Most of you have probably heard about (or read, or watched) The Hunger Games. It is the title of a trilogy of novels, the first book sharing the same title, and more recently a motion picture based on that book. I’m a sucker for a good story, and have a special fondness for trilogies, because I think a standard novel is often finished just as you feel you’ve begun to really connect with the characters, while a longer series runs the risk of morphing into a soap opera with the sole purpose of prolonging itself, sacrificing quality for quantity.
It was actually an article that tipped me off that these books carry a deeper meaning than shallow entertainment. It states that the author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, got the idea for the books while watching the war in Iraq play on television simultaneously with surreal reality shows.
Once I realized this, of course the allusions were everywhere. There is a country, Panem, which is divided into twelve Districts and a Capitol. The people of the Capital are portrayed as shallow and gluttonous, identifiable by their excessive plastic surgery and bizarre fashions. They are not so much evil, as naive and childish, living their lives of excess at the expense of those in the Districts who supply the Capitol with resources under varying degrees of poverty and oppression.
This is not so different from our lives as Americans, where our biggest worry is often our weight, and the cheap food, clothing, and gadgets we enjoy are usually imported from less prosperous countries and, quite frequently, from sweatshops.
I originally thought the name Panem had the Greek root pan, meaning “all”, (i.e. Pangaea, the name given to the original formation of a single land mass on Earth before the continents began to shift). However it is revealed in the third and final book, Mockingjay, that Panem is the Latin word for “bread”, and more specifically in this case, comes from the phrase, Panem et Circenses, meaning “Bread and Circuses.” This is a phrase found in Satire X, the 10th of a series of poems written by the Roman poet Juvenal, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The phrase alludes to the concept that a population that is well-fed and entertained will become apathetic and abandon their civic duty to hold their government accountable.
And finally, there is a point that Collins drives home again and again. We see it in The Hunger Games themselves and then repeatedly in the war that follows: the tragic waste and futility of sending our children into battle to kill each other. Whatever the motives or strategies, the results of this prehistoric practice are always disastrous, and the seeds of bitterness planted by the violence will reap a harvest of more violence, perpetuating the cycle.
I can’t say that I really enjoyed the books. Don’t get me wrong, the story was well crafted with suspense in all the right places, and perhaps I’m even better for having read it. However I don’t think enjoy is a word I would use to describe my feelings as I read the book. Some that come to mind are helplessness, anxiety, and grief. I imagine that may be exactly what Suzanne Collins was feeling while she watched the war in Iraq play on television against a backdrop of Survivor. She closes the book with a slightly more hopeful idea: Maybe this will be the time that we humans will finally learn to stop killing and abusing each other. Maybe… but probably not.