A publishing phenomenon and a big-budget movie, The Hunger Games was born when author Suzanne Collins was TV channel-surfing between reality shows and the US invasion of Iraq. What if, she asked herself, war became a TV show?
The result, The Hunger Games, is both ancient and new. The tale has echoes of the Romans’ gladiatorial games and the Greek myth of Theseus, who was sent as a sacrifice by Athens to be fed to the Minotaur on Crete, but The Hunger Games is set in the future, in a dystopian world in which America has been replaced by Panem, where the wealthy Capitol rules over 12 impoverished districts.
As punishment for a failed rebellion, all districts are each year obliged to send a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Capitol, where they are groomed to take part in a televised battle.
The Hunger Games trilogy has sold three million books worldwide, and the movie opens this weekend, with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the games.
“Katniss is a fantastically complex character,” says Sarah Webb, who writes novels for adults and teenagers. “She’s strong, wily, brave, bossy, headstrong, stubborn . . . She steps in as a tribute to save her sister’s life, but even before that she looks after her family, hunting to keep them alive.”
David Maybury, the editor of Inis Magazine, which caters for young adult fiction in Ireland, says “it’s her strength, driven by passion. Katniss is one girl you really don’t want to mess with.”
With her strength, skills and courage, Katniss is a resourceful, self-reliant heroine, but Claire Hennessy, the author of nine novels for teenagers, is impressed with the realism of The Hunger Games.
“I think it’s that Katniss is tough without being heartless, and rebellious without being unrealistically so,” says Hennessy. “We see her rebellion growing, rather than always having been there, which makes sense.
“Dystopian societies tend to have populations that mostly accept their lot, for a good reason. Rebellion has to be dangerous and uncertain rather than inevitable.
“It’s hard not to root for someone who, despite the inherent injustice of a situation, will put themselves in danger to save someone they care about,” Hennessy says. “And I think, in a reality-TV-obsessed world, there’s something really appealing about a heroine who understands that she’s being watched, and knows how to manipulate the media in order to increase her chances of survival.”
That dystopian setting is, Maybury says, crucial to the series’ success.
“Dystopian future is the ideal teenage play-space,” he says. “It’s all about rebellion, challenging authority and rebuilding the world. Throw in the complication of falling in love and you will have anyone hooked.”
Hennessy sees The Hunger Games’s setting as part of a bigger picture.
“I think the current post-apocalyptic or dystopian trend is part of the broader appeal of books where the teen protagonists are taken seriously,” she says, “where everything really is important and big and dramatic, where the experiences of teenagers are valid and worthwhile, rather than trivial or preparation for ‘real’ life.
“It’s possible to do this in realistic and contemporary fiction, but you can really amp it up in fiction set in a slightly different world to our own, where teenagers might hold particular positions of responsibility or be in particular danger.”
The kill-or-be-killed Darwinism inherent in The Hunger Games has caused commentators to question how deeply the current generation of teenagers has been immersed in overly real depictions of violence, but Hennessy cautions against a too literal reading of the scenario.
“It can be foolish to assume too much about people’s real lives based on all or part of what they enjoy reading,” she says, “and teenage readers are a wide and varied group, with divergent opinions and hopes and dreams.
“In The Hunger Games,” Hennessy says, “it’s teenagers at risk in the games. In Gemma Malley’s The Declaration, it’s that teenagers are rare and a challenge to the dominant and elderly population, while in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium it’s that teenagers haven’t yet been vaccinated from the deadliest disease of all — love.
“Post-apocalyptic worlds can take how teenagers often feel and make these things literal. Fantasy can do this as well, of course — the ‘boy your parents or friends want you to stay away from’ can become ‘the boy who you need to stay away from, otherwise an ancient prophecy will come true or the fates will be angry’. The teenagers in these worlds are making huge and dangerous and scary decisions. It’s like real life with the volume turned way up.”
Webb says that while The Hunger Games features teenagers as its main protagonists, the story appeals to a much wider audience.
“Katniss appeals to both female and male readers,” says Webb, “and as many boys and men are reading the books as girls and women.
“And make no mistake, these books, like Harry Potter and the Twilight and paranormal romance books, have already tipped into crossover territory — millions of adults are reading them worldwide, myself included.”
“At their heart,” Webb continues, “these are damn good, warp-speed-paced, thrilling and horrifying adventure stories. Like all good stories for teens and children, it’s the young people who are saving the world, not the adults.
“Think Harry Potter, the Patrick Ness books, or even Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.”
The success of Katniss and The Hunger Games represents a backlash against the previous dominance of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series of novels, featuring the pale, fey, and emotionally conflicted Bella Swan.
“Certainly not Bella Swan,” says Webb, when asked what literary figure Katniss most closely resembles. “Valkyrie from the Skulduggery Pleasant books, perhaps? Boudicea?”
“That’s a tough one,” says Hennessy. “I’m not sure there’s anyone in particular that Katniss is exactly like. One that springs to mind is the title character from the TV series Veronica Mars. Veronica and Katniss come from very different worlds, but both worlds are unfair and involve needing to make alliances at times, while also doing whatever it takes in order to get what you want and need.
“Both girls have traumatic back-stories to compound the suffering they undergo throughout their stories, and both are at the centre of love triangles. And they’re both capable of thinking very strategically without being too cold and unlikeable.”
Maybury is also impressed with the strategic thinking and dynamism of Katniss. “Katniss is everything Twilight’s Bella is not,” he says. “Gritty, complex, angst-ridden and powerful, Katniss considers her opponents, exploits their weaknesses and faces down a regime of oppression. Bella? She can’t decide between a vampire and a werewolf.”
Whereas Katniss, presumably, would have skewered both of them before, and possibly for, breakfast.
* The Hunger Games opensnationwide tomorrow.