How A Kid-Lit Favorite Is Really About Trash Television

Illustration for article titled How A Kid-Lit Favorite Is Really About Trash Television

Katniss Everdeen is not here to make friends — she's here to win. In fact, her livelihood depends on it.


Katniss is the reluctant heroine of Suzanne Collins' increasingly beloved Hunger Games trilogy, a young-adult book series that any adult can read without shame (the series' final installment, Mockingjay, hit shelves this week).

The series paints a dystopian vision of the United States sometime in the not-so-distant future; the natural-disaster-and-war-ravaged land we once called home is now dubbed Panem, subdivided into 13 poverty-stricken districts that span what was once Middle America and ruled by an oppressive dictatorship known as the Capitol. As retroactive punishment for a period known as the Dark Days, when a citizen uprising threatened to overthrow the government, every year the Capitol holds a competition dubbed the Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl, aged 12-18, from each of the populated districts is selected at random and forced to compete; these young competitors are called "tributes." The object of the Hunger Games is simple: don't die. The resulting free-for-all fight is like a Running Man in the wilderness, where the loser is he or she who is dead. The last kid standing wins his or her life, plus a temporarily less-oppressive lifestyle for his or her district and the acclaim that brings.

But what really makes the books' concept truly noteworthy is that these Games are captured on film for a mandatory viewing event that is akin to the Olympics or World Cup — but it's less a sporting event and more like reality television. And therein lies the real brilliance of Collins' books.

Collins calls a variety of influences to the arena: she's spoken of being affected by the Vietnam War, cites the Greek myth of Theseus as inspiration and you can gather from the above synopsis alone that she, like many, sees reality TV as the modern day Roman Coliseum. To wit, she says the genesis of the books came from TV-watching:

"I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when [the] story came to me. One night I'm sitting there flipping around, and on one channel, there's a group of young people competing for, I don't know, money maybe? And on the next, there's a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story."

In that same interview, Collins condemns reality TV's "voyeuristic thrill: watching people being humiliated, or brought to tears, or suffering physically," and frets about its potential to desensitize people to actual tragedies. That she should have any disparaging words for the genre at all comes as a surprise: The Hunger Games (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, Catching Fire) explores the tropes and mechanics of reality TV with the investment of a seasoned fan. If her own words didn't suggest otherwise, I'd have guessed that Suzanne Collins lives and breathes reality TV when she isn't dreaming up gently written, satisfying and accessible sci-fi for the kids in all of us.

What The Hunger Games offers to readers is, on the surface, ostensibly nothing new. We've visited dystopia before. We've caroused with brave, strong females (though Katniss' perpetually shitty attitude at least gives her a flawed humanity that her sharpshooting, impeccable game-playing and perpetual goal-meeting does not). We've, of course, experienced the type of slow-burning love triangle that The Hunger Games hosts (the Edward/Jacob schism is reproduced with two dudes named Gale and Peeta, who both vie the love of Katniss, the series' protagonist). We know what rebellion looks like (without going off-course, a new uprising looks to be the main point of Mockingjay). And one of Collins' main points — that kids are not born bad, but forced into being that way by adults — is standard armchair psychology. But the reality-television aspect — and even the very idea that the genre should exist at all after the world has effectively ended (placing right up there in the ranks with cockroaches and Cher) — is truly something special.

The structure of battle in The Hunger Games mirrors an entertainment model we at this point know all too well. The brutal nature of the competition calls on its constituents to take part in the old reality-show standard of throwing people under the bus (though in these books, if there were actual buses available, the tributes would be wise to literally throw their rivals under them and drive over them). Those who control the games — in the books, they are referred to as "Gamemakers"; in real life, we call them "producers" — are in power, influencing the under-bus-throwing and causing general contestant agitation. On the various reality shows we watch, generally this agitation is either casually slipped (like, say, when Tyra asks her Top Models in front of each other which of them deserves to win and who deserves to go home) in as part of the game itself, or confined to the suggestion of behind-the-scenes drama that the viewer ultimately isn't privy to. And when watching your average fishbowl reality show, you're watching an incredibly controlled environment. Likewise, in the Hunger Games "everyone knows [the Gamemakers] could destroy us with seconds of the opening gong." In Collins's dystopia, Big Brother is breathing down the contestants' necks, even more so than on…Big Brother.

