A True American Horror Story: Violence, Childhood, and The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games can be described in many ways. It’s captivating. It’s haunting. It’s affecting. It’s terrifying.

It’s also unquestionably American.

According to Entertainment Weekly, “Internationally, The Hunger Games isn’t yet the franchise-launching blockbuster that it is Stateside.” As of last weekend (April 15), the film had grossed $337.1 million domestically but had yet to pass the $200 million mark internationally.

This disparity can be attributed to many causes, but I think it all boils down to one point: The Hunger Games is a distinctly American story. It reflects the uniquely American mythology of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Lucas’s Star Wars. While Suzanne Collins surely meant for her novel to be enjoyed and analyzed by an international audience, she speaks directly to Americans with every turn of the page.

The basic premise of The Hunger Games points directly to two American obsessions: violence and youth. Never before have these two quintessentially American fascinations been linked in such a brutally direct way.

We are a country that is enamored with violence. We were born as a nation through the violence of war, and the right to bear arms is part of our Constitution. As a culture, we worship superheroes and the vigilante lawmen of old Westerns—two character types that are known for their use of violent force to serve justice.

We are also getting more and more desensitized to violence in our media, which is something that Collins directly critiques in The Hunger Games*. Like Fitzgerald did with Gatsby, Collins uses her novel to hold up a mirror to American society, and what’s reflected back isn’t pretty. This story resonates so strongly with Americans because we can see just how quickly we could slip from the society we have now to the society of Panem. The Hunger Games makes us reflect on how easily our love for TV shows like Fear Factor could descend into the mindset that makes the Games possible—a mindset that puts entertainment over empathy.

The Hunger Games is a story about violence, but it’s also a story about the most basic of all American desires: the innocence of youth. America as a nation is fixated on all that is new. Age and experience are seen as less valuable in America than youth and innocence. Our national mythology is filled with young heroes—from Huckleberry Finn to Luke Skywalker. We are still a young country, and, as such, we see our national identity reflected in the purity of these young heroes.

The Hunger Games depicts children stripped of their innocence, forced to kill one another as the rest of the nation watches. This would be a horrifying premise for people in any country, but it strikes a unique chord in America, a nation that reveres innocence so deeply. Collins imagines a future in which we have fallen so far as a nation that we feel no horror in seeing children not only lose their lives but lose their innocence by taking each other’s lives; in fact, we cheer and celebrate over this loss of innocence. The Hunger Games uses America’s obsession with youth to criticize our national appetite for spectacle and violence. Collins’s story would not have resonated with us so strongly nor disturbed us so greatly if it were adults fighting in the Hunger Games rather than children.

The death scenes for all of the young Tributes in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games perfectly encapsulate the interplay between innocence and violence in Collins’s story. This is especially true of the opening bloodbath at the Cornucopia, which director Gary Ross shot with a genius mixture of restraint and realism.

The most fascinating death scene in the film – in terms of what it says about children and violence in The Hunger Games – belongs to the Tribute Cato. This teenager is part of the Careers, Tributes that are trained from an early age to become brutal killers in the hope of winning the Hunger Games and bringing pride to their district. During the Games, the audience sees Cato as a villain, slaughtering many of the other children in the arena. Cato’s death could have felt like a cause for celebration as Peeta and Katniss are seemingly left as the victors after his demise, but the script poignantly reminds viewers that Cato is simply another child whose innocence was taken from him by the Capitol along with his life:

“I can still do this. One more kill. It’s the only thing I know how to do, bring pride to my district. Not that it matters.”

Cato was a child that was turned into a killing machine in order to bring pride to his family and his district. He was only a boy who was literally raised for the slaughter and to cause the deaths of other children along the way. The society of Panem is guilty of more than just killing children for entertainment. Cato’s story shows us that it’s also guilty of killing the innocence of children by turning them into murderers before they die at each other’s hands. In the American literary tradition, there is no greater crime than the destruction of innocence, and this scene makes such destruction real, visceral, and horrifying.

Every culture has their own mythology, their own stories of heroes to pass from one generation to the next. In America, those heroes are defined by certain characteristics unique to our national cultural identity: They are fundamentally new types of people in their society; they come from nothing to achieve success; they are at home in nature or open space; and they are loners until they find a cause or group of people to fight for.

