The Hunger Games, the wildly popular bestselling book by College of Arts and Sciences alumna Suzanne Collins, (BA 1985) blends a dystopian future world with elements of Greek mythology, ancient-Roman culture, and modern-day reality TV in a compelling story with a young female heroine. The book and its two sequels, originally intended for a young-adult audience, have garnered critical reviews and the sort of fanatical following associated with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series. The movie, for which Collins wrote the screen play and served as a consultant, premieres in theatres on March 23rd. Anticipation is huge for the premiere, with Hunger Games setting a new record for first-day advance ticket sales, according to Fandango.
The Hunger Games of the title is an annual televised event in which one boy and one girl from each of twelve conquered districts is forced by a repressive capitol city government to participate in a fight-to-the-death on live TV.
The Hunger Games begins with 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen and her friend Gale hunting in the woods around their impoverished District 12. When her younger sister Prim is chosen to be a “tribute” in the annual “reaping,” Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place, along with Peeta, the baker’s son. Once in the Games, Katniss must marshal all her skills to stay alive. In the end, she outwits the Capitol by attempting a double suicide, which forces Capitol leaders to allow both her and Peeta to live.
“The appeal of reality television shows to both kids and adults is that they’re often set up as games and, like sporting events, there’s an interest in seeing who wins. The contestants are usually unknown, which makes them relatable. Sometimes they have very talented people performing,” Collins said. “Then there’s the voyeuristic thrill—watching people being humiliated, or brought to tears, or suffering physically—which I find very disturbing. There’s also the potential for desensitizing the audience, so that when they see real tragedy playing out on, say, the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should.”
The book weaves together action, adventure, mythology, sci-fi, romance, and philosophy.
“A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur,” Collins said. “The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.”
“Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.”
In keeping with the classical roots, Collins sends her tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment. Collins said, “The world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references. Panem itself comes from the expression ‘Panem et Circenses’ which translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The audiences for both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination. I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me.”
“Suzanne Collins’ eclectic career is a great illustration of the sort of path a person with broad liberal arts education can follow,” said Larry D. Singell Jr., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Her success in adapting and relating to the changing world, and her curiosity and ability to relate past-to-present-to-future are the sorts of skills with which we hope to imbue all of our students. All of us in the College take great pride in Suzanne’s success.”