Before she even enters the arena, Katniss is aware that the game she's to play will be played to the audience, as any clever reality television star knows. Her advisor before and silent guide during the Games, Haymitch, tells her up front, "It's all a big show. It's all how you're perceived." This instills Katniss with a self-awareness typical of the best reality stars, but with a crucial difference: Collins eschews the unsavory narcissism that drives reality television's stars such infectious acting out by making participation in the games mandatory. And still Katniss repeatedly plays to the camera, whether she's taunting enemies on the ground from a tree she just scurried up (of one such incident, she admits, "I know the crowd will love it."), determining whether or not to ally with the other player from her district ("I know if I was watching, I'd loathe any tribute who didn't immediately ally with their district partner") or, once officially allied with him, deciding how far to take it ("If I want to keep [fellow tribute] Peeta alive, I've got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance."). The show's audience has indirect say in such matters, too, as they can contribute donations for overpriced gifts that Haymitch can then send to his tributes, and again, Katniss knows this is a game ("One kiss equals one pot of broth. It's not the sort of thing I can blurt out, either. To say my thoughts aloud would be tipping off the audience that the romance has been fabricated to play on their sympathies and what would result in no food at all").

Collins considers the consequences of editing (after the Games of the first book have concluded and Katniss watches a highlights reel, she seems impressed at the "feat" it is to condense weeks into a few hours) and what happens when a contestant goes rogue on the production (in a move that is ultimately cut from broadcast, Katniss eulogizes a fallen ally by covering her in flowers "to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute that they can't own"). And this is all just in the first book —Catching Fire, which inevitably finds Katniss back in the arena again, and more deliciously relevant is her espousing of two grand unifying theories of reality TV: boredom kills ("…these Games are verging on dullness. This is the one thing the Games must not do") and the art of consciously and decidedly not being there to make friends. She comes this close to uttering that very refrain when, upon being called into the arena a second time (amongst other victors), Haymitch tells her, "Make some friends." "No," is her reply. "I don't trust any of them. I can't stand most of them, and I'd rather operate with just the two of us." She didn't come here for those other bitches! Like I said: she came here to win.

Collins' couldn't have backed into this cliché by accident, but even if she isn't a fan of reality TV, it's clear that she knows her shit. However, reading The Hunger Games as an all-out condemnation of the genre of reality TV seems disingenuous — so much of Collins' action, adventure and suspense comes as a result of the heinous situation Katniss and her competitors have been thrust into and must learn to navigate. The Hunger Games series is, in fact, invested in voyeuristic thrill (is there any greater humiliation than televised death?). It buys into the entertainment value of people being pushed to their limits and the extreme human behavior that ensues in extreme situations. If it didn't venture into this kind of territory, it would not be a story worth telling. It would be boring, and that's the one thing that young-adult books must not do. Is Collins a hypocrite for denouncing through her embrace? What about those of us who believe in basic human decency but are nevertheless riveted by the decidedly indecent world of reality TV — are we hypocrites, too? And how about those schadenfreude subscribers who watch reality TV to be reminded of what they are not while in the process supporting and condoning this otherness? The issue is more complicated than detractors who write the genre off as "mindless" would ever give it credit for, and this is no more clear than when looking at the phenomenon through the Hunger Games lens. Katniss Everdeen is a virtuoso archer, a self-sustained scavenger and an all-around wilderness ragamuffin. But the most impressive weapon she manipulates is the camera.

Rich Juzwiak is the proprietor of fourfour and the co-star of our Pot Psychology series. He also has a well-known cat named Winston.


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I actually take issue with some things you're saying here, but as someone who hasn't yet finished Mockingjay (though I literally just came from meeting the author), I could only skim the piece, as I'm worried about spoilers.