Review of The Hunger Games trilogy, published by Scholastic, 2008-2010
By Panagioti, co-editor of Earth First! Journal
Hands down, The Hunger Games is pop culture’s best contribution yet to the growing eco-rebellion. Forget Avatar. Forget Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Forget Harry Potter (although those “Wake Up Muggles” stickers all over Seattle during the WTO riots did leave quite an impression on me). Lord of the Rings may have met its match.
The dystopic young adult tale of resistance has already been translated into 26 languages with more than 36.5 million copies of the trilogy in print. The film adaptation of book one was released last week and has also become a hit sensation, even giving the Twilight films some competition for the attention of teens worldwide.
If I were among the elite beneficiaries of the techno-industrial empire, I would have banned these books. Or perhaps the alternative to book banning in a liberal and tolerant consumer culture like ours is diluting something so powerful with commercial popularity.
I realize some of you are preparing to put a hit out on me at this point (or trying to cast a spell on me, for the Harry Potter nerds out there). But hear me out. People’s average attention spans have gotten so much shorter. No, wait, that’s a vast understatement. Most modernized people can barely pay attention to anything longer than twitter post. We can’t write them off for that. We need them to rebel with us. And we need them to do it soon.
If this story can’t set a spark to the powder keg, if The Hunger Games can’t ignite an all-out uprising, I don’t know what will. I can’t really give the details of my analysis without blowing the story, so you’ll have to get with me one-on-one for that, preferably after you finish reading it.
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, and even Gary Ross’ film adaptation, is creating a common language and context for rebellion, one not too far into fantasyland to be useful here-and-now. That’s reason number one why you should read the book, and hell, go sneak into the movie too.
No, a new pop culture phenomenon is not the ultimate catalyst to fundamental changes in our society. But it can undoubtedly play a part. In a way the plot in Hunger Games is a parody of itself. It is a recognition of both the devastating effects of mass media, and the massive impact of being able to tell a story people far and wide can relate to and find courage from.
Look beyond pop culture, at something like Derrick Jensen’s two-part Endgame books. Jensen’s books are powerful, and I would argue are written on a similar ideological wave. However, they were written for people with more time on their hands than so many are willing to give up. Whereas, Hunger Games was written to be able to capture the attention of a pre-teen, and in doing so, succeeded in crossing the generation gap.
The story is set in a near future North America, following a rise in sea levels and a de-population of the continent through war and presumably other ecological and economic factors. The backdrop is a familiar scene, a concentrated one-percent-type elite population in the new country’s capitol exploiting the surrounding 12 districts as resource colonies. Everything’s obviously simplified for the story’s sake but also perhaps fitting for the future society presented, where stripping away the façade of a middle class leaves the true playing field much more evident.
The two main protagonists are young outlaws who break local law by hunting and gathering in the wild lands outside their district, with one of them ending up a “tribute” forced into a televised death game.
“I know longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, [I] despise being one myself…. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.” —Katniss Everdeen
As we all know—but may not consciously realize—there can be immense power in a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be a particularly deep or complex one to affect us in a profound way. In this case it’s the forcing of youth into brutal gladiator games as a tool of social control.
It reminds me of something that Surrealist and Earth First!er, Franklin Rosemont, wrote, which just happens to be up on the wall in the bathroom at the Earth First! Journal office: “Civilization is founded on the murder of children because it is childhood… that comes closest to true life.” It was reading that quote which inspired the primary point of this review:
In some places of the world, or moments in time, that “murder of children” is literal—as it was with the kiling of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida this year or Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens, Greece, December 2008, or the countless other recent instances of youth being violated or killed by police violence, racist attacks, pollution, poverty, war.
But in every other moment and every other place in the civilized world, it’s the spirit of youth that’s killed. It’s done so relentlessly, through school, work, reality TV, video games, politics. Because youth is a dangerous force to industrial society. It is a rebellion in itself. You don’t have to be young to realize this, but you do have to be willfully ignorant to avoid it.
Now add on the hardships of life under industrialism to produce energy, fancy crap and service work for “The Capitol”—aka the wealthy district of most every large city in the world. This is the setting of the Hunger Games. And most all of our daily lives.
The other recent trilogy series to cover this theme very blatantly, The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman, came close to hitting a similar mark as Suzanne Collins’ books. It’s been argued that Pullman’s books were better written in some ways, and they also had themes of biocentrism and resistance laced throughout. But Lyra Belaqua’s rebellion against “The Authority” in Golden Compass wasn’t close enough to the surface for me to feel it, taste it, to want a part in it, as was the case in Hunger Games.
As an activist in the Earth First! movement, I’ve already had a taste of it—unexpected acts of defiance, clashes with the “peacekeepers,” righteous disdain for the State. The books made me want more. They also made me want to let other people know that they can have it too, that the rebellion is brewing, that District 12 (the fictitious coal mining community of lead character Katniss Everdeen) exists all over the real world, and actually is been in the process of uprising.
While the books were released well before Occupy Wall Street or Arab Spring of last year, the sentiment that sparked those moments has been thick in the air for much longer. Centuries. A couple millennia, even.
If you read the Earth First! newswire, you know that industrially exploited areas around the world are still rebelling at a steady pace today. Maybe some truly are plotting to cut off supplies to the metaphoric Capital once and for all, as the book implies the rebelling districts are strategizing towards.
In fact this April, Occupy the Machine (a spin-off of the Jensen-inspired Deep Green Resistance network) is coordinating its first action plan in the oil refinery district of Texas’ Gulf coast. They have also announced that the second call to action will be in the coalfields of Appalachia, against mountain top removal coal mining. As those who read the first book in the series know, District 12 is meant to portray a future region of Appalachia, where the remaining population exists solely as a resource colony for the Capitol.
Right now, the broader alliance of rebels, and potential rebels, in the US is also coalescing again in what they’re calling the 99% Spring, training 100,000 people around the country in direct action and civil disobedience against the ruling elite of the empire. So read up. We can make the story more than a metaphor.
Of books and authors
Throughout reading, I found myself trying to imagine where I may have gone with my life had I read The Hunger Games trilogy at an earlier age, and I cross my fingers that I’m not being entirely delusional with this little assessment here.
I recall coming across Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang when I was around 17 years old (ironically the same age as Katniss). Regardless of the fact that Abbey’s book was published before I was born, it was still able to set me off on a path of practical rebellion, and more specifically viewing eco-defense as self-defense, at a pretty early age. But that book was the depiction of a specific effort to protect a part of the American southwest. While that book paved the way for what later became Earth First!, the movement has grown and the world has changed around us.
And while defending our homes and the places we love is no doubt at the core of what should drive us, we also have to look at the overarching goal of bringing down the system that has been the source of an industrial onslaught against the planet and all that is, or aspires to be, free and wild (ourselves included, of course). Thirty-plus year ago, Ed Abbey described a small-scale rebellion that was already underway, and not so subtly told us to join the fight.
Suzanne Collins has described something on the horizon and has put the potential in our laps for a much bigger, and urgently needed, response. I’m doubtful that she’ll show up at the EF! Summer Rendezvous (as ol’ Cactus Ed did on occasion in the ’80s) but I’m quite certain she’ll inspire many a conversation around our campfires for the years to come, whether our revolution prevails or not.