Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Food for Thought in The Hunger Games

My literary agent called to issue a challenge.  To be fair, she didn’t intend it as a challenge.  My ears just heard it that way.

“I’ve been reading The Hunger Games,” she said, “and the characters feel so alive to me.  I can’t stop thinking about them. I’m going to try to figure out how she does it.”

Red flag.  Literary bull.  (Should be funny on two levels.)

I immediately immersed myself in the novels, read them in rapid succession, then passed them to my daughter who read them in equally rapid succession, after which we discussed, argued, agreed, disagreed, dissected and spent a great deal of time trying to figure out “how she does it.”  She, of course, being Suzanne Collins.

For those who haven’t yet read the books, I promise not to include any spoilers.

The technical answer to “how she does it” emerged as I “pie-mapped” the books. Collins writes in first person present tense inside the completely limited viewpoint of her primary female character Katniss Everdeen.  We readers live the book inside the mind of Katniss; what she experiences or thinks, we experience or think in the present moment.

Collins also writes in very short sentences. Fragments. Lots of fragments. The book reads like texting or tweeting.  Linguistically, this brevity gives the book a headlong, immediate pace.  Given her intended audience, I see this as a stylistic stroke of genius on Collins’ part.

The English professor in me, however, can’t resist pointing out that many of these fragments begin with dependent clauses.

Which, as a professor, drives me absolutely batty. (Did you catch both errors here?)

Beyond pov, language and pacing, it is also obvious that Collins has written for stage and screen.  She costumes the characters and places them in elaborate set pieces.  Katniss sometimes lights up, sometimes, quite literally, catches on fire.  In the forest garb of her hometown, Katniss is Robin Hood, complete with quiver of arrows and game bag of food for the needy.  Characters in the Capitol are equally visual.  Some are tattooed; many have undergone cosmetic surgery to dye their skin or remake their faces into something resembling a character from Cats. In the arena, Collins gives the reader multiple “sets” – a giant cornucopia, caves dripping with rain, electric force fields that sputter and pop, leafy, many-limbed trees full of tracker-jacker nests.

The Technicolor visuals of the books bring to mind that first view of Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, with its colorful horses and denizens. Beyond the visuals, however, even the witch of Oz with her flying monkeys seems benign compared to the worldview in Collins’ books.

Here, we depart the structural and elemental assessment of the novels to assess a much more difficult set of questions. What worldview is at the heart of these novels? Why? How will that worldview resonate with young readers? (They might be the intended audience, although everyone I know in my demographic is reading the books even as I write).

It’s obvious that Collins begins with a historical allusion  -  Rome in the era of the brutal gladiatorial games, the era of panem et circenses - bread and circuses - in which Rome appeased its populace with staged combat using gladiators and slaves fighting with weapons or against wild animals.  The strategy is obvious:  keep the silly masses entertained, fed and clothed and they will not attend to civic responsibilities or to political shenanigans. The government can decide for and without them. Hmmmm.

In Collins’ “Panem” the games sacrifice children in order to remind the districts that they could all be just as easily sacrificed.  At the same time, the Hunger Games serve to entertain the fashionable, vapid, cosmetically enhanced populace of the wealthy Capitol district.  Collins milks her Roman metaphor for all it is worth, giving characters names like Metallus and Cinna, using weapons such as arrows and tridents, even creating a vomitorium at one party so that guests can gorge, vomit and gorge again, a lovely custom that was indeed used in ancient Rome.

Paired with Collins’ historical references is the thoroughly repugnant modern trend of “reality” television, which Collins obviously finds anathema (hear, hear).  The young people to be sacrificed in the books are taken to “beauty base zero,” then primped, coiffed, clipped and costumed so that their competitive death games can be followed on national television. Viewing is required. These gladiatorial games are a horrific evolution  of Survivor and Real World in which surly, overwrought teens fight CGI effects and each other to brutal, grisly deaths.  A Wrinkle in Time or Under the Lilacs this is not. Even such dystopian teen classics such as Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World seem tame by comparison.

Sadly, however, given television and the movies, modern young adults are as inured to violence as they are to the mean teen culture.  Those are not truly the most disturbing aspects of the books. Rather the sense of global and personal isolation is what chills the heart of these novels. Panem seems to be America after global warming has completely destroyed both coasts.  The Capitol is highly technological and very powerful, the districts are poor and practically pre-industrial, and all the rest of the world seems to have disappeared.  If Europe, Canada or South America still exist, they are not in communication with Panem.  Panem is an empire in isolation.

Additionally, the Districts of Panem have no communication with each other and even the district that eventually rebels (I can’t; I promised no spoilers) proves another bleak and alienating point: all governments are dangerous, all politicians are power-hungry, venal and violent. With the exception of individual acts of compassion, no human endeavor is pure.

But from the point of view of this storyteller, the truest isolation in the books is the absence of myth and archetype, the complete disappearance of the spiritual. There are no churches and no religions, no mention of God or gods. Even in a repressive regime, there would be memories, rumors, secret societies. The books are not anti-religious or anti-spiritual; they are simply a-religious, a-spiritual. Where did all that accumulated human experience go?

There are also no origin myths, no myths of redemption or direction, no prophecies.  Because I am a folklorist and storyteller, I know that all cultures through all of time dwell in myth, pass it down, feed on stories, take sustenance from them, fear them, hope for them, expect them (witness, as one silly example, the current paranoia over the Mayan calendar). A culture cannot live without its myths.  Carl Jung would tell us that a human being cannot live without “story,” without being tapped into the collective unconscious of the human experience. As writer Barry Lopez says in his journey myth Crow and Weasel,  “Sometimes you need a story more than food to stay alive.” But Panem exists in a mythic void; its only stories consist of the seventy-five years of televised murder games.

Eventually, academics, because we need to write about something, will begin to make the inevitable Rowling comparisons  -  books that grow progressively darker, an adolescent hero forced to take on a corrupt adult world.  But although JK Rowling has been quite forthright in her discussion of her struggles with faith and hope, her books are replete with archetypes of light and darkness, myth and prophecy, of the struggles of good and moral people in a world in which evil tries to dominate, but eventually fails. Harry Potter follows the archetypal hero’s journey.

Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly tough and sometimes compassionate young woman who is alternately used as a government and media darling, sacrifice, and pawn. In the three books of The Hunger Games series, evil – or perhaps its more banal offspring, moral relativism and expedience – win after all, every time.

Katniss Everdeen can take solace in only two things: her love of the natural world and her love of her family and friends.  Should either of those vanish (again no spoilers), she would be left in complete psychological isolation, an existentialist heroine in a nihilist world.

Juilene Osborne-McKnight teaches creative writing and is the author of four Irish historical novels: I am of Irelaunde, Daughter of Ireland, Bright Sword of Ireland and Song of Ireland, all four of which will soon be re-released in e-book form.