Sound familiar?

Katniss Everdeen is a truly American hero. She is a new breed of Tribute in the Hunger Games, one who isn’t willing to play by the Capitol’s rules, one who beats the system that is supposed to break her. Katniss’s rise to power and prominence comes straight from the pages of a Horatio Alger novel; she was born into brutal poverty in District 12 and suddenly becomes a celebrity after she volunteers for her sister at the Reaping. However, Katniss despises playing the prim and proper Cinderella figure in the Capitol. She hates the city and longs for the wilderness. Katniss is a child of the woods, the “fresh green breast of a new world,” that Fitzgerald wrote about in Gatsby.

Katniss does not go on a heroic quest like the heroes of other cultures’ myths. She only wants to stay alive and to keep those closest to her safe. She is an ordinary girl thrust into the role of hero simply by being herself; she is no “Chosen One” like Harry Potter. Katniss is simply a poor girl who stands up to a corrupt society, and that is very much an American heroic archetype as old as the Revolutionary War itself.

The Hunger Games is a film and a book that is meant to resonate with all people, but there is no denying that it directly reflects the culture and values of the country that it came from. Through its disturbing mixture of children, violence, and the media, it is meant to strike a very specific chord with its American audience. Katniss is a hero straight out of our literary past; Panem is a frightening look at what could be our future. The Hunger Games goes straight to the heart of America’s cultural identity to scare us, to shock us, and to make us think.

It’s an American story, and America is listening.

*For the purpose of this post, I will only be talking about the first book/film in the series. Stay tuned for more thoughts on the rest of the series because I have lots of them!

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6 thoughts on “A True American Horror Story: Violence, Childhood, and The Hunger Games

  1. This is fantastically written, Katie. Your love for the topic shines through so wonderfully.

    It’s also something I know very little about, so I really enjoyed reading through this and learning from it!

    • I’m so happy you liked it Heather! I spent four years in college writing stuff like this, so I really enjoyed getting back to some literary analysis. I wrote my thesis on the American fascination with the innocent hero, so I love talking about things like this. I wish I knew of The Hunger Games back when I was writing my thesis because it fit my topic so perfectly!

  2. Sorry it took me so long to get to this, I’ve been so busy this week!

    Great post anyways. I could pretty much talk about The Hunger Games all day long. I loved what you said about The Hunger Games being a kind of mirror to our current culture. I could not agree more. Not only where the violence is concerned, but there are lots of other troubling parallels as well, like the obsession with superficial appearance in the Capital, and the focus by the general populace on entertainment and trivial concerns rather than on the political process and the duties of citizenship. It’s kind of scary to think that this has all happened before. Collins didn’t make up the idea of “Panem et Circenses”. It was the main political strategy of the Romans before the Republic fell and gave way to authoritarian rather than democratic rule. It’s a mark of a declining civilization, and it’s more than a little chilling to look around our current culture and realize how far down the slope we’ve slid. You only have to turn on a cable news network to see “bread and circuses” in action; how happy they are to report on the latest exploits of Lindsey Lohan or the results of the latest reality show instead of the actual news which may make some of us restless. The fact that our media is now almost completely corporate (and therefore government) owned is no coincidence in this. The deliberate distraction of the populace (“Here look at this shiny thing, while we erode some more of your freedoms”) has already begun.

    I’m getting kind of far away from your point though, so back to the violence. One of the things I most liked about the books was that they never seemed to glorify the violence. Sometimes it was necessary (like when Katniss killed the tribute who killed Rue, or when Cato died), but the book always pointed out how tragic and really sick it was that violence like this was necessary. This is an area where I feel the movie, while being quite a good adaptation, fell down a little bit. They did a good job with Cato, that last scene with him on the Cornucopia was really effective at finally humanizing him, showing that he was just another victimized child with very few choices. But a couple of the deaths in the film kinda failed on that score, in particular the death of Clove. The way it was done almost made it seem like the filmmakers wanted us to be glad that Clove was “getting what was coming to her”, instead of making the point that she was just as much a victim of this barbaric culture as Cato. I’m not going to lie, I wonder a little if her gender had something to do with that. We forgive men for violence, and we are used to making excuses for it. But Clove was a girl, and she seemed just as bloodthirsty as Cato. And, she seemed less stereotypically female than some of the other female tributes. She was plainer, and she seemed to have little interest in forming sexual or romantic alliances with anyone. Contrast her to Glimmer, attractive, pretty, and clearly using some of this to her advantage by forming a sort of subtle romantic/sexual bond with Cato. And it seemed like Glimmer’s death had a lot less judgment in it than Clove’s, later in the film. So I wonder if on some level the filmmakers weren’t punishing Clove for transgressing the gender roles, and being as violent and ruthless as a male, and also for failing to use her sexuality as currency like Glimmer did, or even as Katniss does, albeit reluctantly, using her initially fake romance with Peeta to garner favor with the audience and with the sponsors. Let me be clear that I’m not judging Katniss or even Glimmer here, it’s a “you do what you have to” situation, and Katniss, while she uses her own sexuality somewhat to her advantage, is not sexualized or objectified either in the novels or the film, which is rare and kind of astounding.

