[Warning: There are SPOILERS in this post!]
I’m not usually interested in reading YA literature, but being the older sister to a teenager, and considering the immense publicity surrounding the book, I felt the need to read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as well as see the recent film adaptation. Young love in a dystopian world is an ever-increasing trend in YA literature, but Collins’ The Hunger Games is different in that it provides the predominantly young audience with a foreboding and complex message on media literacy. Although the novel leaves much to be desired in regards to the quality of writing, I could easily grasp why it has become such a worldwide phenomenon. After seeing the film adaptation, which builds on the limitations of telling a story from a 16-year-old girl’s perspective, I was pleasantly surprised with how much more effectively the filmmakers were able to convey the message of the original source material, and can only hope that it will facilitate a conversation amongst its audience on the need for a media-savvy public.
The story unfolds in District 12 of Panem, a dystopian vision of what was once known as North America. Each region serves a purpose, and District 12 is the coal mining district. Every year, as punishment for an attempt at rebellion, the Capitol requires that each of the 12 districts send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 as tribute to fight in the Hunger Games, a televised death match in which there can only be one winner. The tributes are chosen during a ceremony known as The Reaping, which begins with a propaganda film portraying the rebellion of the districts against the Capitol as an insidious assault, claiming that the Hunger Games serve as a reminder of the sacrifice necessary to ensure that it must never happen again. The winner of the Hunger Games receives fame and fortune, which is of course extremely advantageous to those from poorer districts who are struggling on a daily basis to survive. Unfortunately, the tributes from the wealthier districts often win the Hunger Games, as they have the resources to be trained from an early age, leading to them being referred to as “career tributes.”
Katniss Everdeen, the main character who is portrayed in the film by Jennifer Lawrence, is District 12’s female tribute, after volunteering in place of her little sister, who was originally selected. She is far wiser than the average 16-year-old, having taken on the responsibility to care for her family after her father’s death in a mine explosion and her mother’s subsequent mental breakdown. Understanding how exploitative the system is, she is no believer of the Capitol’s propaganda. However, the film version of The Hunger Games offers an alternative perspective that is difficult to grasp in the book: that of the loyal and desensitized masses of the wealthier districts, which do not wait for the Hunger Games with agonizing dread but rather an eerie fervor. It is a televised event and therefore the more gruesome and violent the death, the more “entertaining” it is for the audience. Wealthy viewers can become sponsors for the most popular tributes, sending them items necessary for survival such as medicine when they are injured or food when they are starving. If there is not enough drama for the audience, then the game makers behind the event introduce obstacles into the arena, such as some natural disaster or feral, monstrous-looking creatures.
President Snow, portrayed in the film by the brilliant Donald Sutherland, has a chilling conversation in one scene with the main game maker. By this point in the film, Katniss has emerged as the unlikely favorite to win, outsmarting and surviving many of the tributes from wealthier districts who were seemingly all but guaranteed victory. When the main game maker tries to convince the president that everyone loves an underdog, the president asks him if he has ever visited the poorer districts, such as District 12. When the game maker replies that no, he has not, the president explains that he has, and that these are the districts that provide the rest of Panem with essentials: coal, minerals, and crops. Upon visiting these districts, he asserts in a disparaging tone, you would not think of them as the underdog. This conversation confirms that those from the poorer districts are seen as nothing more than serving the purpose of providing essentials for those from the wealthier districts, and are used as tools in the Capitol’s propaganda to maintain control. They are considered lesser beings by those in power. Anyone who contradicts this notion, and refuses to accept that wealth and power define an individual’s importance in life is deemed an apostate, and is singled out for instigating rebellion. Towards the end, Katniss realizes that the career tributes she has been fighting against for survival are not the enemies, but rather the Capitol itself. The career tributes are pawns of the Capitol as much as those from the poorer districts, all of them at the mercy of its propaganda.
While there are flaws in the storyline, and neither the novel nor the film are a classic in the making, it does offer a message not commonly targeted for the youth audience, and I believe that is what makes it worthwhile. Of course, there is a love story and other formulaic, Hollywood elements to appeal to their juvenile inclinations, but compared to the novel, the storyline of the film relies slightly less on this. The love story, as well as Katniss’ desire to protect her family, could even help younger audience members understand her reasons for defying the Capitol, as they are basic emotions that individuals tend to grasp from an early age. I found it worthwhile to encourage discussion with my teenage sister, and used The Hunger Games as an opportunity to talk about the need for media literacy. The omnipresence of the Capitol and its control over the desensitized citizens of Panem represents life in a media illiterate society: no well-informed individual would accept an event as gruesome as the Hunger Games, a televised broadcast of teenagers fighting to the death, as necessary to maintaining peace and security. As with all dystopian fiction, it is an extreme, worst-case scenario, but it nonetheless serves as a warning that cannot be ignored.
Caitlyn Garcia is a student at William Paterson University, double-majoring in French language & literature and political science.