10.20.2015

Hunger and The Hunger Games

I know I'm a little late to the Games here, but after watching Catching Fire I finally got around to reading the trilogy.  And what surprised me the most wasn't the first-person present narration of the books (although that was both surprising and annoying) but the persistent focus on hunger.  Having only seen the movies, I had no sense that food, hunger, and poverty played such an important role in the novels; that part of the story isn't easily translated to the screen, so in the films it gets passed over in favor of the flashy action sequences.  But hunger is a thread woven throughout The Hunger Games, from Katniss's hunting expeditions, to the stark poverty of the District, to the lavish fare of the Capitol, to the search for food and water in the arena.  Katniss and Peeta's relationship is defined by his gift of bread when they are children, just as Katniss and Gale's relationship is defined by their shared struggle to provide food for their families.  Author Susan Collins paints elegant portraits of the food that Katniss tastes on the train, at the training quarters, and throughout the events of the novels.  Specific foods are given symbolic value: the burned bread, the katniss tuber known to Katniss's father, the lamb stew with dried plums, and the roast pig at the Gamemaker's buffet.  I think only the Redwall series of young adult books has a more thorough focus on food, and there's a cookbook for that series!

With the final installment of the movie trilogy-turned-tetralogy set to be released just before the Thanksgiving holiday next month, when the cultural focus is so much on food and feasting, I hope a few folks will pick up the books and find out why they're called the "Hunger Games."  I have to admit that I didn't understand the title at all from watching the films, but it was clearly the right title after reading the books.  The novels are all about the relationship between food/hunger, politics, the media, and power.  The Roman allusions are also harder to trace in the films, but Collins got it right: panem et circenses - bread and circuses - is one way to satisfy the masses.  The Hunger Games is about what happens when those in power try to control the masses instead by restricting access to bread and making the games mandatory.  Since many of the nuances of her political and ethical arguments get lost in translation to the blockbuster form, go read the books!  Then go to the theater and enjoy the spectacle.

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