Major Themes in The Hunger Games

Thesis: A discussion on the interplay between war and reality TV in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games phenomena took off in the past few years. I don’t know about you guys, but I was a fan before Catching Fire hit the shelves. (Stephenie Meyer recommend it on her website back when I still visited from time to time. Say what you will about Ms. Meyer, she’s got some pretty good taste). What seems to be keeping it around is the themes it plays with, both in the book and the movie. Although the movie has given it a spike in mainstream interest, the books themselves have been gaining popularity on their own. The Hunger Games deals with war and politics and ethical issues and sacrifice, but I’m a bit more interested in the effects of war and the meaning of reality TV in this world–mostly because I don’t have a good answer between the connection.

I’m also intrigued by the apparent silence of Suzanne Collins in regards to The Hunger Games trilogy. She didn’t speak up as a talking head in the behind-the-scenes features of The Hunger Games movie, and I haven’t seen or heard of her talking about The Hunger Games in any public way. I’m not upset by this. If people are to explore major themes in books, it’s best if the original author doesn’t contribute their own thoughts and motivations. That way, the individual reader can absorb what they feel is the most important aspect of the story without hindrance.

As I will be talking about The Hunger Games trilogy in its entirety, you should know there are spoilers ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Effects of War

The theme of war plays with the themes of loss and death, but they’re not the same thing. A story that plays with the theme of loss will be one about a little girl dealing with the death of her father. The Hunger Games is a story about war–about a young woman thrown into an arena of death and must either kill or be killed. One of the biggest things that struck me as I got to the end of The Hunger Games, and throughout Catching Fire and Mockinjay as well, is the effect the arena had on Katniss rather than her actions inside the arena.

One of the things you have to understand is Katniss is not an active character. This isn’t to say that she is not a strong character–she definitely is–but she’s not active. If you pay attention to the wording in the books, you’ll notice that Katniss rarely takes action on her own. She’s very reactive to the things around her. She withholds her opinion of the Capitol and she only does something because she’s either told to do it or she’s prompted to do it. I reference the Tracker Jacker Incident, whereas Katniss drops a hive of tracker jackers onto the Careers. That was actually prompted by Rue, who pointed out the tracker jacker nest. In the movie she makes the motion to cut the nest; in the book it’s Katniss that makes the cutting motion as a warning to Rue. Regardless, that incident is Katniss’s reaction to Rue.

And so we have Katniss feeling the effects of war when she gets out of the arena, and, frankly, she doesn’t take it well. In the opening of Catching Fire she admits that Cinna designs her line of clothes for her, thus skirting around a hobby that would have otherwise occupied her time. And later on, in Mockinjay, she’s literally just another body in District 13 until she heads to the Capitol herself. From what I can remember, she doesn’t exert enough effort to even attempt to do anything substantial. But she is still emotionally broken from the arena, more so in Mockinjay having survived it twice by then, and that handicaps her from taking action and trying to become a bigger voice in the greater resistance movement.

We as readers feel the effects of war mostly in the death of our favorite characters. Mine surprised the crap out of me. I read to the end thinking Collins could not have killed this guy, he was Everyone’s Favorite and those are the tropes that live to see old age. Nope. There was also a Giant Explosion at the end of Mockinjay which I thought was excessive and not foreshadowed well enough. The point is, we make our connections to characters in the trilogy and we react to the things that happen to them.

Reality TV

The theme of reality TV intertwines with the theme of class differences. In fact, it is the central dividing line between the two classes: the oppressed (the Districts) and the oppressor (the Capitol). The Hunger Games is a show meant to entertain the Capitol, who does not have to contribute a Tribute every year–probably because they’re happy with the wealth harvested from the Districts and, honestly, have no passing thought on the District’s quality of life. Collins makes sure to put in Cinna’s three loyal workers to show that the people of the Capitol aren’t necessarily bad people. They are just blissfully unaware of anything outside their world.

Here is where the books draw a line with reality. We have the people who watch and enjoy reality television because it’s entertaining, us, and we have the participants of the show undergoing some heavy emotional turmoil and drama: America’s Next Top Model, Survivor, Big Brother, Project Runway, etc. The systematic murder of the Tributes in the arena is akin to kicking someone off the island. In the show, that person might as well be dead because they’re never heard from again. They leave no legacy.

Perhaps this is why children are the ones fighting to the death in The Hunger Games. Children have no time to develop a sphere of influence on their own, so if they do die in the arena, the people in their lives are able to move on. (I recognize this is a horrible thing to say). If you haven’t noticed, Katniss doesn’t think about the people she knew or grew up with that were Tributes. Yes, she references what previous Tributes have done, but she doesn’t really say anything like “Little Billy used to tease Prim all the time” or “I used to sit next to Rachel in music class. We did a duet in the second grade.”  The only character who has gone into the Hunger Games before Katniss and Peeta is Haymitch. And he’s important because he’s the mentor of the two.

As readers, we take the position of a well-to-do individual watching The Hunger Games on television. After all, we’re hanging on the edge of our seats wondering what’ll happen next just as Capitol citizens are doing the same. We root for our favorites until they die and we cheer on the victor at the end. I don’t mean to say everyone who reads The Hunger Games trilogy comes from a well-to-do lifestyle, but we are the passive reader in this story. We have no choice to be, but we are.

Realty TV of War

The final result of all this is a social critique on the separation of economic class and the war-like clash that comes between them. As you can read, this doesn’t end well. In Panem, which side of the television you are on determines your social class. And as I said in the paragraph above, we take the position of Capitol viewers when we read these books.

This is not a bad thing. As citizens of the world, we are to digest any lessons we take away from The Hunger Games and apply them to our world. We hold the power, just as the Capitol holds the power, so do something with it.

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