The Hunger Games and Positive Cultural Shift

In my tenth grade English and language arts class, my teacher assigned the late Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as one of the central novels for the course. The novel was the first of its kind that I had ever read. Unlike much of the fiction assigned to me over the course of grade school (usually rather dull “coming of age” novels of the realist aesthetic school), this novel conveyed a world literally turned on its head and totally alien to me: a world delighting in mindless hedonism, where books (all books) were banned, where thinking was discouraged as a path to unhappiness, where firemen started fires instead of put them out, and where the hero fought tooth and nail against both society and his own corrupted moral philosophy in pursuit of a better life. I tore through every page, absorbing everything I could about this upside down world and of the man desiring a better one. Ever since, I have been deeply captivated by the genre of dystopian fiction.

Part of the fascination for me was not the mere reversal of what I found normal or acceptable – an author could write an entire novel from the perspective of a schizophrenic, or as a defense for a murderer, or without using a single letter “E,” but it would not make for a decent story (all three of which, by the way, have already been written). Rather, it was that I could look at the state of the world around me and realize, “Wow – that’s where we’re heading.” To me, the authors that were able to recognize this fact and then portray it artistically in literature – the kind that recharges men’s souls rather than drains them – were among the greatest of cultural leaders.  Eventually dystopian fiction led me to my favorite novelist and philosopher of all time: Ayn Rand.

So naturally, I read The Hunger Games. The novel was published four years ago in 2008 and has sold millions of copies since then. The record breaking ticket sales at the box office for the motion picture adaptation of the book are only a further testament to the success of Suzanne Collin’s novel. Though the story itself is fascinating, the philosophy behind the story and cultural implications of its success are even more interesting.

But before addressing that further, I admit I had not originally planned to read it. The reason is that I had been told that The Hunger Games was a “feminist novel,” which I took to mean it possessed views politically aligned with leftist feminist organizations and was, therefore, not something I imagined could be particularly enjoyable to read. I later learned that what had been described as “feminist” to me really meant that the book had a heroic female protagonist. These two concepts – one of an empowered woman and one of a feminist – are not synonymous.  Feminism, as a movement, has no monopoly over either empowered women or empowered female literary characters (e.g. Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged). More often than not, feminists are largely diametrically opposed to strong, independent women despite their rhetoric to the contrary. But through second and third hand accounts of the plot, the presence of a strong female protagonist was misconstrued as being feminist in nature. Having learned the truth of the matter, I borrowed The Hunger Games and began reading. I was not disappointed.

The book was a fast-paced thriller, written simply and to the point so that if a reader opened the book entirely unfamiliar with the “Hunger Games” referenced in the title, he knew exactly what they were after the first two chapters.  Even with the speed of its progression, it was paced expertly, allowing for moments of tender humanity in the midst of a world that rejects human life as expendable and reduces man to the level of sacrificial tribute – literally.

The novel takes place in the future country of Panem – a place once called North America – as told from the perspective of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. She is headstrong and independent, especially for her age, having kept her family alive single-handedly following her father’s death in the coal mines of District 12. Like other residents of the Seam (the slum in District 12 for the coal-mining families), she grew up destitute, unable to obtain proper nutrition and, consequently, unable to develop any measure of physical strength. But she didn’t need it. Katniss is cunning and resourceful, using her mind and the bow hunting skills (among others) to overcome the obstacles in her life. Her voice is intelligent and almost effortlessly comprehensible. Very rarely did I have to reread a sentence for clarity. Even so, the style and diction were still very fitting for the young adult audience they were intended for, though both are easily enjoyable for an older audience as well.

The Symbol of District 12 – a Mockingjay with an Arrow

District 12 rests somewhere in the Appalachians as one of the 13 districts Panem, though the 13th was supposedly wiped out in a rebellion by the districts against “the Capitol,” Panem’s tyrannical seat of power. In the 75 years since the war, the Capitol has set up an event each year where 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 – one male and one female from each of the districts – are selected to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle royale fight-to-the-death televised across Panem, and mandatory to watch. The children are selected by random drawing with their chances of being selected increasing as they get older. One can increase one’s chances of being selected in exchange for accepting annual rations of grain for oneself and one’s family – one additional entry per ration. To add insult to injury, both the tributes (as the selected children are aptly called) and their districts must treat the whole thing enthusiastically, as a national holiday of sorts.

