“The Hunger Games”: post-apocalyptic female fantasy.

24 May

LOGLINE:  As she is thrust into the national spotlight under circumstances beyond her control, a tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks must choose between her tall, dark, and handsome best friend and the shy yet heroic rich boy who has loved her from afar for years.

For those not in the loop, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy of books that is one of the hottest things in YA lit right now.  A movie version starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works (see this week’s Entertainment Weekly), and the brass are obviously hoping it becomes the next Twilight franchise.

Whereas Twilight was entrenched in the realm of fantasy (vampires and werewolves), The Hunger Games is futuristic sci-fi, set in a post-apocalyptic North American dictatorship known as Panem, which is made up of twelve districts and a Capitol.  Originally there was a thirteenth district, but the Capitol destroyed it when the districts rebelled.  As a result of the defeated rebellion, the Capitol instituted a televised gladiatorial event called The Hunger Games, held annually to remind the districts who’s in charge and to provide entertainment for all the residents of Panem.  The conceit of the Games is that the gladiators are all teens drawn at random from each district (one boy and one girl, for a total of 24 competitors known as “tributes”), and they must fight to the death until only one is left standing.  It’s part Survivor, part Roman coliseum.  Entry into the lottery is compulsory between ages 12 and 18.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen becomes her district’s tribute when her younger sister’s name is drawn.  Knowing that participating in the Hunger Games is certain death, Katniss volunteers to go in Prim’s place.  She and Peeta Mellark, the district’s boy tribute, travel to the Capitol, where they are styled and given star treatment (so the audience can get to know them and possibly decide to “sponsor” them, i.e., send them helpful supplies once the Games are underway) as well as trained for the Games by a previous winner from their district (a forty-something alcoholic named Haymitch).  Once the Games begin, Katniss must use all of her wits to stay alive…which she does, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a trilogy, would there?

The book is a page-turner, and while not exactly gory, it doesn’t shy away from the killing.  What surprised me, though, was how “chick-lit” the book was once you stripped away the post-apocalyptic setting.  I’ve read other sci-fi/action teen series (Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, both featuring teen female protagonists), and neither of them was remotely as egregious as The Hunger Games in the area of romantic female fantasy.  (Then again, those series were written by men.  Hmmmmmm…)  For all the salacious “teens forced by the totalitarian government to kill each other” angle, the book’s emotional heart is pure chick lit.  To wit:

  • Peeta has been in love with Katniss since they were five years old yet has never had the guts to talk to her. [Women love longing stories.]
  • Still, he has always looked out for her when he could.  When they were eleven, Peeta, a baker’s son and therefore “rich” by the district’s standards, provided Katniss with some bread he intentionally burned on a day when she was hungry and rifling through their trash.  For doing this, his mother beat him. [The woman does not have to do anything to earn the man’s devotion and bravery.  Her mere existence is inspiration enough.]
  • Before the Games start, Peeta confesses to an interviewer on television that he is in love with Katniss.  Katniss, of course, is skeptical because she thinks it might be a ploy to win viewers’ sympathy.  Haymitch encourages the teens to play up the “star-crossed lovers” angle for the audience.  [Playing pretend lovers is straight out of a Harlequin novel.  Or Candace Cameron Bure’s most recent TV movie.]
  • During the Games, Peeta pretends to side with the tougher tributes as a means of protecting Katniss. [More devotion and bravery.]
  • When Peeta is badly injured, Katniss tends to him.  After the change to the rules is announced – both tributes from a district will be declared winners if they are the last two standing – Katniss realizes that she can get more aid from viewers if she pretends to be in love with Peeta.  [See above re: Harlequin novel.  Even better if plausible deniability can be invoked later.]  Naturally, as they become more intimate with each other (at one point sharing a sleeping bag – he was ill, it was cold outside!), Katniss feels confused.  But maybe that’s because….
  • Prior to volunteering for the Games, Katniss spends most of her time hunting (illegally) with her best friend Gale, who just so happens to be two years older, tall, dark, handsome, and angry at the government.  Katniss is better with a bow and arrow (no self-respecting heroine is worse than a man at anything important), but Gale is a good hunter and together they are able to help feed their families.  Although Katniss spends much of her time believing that she and Gale are only friends, she also spends a lot of time thinking about Gale during the Games.  Especially when she feels herself growing a little too close to Peeta.  [Romantic heroines usually must choose between two guys.  Even tough, not-particularly-feminine heroines.]

So…what we have here is a tomboy whose choices in men are a devoted rich boy and a hot loner.  Or a best friend and the new boy in town.  Or the beta she never noticed and the alpha who hasn’t declared his intentions.  Haven’t we all seen this movie before?  Did I mention that Katniss doesn’t want to get married, ever?

