it as entertainment while seemingly not realising that it involves real children dying. With all the disturbing videos we have online, this is an easy trap to fall into in the real world, too.
These are just a few things you could find in these books. As a last note, I want to point out that of course these aren’t the only way to interpret the clues, but it does make for an interesting way to look at the book and maybe find some more for yourself.
Image: Mike Mozart via Flickr.