    • Have I told you lately that I love reading your comments?

      I was actually going to put in a whole section on “Panem et Circenses” in our current culture, but I couldn’t find the right (or most succinct) way to phrase it. You said everything I wanted to say about that, but you articulated it much better than I could have.

      I also completely agree with you about Clove’s death. I found it especially interesting where they took out Cato’s reaction to her death. In the book, he’s there comforting her when she dies, which added a much more human element to her death. It was almost like the filmmaker’s sacrificed that for the Cato/Glimmer “romance” that we got in the movie. I’ll admit that I was quite disappointed that we didn’t get that added humanizing element of Cato being by her side when she died. It didn’t have to be romantic (it wasn’t in the book), but I think it would have been better to view her death the same way that we viewed the other deaths in the film – as tragedies rather than a sigh of relief. Like you said, she was just a victim too of this system that turned her into a killing machine before it ultimately led to her death.

      • Ah yes, I actually forgot about Cato being there when Clove died, and how he comforted her and even grieved her a bit. And you’re right, it wasn’t at all a romantic type thing, it was one child being sad about their friend dying, which made Clove much more human. I agree it does seem almost like they sacrificed that for that weird vague suggestion by the filmmakers of attraction between Glimmer and Cato (which seemed kind of pointless since she died before it could really go anywhere).

        As much as I liked the first film, I did get the feeling that they’re definitely trying to play up the “romance” angle on all fronts, especially the whole love triangle thing between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. I think it was ok in this first film, because they didn’t go too far with it, but I really hope they don’t try to make this into Twilight, where the entire point of the story becomes about which hunky guy Katniss is going to pick. In the books, to be quite honest, I didn’t much care either way. Because to me, the whole love triangle thing was an interesting and somewhat humanizing element for Katniss’ character (in that here’s this fierce, strong, independent young woman, and yet she’s a confused teenager when it comes to love and her own feelings), but it was to me, very very far from being the point of the story, which was as we were discussing earlier, holding up a mirror to our current civilization and showing how easy it was for people to lose their humanity in the face of such a cruel society, but also showing that it was possible to hold onto it as well. Hopefully they stick to the books and keep the romance elements as a way to expose the characters rather than making it the main point of the films.

        • I have to say, I didn’t share your worries about the later films and the love triangle until I found out that Gary Ross isn’t directing Catching Fire. I thought he had a really strong grasp of the fact that this story is about Katniss and her struggle to maintain her humanity in the face of a dehumanizing society rather than which boy she is going to choose. He openly spoke of his disdain for the whole “Team Peeta/Team Gale” thing, which earned him some more respect from me.

          But now I am kind of nervous that a new director might want to cash in on the love story as the whole plot rather than something that develops the characters as they progress along the way of the REAL plot. I was strongly drawn to the Katniss/Peeta dynamic from the beginning, but it was more about how they complimented each other and how their story mirrored our culture’s struggle to determine what’s real than it was about any sort of idealized romance. I like the fact that both Peeta and Gale represent two very different sides of Katniss as a woman, and I love what her ultimate choice says about her holding on to hope and humanity in the face of tragedy. But this series is about so much more than teenage romance, and I truly hope that the future directors remember that. It’s what makes The Hunger Games so unique, and I just the filmmakers realize that focusing on Team Katniss is a hell of a lot more interesting and socially important than Team Peeta or Team Gale.

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