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Volume 30, Number 4, Summer, 2012

The Hunger Games and Modern Dystopian Fiction

By Anders Monsen

Suzanne Collins’s bestselling trilogy has placed dystopian fiction back in the forefront. The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010) tell the story of a future America split into districts and rigidly governed by a state able to compel citizens to send their children to die on television once a year, for 74 years (longer than the existence of the Soviet Union). Yet, none of Collin’s books were Prometheus Award finalists, despite their recent publication date and bestseller status.

How do her books compare with the long history of dystopian fiction, such as those by Yevgeny Zamiatyn, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood? A considerable number of dystopian-themed books have been honored by the LFS (though not Huxley or Atwood). As Wikipedia states in the entry on dystopias, these are often characterized by “dehumanization, totalitarian governments,” and The Hunger Games trilogy is no exception. It might be the most stark portrayal of a dehumanizing totalitarian government in several decades.

The first book creates the world, where we have not just one post-apocalyptic event, but two. The first established the districts—thirteen of them. These are ruled by the Capitol, and each district serves a special function. One provides coal, another food, another industrial goods, and so on. At some point, some districts rose up against the Capitol, and were harshly put down, with District 13 obliterated and tossed down the memory hole. And to commemorate this total defeat, each of the remaining 12 districts must send tributes to the Capitol, one male and one female, to fight in a winner-take-all battle to the death. These tributes are teenagers of varying ages and skills. Twenty-three of them are slaughtered each year, while their parents and friends watch on big screens, and the decadent Capitol struts and preens. This variation on bread and circuses, with children instead of gladiators. This yearly spectacle continues for more than seven decades, until the events of the first novel.

The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a gifted archer who hunts game in the forest around her district—illegally—steps in to act as tribute for her younger sister. She is angry, rebellious, photogenic, and charismatic. Despite her often self-centered behavior she becomes a focus for others who are angry at the Capitol, and its harsh treatment of the people in the districts. Her acts of rebellion during the Hunger Games, where she forces the hand of the Capitol and not only wins, but wins with a second tribute from her district, mark her by the government. She also draws the attention of the underground rebellion, who see her the potential rallying point they need.

In Catching Fire, Katniss is forced back into a second Hunger Game, and learns of the rebellion, which she both sparks and to which she becomes a symbol against the Capitol. She is headstrong and often foolish, but she shows that she won't be a pawn to rebel leaders either, and consistently goes her own way. She is only a symbol, however, as the rebel leaders plan their moves against the Capitol, while Katniss sees only the immediate picture and chafes at their slow pace. Although she leads several actions against the Capitol, her main battle appears intended to sideline her, make her a convenient martyr. This almost cynical view of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is not unusual in dystopian fiction, though in this case the protagonist has a few surprises.

When I looked at Wikipedia’s list of dystopian literature, I was surprised by the explosion of such fiction in the early 21st century. From Margaret Peterson Haddix Shadow Children series, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to a few more by Margaret Atwood, Stephanie Meyer’s The Host, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, and a host of others, dystopia is in the air, all ripe with dire warnings of the omnipotent state.

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