But that’s not all!  Because the Hunger Games are televised, the tributes must all get makeovers.  So the book devotes a significant amount of time to fashion and grooming.  Yes, we are treated to Katniss getting her legs waxed and details about her outfits and even her fingernail polish.  The tributes even get personal stylists.  (Lenny Kravitz just got cast as Katniss’s.)  The tributes get instant fame and must go through televised interviews that are like talk shows.  Of course, that the tributes have no choice in the matter (and are about to go to their deaths anyway) is supposed to mitigate this most girly of plot points.  But a perusal of YA lit aimed at teenage girls will reveal tons of books about being popular or famous or becoming popular or famous.  When Katniss (and ::SPOILER:: Peeta) triumphs at the end, she is informed that she will have to do a victory tour – more forced fame!  Quelle horreur!  And she’s still going to have to pretend to be in love with Peeta!  (Can you even stand it?)  Even while her feelings for Gale are getting in the way!  And she breaks Peeta’s heart!  What’s a tomboy who just survived death to do?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, but I was really shocked at just how stereotypical and conventional the book was underneath all the window dressing.  Maybe the secret to The Hunger Games is that it’s Twilight for the people who think they’re too good for Twilight.  But at least Twilight didn’t pretend to be some sort of social commentary about war, survival, and totalitarian government.

The hamster is strong.

(For further reading, check out Salon‘s article comparing the heroines of the two seriesCelebuzz did a comparison of the two series also.)

16 Responses to ““The Hunger Games”: post-apocalyptic female fantasy.”

  1. Badger May 24, 2011 at 6:25 am #

    Unreal. Paging Dalrock. I’ve been noticing a trend to make scifi more chicky.

  2. stanleydwilliams May 24, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    Let me suggest a stronger log line: “In the future when tyranny grips the world, a teenage girl competes in compulsory games against her teenage peers that will leave only one competitor alive.” Good log lines not only describe the protagonist and antagonist, but also the protagonist’s goal and the stakes involved. http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/2011/05/good-log-lines.html

  3. jack May 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Good Lord.

    The trend is making itself more clear by the day: Appeal to that element of female nature that lives and breathes drama and visceral experiences.

    I am beginning to the think that women are never pleased unless they are firmly in the grip of one emotion or another – and that it scarcely matters to many whether that emotion is positive or negative.

    Cyclical emotional catharsis is the new binge-and-purge.

    But the problem is not a fault of females. It is the fault of a culture that promotes, encourages and excuses females, while still trying to keep men somewhat hemmed in.

    Thank God for that, since it is going to take men to lead us out.

  4. Hana May 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Good review of this book – I think I’ll put it on my reading list. It does sound like the sci-fi version of Twilight to some extent…

  5. Kathy May 25, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    Old news Badger.


    He was on to this long before you guys.. Oops! Gotta watch me GRAMMAR. Bites lip.

    I have no time to search Pro males’s archives.

    In any event hubby wouldn’t approve.. :D

    But yes he posted on this. Also appeared on The Spearhead, simultaneously.

  6. ASDF May 25, 2011 at 8:26 am #


    I just read this, and thought of some online dating advice you gave a while back (smile in your photos). Hamster 101 by the sounds of it.

    “– Researchers at the University of British Columbia have confirmed it: chicks dig the bad boy. Men, on the other hand, prefer women who are just plain happy. In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adults were asked to rate the sexual attractiveness of pictures of the opposite sex displaying one of three emotions: happiness (meaning the people in the photos had broad smiles), pride (raised heads and puffed up chests) and shame (heads lowered, eyes averted). Female participants were more attracted to
    men who looked proud or brooding than they were to happy, smiling guys. The opposite was true for men, with male
    participants most attracted to happy looking women and least attracted to women who appeared proud. (Globe and Mail)”

  7. Aunt Haley May 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Smiling makes men seem accessible. Too much Blue Steel is alienating, at least for a woman who is looking seriously for a spouse.

    Also, some men have great smiles that melt women’s hearts and convey vivacity and fun. Obviously, men with dopey smiles should smile less in photos.

  8. ASDF May 25, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Don’t get me wrong. The logic is there. I smile in all my e-dating profiles. But like all game stuff, you have to go counter-intuitive.

    I do some casual dating from time to time on plenty of fish. I’ve been thinking of making a douchebag profile, with shades, a flat-billed cap, UFC shirt, ab pose etc to see what kind of results I get.

  9. Chris June 19, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    I spent most of last week helping my 16 year old boy write an essay that had to include this as one of the set texts. Which indicates that English has devolved into propaganda. We compared it with a comic (Maus) and a Ringo book.

    The Hunger games lost out.

    And another boy is being turned off English.

  10. Jennifer August 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    So it’s strong in the heart of teen girls; so? I think the author did that to draw girls in, then give them something refreshingly new and FAR more deep than the Twilight emo-porn crap of hollow-cheeked “hotties” smooching through their fangs.

  11. Badger March 29, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    I just saw the flick, Haley’s points resonate vividly on the screen. TVTropes.com will have a field day with it.

  12. Jennifer March 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Don’t tell me people are actually whining about this on male blogs. Big deal; there’s a lot of non-love and hatred in these books. As for the fashion thing, it was highly unusual and just horrific, a lot of the time; the poor kids had their dignity as well as every strand of body hair stripped away and were primed like chickens for slaughter; I developed a burning hatred for the “stylists” just as I had for the people in charge of the games (I avoid the books, since most of my time was spent fantasizing about killing off the adults). The point there lies in our culture’s shallow, sometimes ludicrous ideals of beauty (especially in entertainement). But if Collins got carried away with descriptions in the fashion, no surprise; I already have some strong gripes with her about the treatment of some subjects in the book. The movie is superior.

    Oh and btw: Katniss chooses the beta *gasp*


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