Why an English Teacher Enjoys The Hunger Games: Anachronism and Cultural Commentary

Photo credit: jensc.org.

Recently, my sister posted on my Facebook wall asking me what I thought of The Hunger Games.  Here’s what she wrote:

“Derek asked me last night what the deal with The Hunger Games series is, and having never read them I really didn’t have an answer. I just keep hearing about these things, and see advertisments galore. Seems that when you put two people together who have both read them, they’ll gush about how ‘great’ or ‘awesome’ they are without ever saying WHY. So, I figured I’d ask you : what’s the deal? From what I can tell, it looks like just another futuristic action-adventure.”

Here’s my response, expanded for blogging purposes: 

I think there are a few things that separate Hunger Games from other books in the genre. First of all, it’s not just a futuristic novel–its influences include ancient Roman society and ancient Greek mythology, which make the book anachronistic (anachronism is the juxtaposition of people, events, or customs from different time periods).  Anachronisms can help a story to feel larger in scope and weightier in content.  If a story feels solely futuristic, it can seem shallow.  Echoing ancient customs and literature lends powerful resonance to a good story.  It’s one of the key differences between the old Star Wars series and the new Star Wars series.  The old ones felt ancient and mythical, and (in my opinion) far outshone the dazzling special effects of the newer series because of their ancient qualities.  The Phantom Menace was okay, but I thought the next two were terrible, primarily because they were so shallow.

The premise of The Hunger Games is very similar to Roman gladiator games, which have always held a fascination for people.  It also draws on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which young people were exacted as tribute from conquered nations and then fed to a horrible monster in the labyrinth.  Interestingly, it was prophesied that Theseus would defeat his greatest enemy with a weapon taken from the enemy.  He tore a horn off of the Minotaur and used it to stab the Minotaur to death.  When the kids first enter the arena, their weapons and supplies are stored in a giant cornucopia, which is also the shape of a horn.  The young warriors must win their battle with weapons taken from their greatest enemy, the Capital.

Second, it provides insightful and frightening commentary on some undesirable aspects of our own culture. The whole thing is a giant reality show in which people tune in to watch young people kill each other. While this is horrifying, is it so far removed from many modern reality shows? For example, in the Jersey Shore, producers put a bunch of young people into a house, give them alcohol, and watch them destroy their lives. Is that so very different from putting young people into an arena and giving them weapons?  We don’t watch most reality shows to see people succeed; we primarily watch these shows to see the losers and failures.  The losers are the ones who get the most air time; when a winner is announced at the end, the show is quickly over.  Maybe it’s a little bit of schadenfreude–feeling better about our own lives by watching someone else fail.  Not all reality shows are like this of course (What Not to Wear immediately comes to mind), but there are many shows pushing the voyeuristic envelope.

Third, the book’s plot, while quite original, draws upon a lot of great literature, including Romeo and Juliet, 1984, Lord of the Flies, and pretty much all dystopic lit. It gives us the same opportunities as many of these other books to see many different facets of human nature–the good, the bad, and the horrifying.  The book’s most compelling theme is the subversiveness of love.  Katniss, the protagonist, is unable to openly rebel against the Capital.  What she is able to do is show sacrificial love to her sister Prim, to her friend Peeta, and to a fellow competitor named Rue.  The book shows us that in the face of powerful evil, love is the most rebellious act of all.

Fourth, I would say that the characterization is excellent and makes you deeply interested in the outcome of the games. It’s told from the perspective of Katniss, who is one of the strongest and most admirable female characters to come out of literature in a long time.  Is she flawed? Of course. But that makes her more realistic.

Anyway, all this to say that the book is well worth the read. The movie is being ridiculously over-marketed right now, but don’t let the story’s popularity scare you away.  I’m not sure that I like the book for the same reasons most other people do, but I do believe that it has some compelling qualities.  Read it, and let me know what you think!


2 thoughts on “Why an English Teacher Enjoys The Hunger Games: Anachronism and Cultural Commentary

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