Friday, March 30, 2012

Of Games and Brutality and Human Nature

The "it" book series this year is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Collins is a superb storyteller, although her books have enough mechanical errors to probably prevent the series from being actual literature. The brouhaha over this series seems to be louder than that of Twilight a couple of years ago, and even the Harry Potter books of a decade ago. Part of the outcry, I think, is the adult fear that, unlike vampires and Muggles, all of the characters in Collins' books are plausible. They aren't particularly well rounded, and certainly literary critics have plenty to complain about, but there is no magic to make the issues in the books disappear into a fantasy fog.

The premise of the book is horrifying, no doubt: a totalitarian government separates Panem (ostensibly the future of the USA) into twelve districts and a Capitol. The districts are walled, controlled, and restricted to whatever economic activity fits the geography of the area. Profits are collected by the Capitol so that each district remains impoverished. (This, to me, is reminiscent of the USSR and Eastern Europe under Communism.)  The Capitol is fixed on punishing the districts for the war that caused the split and allowed the current government to take power. Rigid rules of behavior with dire consequences serve to remind the people that they are not free. To further demonstrate control and maximize fear, the Capitol requires an annual sacrifice. Of course, they don't CALL it a sacrifice, but essentially, that is what the Hunger Games are. Each district must send two teens, one boy and one girl, to fight to the death. It is reality television at the most extreme. The Games are broadcast nationally, to the delight and entertainment of those in the Capitol (whose children are exempt), and to the utter dismay of people in the districts whose children are forced to kill or be killed.

Of course, this premise is horrifying; it is supposed to be. The idea behind the book is less entertainment than it is a validation of life and community and the corruption of power. Perhaps many adults see reflections of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. The Cold War is not so far removed that the first-person stories no longer have an impact. On the contrary, memoirs about the Holocaust and Communist Eastern Europe are published regularly even now. Svetlana Alliluyeve, the daughter of Josef Stalin, wrote, "As a result of half a century of Soviet rule, people have been weaned from a belief in human kindness" (Biography). The idea of a closed society and distrust of anyone outside the immediate community was reality for most Eastern Europeans as recently as 30 years years ago. How much would it take to again destroy trust in humanity and obedience to tyranny out of fear? I suspect, not much.

Driving home that fear is the fact that it is children who become the sacrificial target: "It sends out a very clear message: Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children" (Collins). Americans tend to overprotect their children from disappointment and hurt feelings. The very idea that the government could require children to participate in a killing ritual is unfathomable, yet it is not a new concept. As recently as 2010, child sacrifice in Uganda was epidemic. The ancient Aztecs, Cannanites, and Carthagians used child sacrifice to placate the gods. Ancient Rome made a game of killing people for sport. Human sacrifice, especially children, is possibly the most abhorrent idea to the Western mind, because, as a culture, we value our children above all other life (including the ill, the orphaned, and the elderly).

Knowing that child sacrifice is part of humanity's past doesn't make the Games any more palatable. And it shouldn't. Westerners like to think of themselves as more evolved than those ancient civilizations, and the idea that the future may be no better than the past is unnerving--partly because it seems almost plausible.  The element that the practice is a game provided for the entertainment of the Capitol elite recalls the Colosseum under Nero. The Roman Empire at its height was no better than Collins' Panem. And our current fascination with reality television illustrates that we are really no different than the people of that long ago past.

Literature in the past has dealt with the idea that human nature is brutal and cruel, even for children. William Golding's book, Lord of the Flies, is one such book. Golding's book is standard reading for many schools across the country. In the book, a group of British schoolboys is forced to fnd a way to survive after their plane crashes on an island en route to safety from the bombs of World War 2.  Over time, they descend into savagery without the help of a totalitarian regime. Some of the text in Golding's book could find a home in Collins' story:

“he found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life,where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one's waking life was spent watching one's feet” (Golding). 

Certainly the Tributes of the Hunger Games had to watch their feet as well--for traps and clues and sustenance. But this quote was penned before Collins was born. The boys in the story ultimately kill one of their own--not because they are required to do so  in order to live, but so one could establish his dominance over the others. For me, that idea is even more frightening than children being forced to play a death game.

Unlike Golding's book, where the boys return to England broken, Collins creates resilient characters who, not only survive, but who return home strong. Peeta's strength is evident before the games begin:

 My best hope is to not disgrace myself and..." He hesitates. And what?" I say. I don't know how to say it exactly. Only... I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?" he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not." I bite my lip feeling inferior. While I've been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. "Do you mean you won't kill anyone?" I ask. No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else. I can't go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to... to show the Capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in their Games," says Peeta. But you're not," I say. "None of us are. That's how the Games work." Okay, but within that frame work, there's still you, there's still me," he insists. "Don't you see?"  (Collins) 
Peeta and Katniss are stronger than the Games. They don't sacrifice character, even though they kill. Neither kills in cold blood--they are either in defense or in mercy. Peeta understands his own character from the beginning; Katniss learns her own as the Games progress. Unlike the boys in Lord of the Flies, the Tributes from District 12 grow during their isolation and the savagery of the Games. Neither descends into unbridled violence, and both remain horrified by the lifestyles and attitudes they see in the Capitol from before the Games begin through the end. The reading audience, while hoping the best for Katniss and Peeta, is never far removed from the disturbing elements of the game. That, in and of itself, is an important element of Collins' text. The Games are not humanized or sanitized or glorified. Death is mourned. To everyone (except those in the Capitol), life matters. Relationships are important. And community becomes the element that allows strength and hope to weave a thread throughout the story.

The Hunger Games offers an insight into the brutal core of natural man. Left to his own devices, destruction is inevitable. For Collins to follow the example of the Roman Colosseum should not be a surprise, but rather a warning. We are all capable of unspeakable atrocities, no matter how evolved we may think we are.

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