When Prim – Katniss’s 12-year-old sister – is selected as tribute despite only being in the drawing once, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Thus, Katniss is wisped away to the Capitol to prepare for the Hunger Games. With an alcoholic mentor, no guarantee of a bow in the arena, sadistic Gamemakers who control every aspect of the arena, and 23 other tributes to defeat (as tributes from the same district must still kill one another), the animated well wishes of the District 12 tribute escort Effie Trinket are sadly ironic: “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

What follows is for readers to discover. It is no “coming of age” novel, as Katniss had been the adult of her family ever since her father’s death. It is no gratuitous gore fest, though a plot such as this certainly contains a great deal of violence. It is no ironic comedy that mocks that which is sacred, as is so common today. Nor is it a statement about man being innately violent or any other such nonsense. It is, quite simply, a heroic novel.

Suzanne Collins’s novel more than deserves the praise it has received from the public, and Collins herself deserves that same praise all the more. She has earned it. But both the novel itself and the public reception of it are indicative of something I believe is even more important: a positive cultural shift in America.

Because the word “culture” today has become an anti-concept, it must be defined here so that there is no ambiguity as to what I refer when I say “culture.” As it is, Ayn Rand gives an excellent definition of culture in her essay “Don’t Let Go” in Philosophy: Who Needs It?: “A nation’s culture is the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men, which their fellow-citizens have accepted in whole or in part, and which have influenced the nation’s way of life. Since a culture is a complex battleground of different ideas and influences, to speak of a ‘culture’ is to speak only of the dominant ideas, always allowing for the existence of dissenters and exceptions” (205).

For a great deal of time, America’s culture has been sharply divided between the intellectual class and the general public – that is, between its leaders and the average American.  It has existed in a dichotomous state in which the cultural products of the intellectual class have been sharply rejected by the general public. While America’s intellectuals praised (and still praise) the “value” of Stravinsky’s primitivism in his ballet The Rite of Spring, Americans remained enamored (and are still enamored) with the musical and chorographical grace of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. While academics celebrated (and still celebrate) Nabokov’s tale of a pedophile in Lolita, Americans read (and still read) classic romance novels like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While professors taught (and still teach) Marx and his theories, Americans looked (and still look) to the Founding Fathers for philosophic leadership.

Even so, such a trend could not continue indefinitely. Without cultural leadership to defend, expand, and improve upon the culture Americans already possessed implicitly, it began its collapse. Premise by premise, Americans began yielding to the relentless assault on their values from their entrenched cultural leadership. Without someone to give them the words to convey that which they already believed, they slowly turned (at least in part) to the irrational doctrines that were being forcefully preached by the intellectual elite. It was through the silence of the rational that America turned to the irrational. Thus, we arrive out our present situation with a titanic public debt, nihilists destroying private property on Wall Street to no challenge (and inhabiting the Oval Office), wars without a properly defined enemy, and billionaires fleeing the country, preferring a life under a virtual dictatorship to life under our mixed economic system.

Suzanne Collins

But at long last, there is a growing corps of intellectual leadership willing to defend reason, virtue, objective reality, and liberty in their works, thus giving both intellectual ammunition and spiritual fuel to fight against the poisonous doctrines which are still prominent among politicians, academics, and other intellectuals. Ayn Rand and other Objectivists certainly deserve a great deal of credit for leading the crusade to return reason to America’s cultural leadership. The continually high sales of Rand’s novels and other works over recent years have demonstrated that there is a growing section of the American public thirsty for a rational explanation for the events they see unfolding around them. Moreover, they truly receive solace from literature and other art that lets them know that the world not only ought to be better, but can be better if only we are willing to achieve it. Collins’s novel is a prime example of such art.

