We’re accustomed in this country to labeling each successive generation. The Silent Generation, the Me Generation, The X Generation.
We think we’re all in for a big surprise.
Because the generation that has gone head-over-heels for “The Hunger Games,” both book and film, has imbibed the author’s vision of the world. And that vision is very clearly a ninety-nine per cent versus one per cent presentation of how the world will look in the future, how it will operate, what its rules and regulations are.
Suzanne Collins has said that the inspiration for her work, a trilogy, came from watching television: on one channel she saw reality shows and on another war footage from the invasion of Iraq. There was, to her, clearly a disconnect between the two, shady but real.
Presumably she means that the reality shows were so divorced from actual reality that they came to form a mythic background to the war footage she watched. In the former, men and women do whatever they can to improve their economic status, often by humiliating themselves. Their needs are so great that only dreaming of improvement motivates them. They want to move from the ninety-nine per cent to the one per cent.
The men and women in Iraq, however, are dealing with the “real” reality, fighting for their lives.
Set sometime in the future, The Hunger Games pits pleasure-seekers from a central capitol city against the impoverished who live and work in twelve distressed districts outside of the capitol. It is possible to read the citizens of the capitol as Beltway Insiders, clearly the one per centers, rich, oblivious to conditions of others, involved only in seeking to amuse themselves and become richer at the expense of the ninety-nine per cent.
The ninety-nine per cent work in coal mines and on farms, in infrastructure construction, in back-breaking industry. For fun, they sell whatever they can find to augment their incomes and their tables.
Theirs is an existence of hardship and of fear of the future.
The plot of The Hunger Games is simplicity itself. Every year, 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 are sent to the capitol to enter a series of gladiatorial combats to the death…all for the amusement of the the capitol’s indolent citizens. Twenty-four youngsters are transported from the impoverishment of their daily lives to the glamour of the big city, there to be coached and fed and exercised in order to build themselves into killing machines. Again, the references are clear: the capitol is Rome, and the games would have taken place in the Colosseum.
The kids from the countryside are pitted against professional kids from the capitol whose entire lives have been devoted to outlasting their competition. These are the well-fed and well-exercised and motivated kids of wealth and privilege, who have every tool they would need to kill at their disposal. They are, not to be unclear, the next generation of the one per cent. They expect, and are expected to, triumph in the arena over any and all difficulties.
The kids from the countryside districts have only their wits, their imaginations, their sense of fair play with which to combat the terrors that await them.
Of course, it is these young people — the needy, the poor, the loving — on whom Ms. Collins’ readers dote.
But subliminally, Mr. Collins has indicted her country’s inequality of opportunity, its habits and its rapaciousness.
If books can be said to have long-term consequences for their readers, and they do, Ms. Collins has artfully set up the next generation as fair, feeling, concerned, strong and loving.
Conversely, she has presented the wealthy and privileged of the next generation as indolent louts who need always to be entertained, who will stop at nothing to get their way.
Ms. Collins may have a lot to answer for in the future.
By crafting a fable in which right is so clear and evil equally so, she has given young people a particular kind of Kool-aid, one that will motivate them towards being more like the District competitors than the spoiled off-spring of the capitol.
And she has filled her novel with tiny, almost unnoticed grace-notes.
No one in the capitol is concerned enough about the ninety nine per centers to inquire about their lives, their dreams, their real needs. The capitol does what it wants regardless of what the districts need.
The comparison with the US Congress and the country over which it presides is all too clear. Further, when the Games have concluded, lest the capitol be infected by any of the surviving contestants’ graces, ideas, or dreams, they are returned to their districts, albeit with rewards aplenty.
This does two things: it maintains the gated separation of the two classes, while in effect bribing the winners to think not so harshly of the capitol since they now have riches and comforts beyond what others in their districts have. (Some might call it “pork.”)
And Ms. Collins is a bit ruthless. The one character of color is killed halfway through the combats. The Big Men on Campuses are subject to death as easily and as nastily as the kids from the districts. The sly, silent members of the privileged class die just as promptly and as gruesomely as the less fortunate from the sticks.
Her heroine and hero are sweet, thoughtful, bright kids who believe in fair play. The managers of the games try futilely to minimize these traits even as they say they are exactly what is wanted by the crowds of the capitol, all of whom watch the slaughter on their giant television screens and maintain betting pools throughout the combat. (Could these be PACs?)
What does The Hunger Games portend for our own future?
Ideally, and hopefully, the readers of these books will remember for the rest of their lives the unfairnesses, the inequalities, the clearly unbalanced scales of the capitol. And they won‘t be happy.
Eventually, some of the (to date) twenty-four million readers — which is certainly an undercount because we can’t control who lends a book to how many — will become activists for various causes espoused from both their own personal needs and their reading experiences.
We think, and we hope, that the future generation becomes the Fair Generation, the Caring Generation, the Solving Generation. Bright, quick, decisive. Able to understand the difference between what the capitol promises and what it does.
We can’t say whether these young people will grow into Democrats or Republicans, but we think we can say without doubt that their influence will certainly make members of both parties uncomfortable and far more responsive to the needs, desires, and wants of their country.
And wouldn’t that be something?
I’m John Neufeld