Just as students and young people have contradicted patronising ideas about the apathetic and apolitical younger generation in taking the lead against ConDem fees and cuts, so fiction for young people can sometimes go where adult fiction conservatively fears to tread.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (Scholastic 2008), 374pp, Catching Fire (Scholastic 2009), 472pp, Mockingjay (Scholastic 2010), 455pp.
One of the many claims made for the Harry Potter books is that they’ve made it respectable for adults to read children’s fiction, albeit with special sombre covers, but you still might not expect to turn to children’s or teen fiction for serious politics. If so, you might just be missing out. A prime example is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, the final volume of which was published this year.
The trilogy opens in the familiar territory of a post-apocalypse future. What seems to have been a climate change-related societal collapse has killed off much of the population of North America. Some generations later, the remaining population lives divided into thirteen districts, under the dictatorial rule of the Capitol, located it seems somewhere in the Rockies. Seventy-five years before the opening of the first book, the districts mounted an unsuccessful rebellion against the Capitol, in punishment for which, District 13 was wiped off the face of the earth and the other 12 districts compelled to send two tributes to compete in the annual Hunger Games – a murderous game show in which the last surviving tribute is the winner.
This has distinct overtones of the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the myth, King Minos of Crete rules over an empire covering much of the Aegean and the Greek mainland, and compels his imperial possessions to send annual tributes to Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster which lives in a maze beneath Minos’ palace. Katniss, the Hunger Games’ heroine, echoes Theseus’ own role within this set up. Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, volunteers to be one of the Athenian tributes (in most versions of the myth, there are versions which have him selected by lot); Katniss becomes the female tribute from District 12 when her younger sister’s name is drawn by lot and she volunteers in her place.
These references to Theseus are unlikely to be accidental. In the acknowledgements to the third book, Suzanne Collins thanks her mother for introducing her to the Greeks, and there are other nods to Greek mythology throughout the trilogy. Minor sibling characters in Mockingjay, for example, are called Castor and Pollux, after the mythological twin Spartan heroes, brothers of Helen of Troy. On one level, then, this is a reimagining of the Theseus myth for the Big Brother generation, complete with a futuristic and actually rather horrifying take on the Minotaur. However, while the structure of Collins’ story originates in ancient Greece, as with all the best retellings of myth, Collins uses the ancient story to make some pertinent points about the present.
The element of compulsion in the Hunger Games for both participants and viewers – the people of the districts are compelled to watch the games just as their children are compelled to take part in them – is important for a discussion of reality TV. Concerns have been raised fairly frequently that reality TV shows may be harmful for participants, and not exactly edifying for viewers, but criticisms can always be rebutted because no one is forced to take part. Because Collins’ characters are under compulsion, she can create a powerful allegory of the real psychological harm which these televised exercises in cruelty can cause. This is, however, only the beginning. It’s after the first Hunger Games, in the second and third books of the trilogy, that the politics really kick in.
The first book ends with Katniss defying the Capitol from inside the games, to force them to declare her and the other District 12 tribute joint winners, rather than making them fight each other to the death. Early in the second book, she learns that her act of defiance has become a symbol for discontent across all the districts and that she has become a figurehead for rebellion. The final two books follow the progress of the revolution as Katniss is drawn into the fight to overthrow the Capitol.
The ultimate outcome isn’t really in doubt, although considering that this is teen fiction, there are a surprising number of deaths of central characters, so much so that the third book in particular is in places a rather harrowing read. What is more remarkable is how genuinely revolutionary the revolution is, and the lessons Collins seems to want us to draw from it.
Katniss’ story in the first book could lead to the idea of the revolution as a spontaneous uprising; discontented but unorganised people see something on TV and are directly inspired to rebel. Collins is quick to scotch any such notions, as we learn that the revolution has been in the planning for many years. Organised revolutionaries have been working underground in the Capitol and have been planning resistance and rebellion in the districts, with the aid of District 13, which was not as pulverised in the aftermath of the last rebellion as the Capitol wanted its subjects to think. Katniss’ act of rebellion in the games was only such a potent symbol because there were organised revolutionaries who could shape the reaction to it.
The words ‘working class’ are never mentioned in the trilogy, but class is nevertheless a key theme. Collins leaves us in no doubt that this is a working-class uprising. Katniss has a powerful speech early in the third book where she convinces the workers of a district loyal to the Capitol to come over to the revolution by calling on their class interests. We are also reminded in the denouement of the trilogy that the leaders of bureaucratic institutions, in this case the leadership of District 13, can also be pulled to follow their class interests at the expense of the workers’ revolution. Replacing one set of Capitol leaders with another is no advance if the bureaucracy beneath is retained intact. Although the leader of the Capitol, President Snow, is a suitably villainous person, Collins is clear that the problem is the system, not simply the personalities of the leaders.
There is even a nod towards Marx’s theory of alienation. The revolution may this time be successful: as one character says at the end of the third book ‘Maybe this will be it…the time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race’ (Mockingjay, p.442). But if that is so, the revolutionary generation are still shaped by their upbringing under the old system. The afterword reminds us that it will be their children, who don’t know that literally and figuratively they play in a graveyard, who are the ones who will finally be free.
This is serious political fiction, and you have to wonder how Suzanne Collins was able to get away with it, when so much fiction for adults tends towards the cautious and conservative. Perhaps it was possible precisely because it was unexpected: a trilogy for teenage readers about a futuristic reality show isn’t a context in which the most vigilant publisher might be on the look out for revolutionary theory. If so, this would be an assumption about teenage readers that one suspects is held also by many if not all of those involved in producing reality TV shows for young viewers.
John de Mol, one of the creators of Big Brother, commented in 2000 that ‘young people these days care about nothing but fun, excitement and what’s in it for me.’ [Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen, Shooting People. Adventures in Reality TV (Verso 2003), p.74.] Thirty thousand protesters have just proved him wrong, as the movement against student fees and cuts around the country continues to do. If you’re looking for light reading to accompany that introduction to the struggle, you could do worse than The Hunger Games.