Though not as philosophically explicit as the monologues Rand included in her fiction, The Hunger Games was particularly impressive in that it did display strong undertones of a rational philosophy throughout the book. First of all, the protagonist is unquestionably a hero, and Collins treats her as such. This alone is not unusual to The Hunger Games, but it is worthy of note when so often the “hero” of a novel is actually an anti-hero. Rather than being an object of admiration for their virtues, anti-heroes are noteworthy for their vices. They are contemptible characters of ill-repute that have no other purpose except to mock the audience, as if to say, “You believe in heroes? Hah! Real heroes don’t exist.” In the worst of cases, roles are entirely reversed as the one who should be a villain is hailed as the hero while the hero is vilified.

Katniss is certainly no anti-hero. Rather than crafting a story which follows the life of a girl who slowly loses her humanity in inhuman circumstances, Collins portrays Katniss as uniquely strong and uncommonly rational. She does not delight in taking another’s life in the games as some of the other tributes do, and she openly challenges the principles of the Capitol throughout the novel, refusing to indulge in the divisive attitude the Hunger Games are supposed to facilitate.

But her strength is, again, not physical – it is a strength of will. Dehydrated, starving, injured, and constantly on the run, Katniss never relinquishes her own identity and principles, even if she herself is not totally aware of who she is or what she believes in her young age (though I anticipate Katniss to improve in that respect later in the trilogy). She survives by her intellect rather than brawn, applying reason to understand and conquer every aspect of reality.

In fact, this trait extends to other tributes as well. With the exception one tribute – the one who is the total embodiment of the Capitol’s man-hating, life-rejecting ideology – the tributes which last the longest in the Hunger Games are those who survive through their own judgment, knowledge, and rational thought.

Even when Katniss is deceptive, she is doing so in total accordance with her long-term, rational self-interests. Whereas lying is normally a rejection of reality and a symptom of irrationality, it becomes rational and morally justifiable for Katniss to do so in the face of the Capitol, which would immediately end her life if she did not. It is no stain on her integrity as a person or as the hero in the novel – instead, it further demonstrates the evil, irrational nature of the Capitol. In any case, Collins’s makes one thing clear through her depiction of Katniss: that reason is the antithesis of force, that force means death, and that reason is the key to life.

Moreover, Collins rejects altruism as a valid (or feasible) moral doctrine. There is, of course, the obvious example of altruism in the existence of the Hunger Games themselves, but even normal life within the districts is rife with instances which depict altruism as the inherently evil doctrine which it is. While the districts toil to scrape out a meager existence for themselves, the Capitol takes the vast majority of the products of their labor for itself. In turn, those districts closest to the Capitol like Districts 1, 2, and 3 (i.e. the one’s with most political sway) live far more comfortably than those further from the Capitol like Districts 11 and 12 (i.e. those with the least political clout) – the same holds true within the districts themselves as the political class lives more comfortably than the others.

In a conversation between Katniss and the female tribute from District 11 (the district primarily focused on agricultural production), the audience learns a grim truth – even those in charge of producing Panem’s food do not have enough to eat. This becomes even clearer later in the book when the audience learns more of the background of the male tribute from District 12 who, though a baker’s son and is perceived as having more than enough to eat from Katniss’s earlier perspective, was still incredibly poor and only able to eat the stale scraps of bread which his father was unable to sell. The same holds true in coal-producing District 12 which finds itself in a constant shortage of coal, and Katniss wonders silently in the novel if the same applies to all the districts.

All around District 12, there is mass starvation and squalid living conditions, especially in the Seam. Even with the tesserae (the grain rations obtained by entering one’s name in the Hunger Games drawing multiple times), families still go hungry. And those that don’t starve often fall into a state of inexplicable depression, losing both the desire and will to live. They are unable to do anything but rely on the Capitol for what little food they can obtain through the tesserae, as they are unable to keep what they produce, or even to freely produce in the first place.

