(WARNING: Might contain spoilers) It’s not really fair to compare The Hunger Games to Twilight, especially since I’ve never actually read Twilight (and, FSM willing, I never will.) I watched the first “Twilight” movie with a vaguely annoyed expression over a three- or four-day period, since I couldn’t sit through more than about thirty minutes at a time. I only mention it because of a gnawing fear that the forthcoming “Hunger Games” movie will drop the threadbare scraps of its dystopian themes of oppression and alienation and throw itself at a tween-swoon-inducing love triangle that only barely rears its sparkly head towards the end of the book.
Actually, I know that’s going to happen, because this review says so.
I actually quite enjoyed the book (I haven’t read the second or third books yet), even if I’m not the main target demographic. It was pretty derivative of quite a few things, but I like the way it took some disparate scifi elements and put them together in an innovative, if not altogether immersive, universe.
Here are a few things I liked about the book, in terms of its homage material:
- “Battle Royale:” I’m referring to the profoundly-disturbing Japanese movie, not the Manga series. If The Hunger Games is not at least partly inspired by this, then it is a truly remarkable coincidence. The Hunger Games takes the children-fighting-to-the-death premise and improves on it by making the rationale for the event actually make sense. In “Battle Royale,” if I recall correctly, society has decided that children (defined as anyone under 20 years of age) constitute a grave threat to the safety and stability of society. As a disincentive to misbehaving, every year a ninth-grade class is selected to participate in the Battle Royale, in which they are deposited on an island and given a set period of time to fight to the death. It’s more disturbing than Hunger Games in the sense that these are classmates, who have known each other their whole lives, suddenly compelled to kill each other. Each child is fitted with an explosive collar to give them an extra incentive–if they refuse to fight, then the game master (whatever they’re called) will kill them anyway. The problem is that the premise makes no dang sense. The children are chosen at random, meaning that there is no value as a deterrent to crime or other misbehavior, because even model children could find themselves picked for the Battle. At least the Hunger Games are acknowledged to be random, as a demonstration of the Capitol’s complete dominance over society.
- “The Handmaid’s Tale:” This is actually another one where I’ve only seen the movie (1990, starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, and Aidan Quinn), and I’m pretty sure it leaves a lot of the book’s elements out. It posits a near-future dystopian America, the Republic of Gilead, with an uber-conservative religious leadership. Women who have managed to retain their fertility are literally treated like cattle. The main parallel I can see is in the portrayal of an all-powerful state that dominates all features of life, although it occurs to me that just about everyone, from hardcore liberals to hard core libertarians, could see some relatable material here
- A Storm of Swords: This would be Book 3 of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (the one that starts with A Game of Thrones). Specifically, the effete, peacock-y people in the Capitol remind me of the people in the cities of Slavers’ Bay in Storm of Swords. Daenerys Targaryen and her entourage go there early in the book and are generally horrified by what they find. The three cities, Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, were once part of a great empire, but they are now in a strange state of denial about their own decline. The warriors and merchants dress ostentatiously, fashioning their hair into horns and other strange shapes and dyeing it bright colors. The warriors in particular do not make for a very effective fighting force because of their ornamentation, and they prefer to rely on their slave armies. As fans of the book know, things do not go well for the slavers. The capital of Panem rests on a fragile foundation, depending on the Districts to maintain their lives of luxury while needing to keep the Districts brutally suppressed.
Of course, there are a few things I don’t like so far:
- Backstory: The Hunger Games does not appear to have any. At all. All we know is that something very bad happened, possibly a nuclear war and/or severe climate change, and that the oceans have risen. After some amount of time, the Capitol united all the remaining areas of North America. The Districts, which had apparently already been established, rebelled against the Capitol, but lost in a major way. The Capitol destroyed District 13 entirely, and started the Hunger Games as a reminder to the Districts that it was in charge. That’s literally all we know. It makes sense that Katniss wouldn’t know any more than that, since it would be in the Capitol’s interest to keep the District populace in the dark. The audience does not need to be that much in the dark. Try Googling a map of Panem–it’s remarkable how many different interpretations you’ll find. One person thought District 13 was in the DC area, while someone else thought it was in Quebec (apparently the Quebec theory makes the most sense, but I forget why.) At least one fan has put a remarkable amount of work into developing a map and history of Panem.
- Economics: Matt Yglesias has a review of economic theories that make a society like Panem plausible at Slate. I did not finish reading his article because it has Book 2 & 3 spoilers, so I’ll just summarize my thoughts on the matter. The Capitol uses some very scifi technology. “Hovercraft” that either use cloaking devices or can do some sort of teleportation. Ointments that can heal second-degree burns in a matter of hours. Genetically-engineered animals with rudimentary intelligence. And so on. The Districts supply all of the raw materials used by the Capitol, it would seem, and they seem to enjoy few of these technological advances. District 12 could be part of the 1930′s or the 95th century, but it seems odd that they wouldn’t have any of the technology enjoyed elsewhere, or that they could meet the needs of the Capitol without such technology. Which leads me to my next point…
- Geography of the Capitol: District 12 is in Appalachia. The Capitol is somewhere in the Rockies. If climate change has caused ocean levels to rise and flood low-lying areas of North America, then those areas would probably have a warmer climate than they do today. Which would be good, because it is difficult to imagine building an imperial capital city in the middle of the mountains, around 8,000 feet above sea level. Just about any city that has ruled over a large area with any degree of control (think Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, Tenochtitlan, and so forth) had ready access to some amount of natural resources. The middle of the Rocky Mountains does not offer that, at least not in today’s ecosystem. So how did they get to be the biggest kid on the block? Perhaps their geographic isolation worked to their advantage in a nuclear war, with mountains shielding them from the worst of the fallout. Or maybe they rode out a climatic or geological upheaval by being so far away from sea level, and were then able to roam the continent, picking up the scraps. All we know for sure from the first book is that the mountains protected the Capitol from the rebellious districts. The problem is that geography is a two-way street. If it’s hard to get into an area, it might also be hard to get out.
- Geography of the Districts: District 12 produces coal for the Capitol. District 11 handles agriculture. District 1 makes luxury goods. There is a problem with monocultures like this. Does District 11 produce good for all of Panem, or just the Capitol? Panem would need a highly sophisticated distribution system if it had to get food and other supplies from one District to all the others with little to no contact between the Districts. The mind boggles at the logistics.
- The word “Capitol:” the book keeps referring to the capital city of Panem as the “Capitol.” One small, grammar-nerd problem with that. “Capitol” refers exclusively to a building. Anything else, i.e. a city, is referred to with “capital.” That’s been bugging me for a while.
Anyway, I’m going to see the movie on Saturday. We’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, I can finally start reading A Dance with Dragons.