In fact, the only way to survive is to operate outside of the law, as Katniss does – by hunting illegally and by trading illegally on the black market. Even the Peacekeepers themselves, the police force charged with enforcing the Capitol’s edicts, turn a blind eye to violators because they too would starve without relying on the black market and Katniss’s “poaching.” In one sentence, Collins summarizes the utter impossibility of altruism: “I can be shot on a daily basis for hunting, but the appetites of those in charge protect me.” If those in charge were to truly practice what they believed consistently – that man is a sacrificial being to benefit his fellows – they would perish along with everyone because, eventually, there would be no one left to sacrifice on their behalf. A man living entirely without any self-interest or regard for others’ right to pursue their own self-interests is a dead man walking.

But there is a very specific example of Katniss pursuing her own self-interests which deserves a special mention here: her act of selfish love. Over a year ago when I joked that we were “a long way from seeing… a Hallmark card” adorned with the phrase “I love you, because I love myself,” I never imagined that I would run across a contemporary best-selling novel of this magnitude expressing the same sentiments so explicitly, if only briefly.

In a manner very reminiscent of Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, Katniss is unable to properly apply reason to her own personal relationships. But unlike Rearden, her problem is not that she herself practices altruism toward others and allows those she does not care about to leech off the products of her mind and labor. Instead, her problem is that, in the context of a world which surrounds her with altruism, she finds herself inherently unable to trust others. Even when every action ever taken by the character known as Peeta Mellark suggests that he is deeply in love with her, she constantly finds herself looking for ulterior motives. No one simply does something because they receive selfish pleasure form doing so, in her mind, but because they expect some sort of favor or sacrifice on her part in return.

Though I expect this to be an issue which Katniss must address in the latter installments of the trilogy (especially since the first installment closed in reference to this topic), she still managed to develop strong feelings of selfish love for Peeta in the book. She may have exhibited selfish love in volunteering as tribute to replace her sister, but the feelings of what is very clearly romantic love toward Peeta from the perspective of the reader are unfamiliar and confusing to Katniss. To further complicate the matters, both Katniss and Peeta are tributes in the Hunger Games, and both are able to receive gifts from sponsors within the arena if they “put on a good show,” so to speak. Katniss frequently expresses how she swings from being “almost foolishly happy” and then utterly confused with regards to the feelings shared between her and Peeta during the games, “Because we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love, not actually being it” (301).

Regardless of Katniss’s inner conflict of simultaneously playing the role of “star-crossed lover” for all of Panem and actually having deep feelings for her counterpart, she knows what true love means, and proves exemplary in expressing it. When Peeta is deathly ill from an injury received amidst the Hunger Games, she literally risks her life to obtain medicine for him by walking into what she knows to be a trap set by the Gamemakers. Peeta scolds her after the fact, telling her bluntly, “Don’t try something like that again… Don’t die for me. You won’t be doing me any favors” (297).

Katniss responds, “Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta. Maybe you aren’t the only one who… who worries about… what it would be like if…” (297). Her voice trails off as it becomes apparent to both her and the reader that what began as a merely an act to win gifts from sponsors had turned into an honest admission of her deepest feelings, about exactly how passionately she values this young man. And so, she stops and attempts to change the subject, “…blocking this moment from the prying eyes of Panem. Even if it means losing food. Whatever I’m feeling, it’s no one’s business but mine” (297, 298).

The supremacy of reason, the impossibility of altruism, and selfish love? Needless to say, The Hunger Games is a valuable addition of romantic realist literature to the personal library of any lover of reason.  The novel is exciting and captures one’s interest immediately within the first few paragraphs. It is undoubtedly one of the pillars of contemporary young adult literature.

But perhaps the greatest part of The Hunger Games, from a cultural standpoint, is how popular it and its thematic elements have become over the last four years. At time in which many Americans are yearning for a culture which places reason on its proper pedestal and treats heroes (and their virtues) with all the respect they deserve, Collins’s novel has helped to fill that void. As more artists and academics step forward, so too do more Americans come to the realization of the philosophic nature of our problems, thus discovering the solutions to fix them.

But in the meantime, one can take selfish pleasure from reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and exploring her imaginative world of Panem. It is a world where starvation is commonplace, where barbarism is celebrated, and where man belongs not to himself, but to others. And as I said before, it is a world to which we are heading. May the odds be ever in our favor.

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