The Hunger Games (Series) | Study Guide

Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games (Series) | Context


Theseus and the Minotaur

Suzanne Collins has said the one story that most influenced The Hunger Games was the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read as a child. In the legend, King Minos of Crete builds a labyrinth to confine the Minotaur, a hideous creature that is half man, half bull. The labyrinth itself is a structure so complicated that no one can ever find his or her way out of it alive. Minos sends his enemies into the labyrinth to be devoured by the monster.

King Minos eventually finds another use for both the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Blaming the people of Athens for the death of his son, King Minos orders them to periodically send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete as a sacrifice to the Minotaur. If they fail to do so, Minos will wage war and destroy them.

Athens complies, and the sacrifices continue until Theseus, the Prince of Athens, volunteers to enter the labyrinth himself and slay the monster. With the help of Minos's daughter, who shows him a trick for finding his way out of the labyrinth, Theseus is successful. In The Hunger Games, the ritual sacrifice to the Minotaur is replaced by the yearly reaping, and the labyrinth becomes the massive Game arena. Katniss takes on the role of Theseus, fighting to bring an end to the Capitol's brutal rule.

Panem et Circenses

A key element of the Capitol's method for maintaining control over the populace is captured by the Latin phrase panem et circenses. Plutarch Heavensbee, the Head Gamemaker, tells Katniss Everdeen that the Capitol residents are compliant because they are used to "Panem et Circenses." He explains that the phrase was coined long ago in "a place called Rome," and means "Bread and Circuses." He goes on to say, "In return for full bellies and entertainment ... people had given up ... political responsibilities and ... power."

Plutarch's explanation is entirely accurate. The Roman satiric poet Juvenal (c. 55–127 CE) used the phrase to describe the relationship between the government and the citizenry of ancient Rome. The leaders maintained the support of citizens by giving them food and keeping them distracted with entertaining "games," such as gladiatorial combat. The result was a decline in the values and higher ideals of the Roman citizens, who were happy to let the government do as it pleased in return for the pleasures it provided. Similarly, the citizens of the Capitol are more than willing to support the actions of the government, including the Hunger Games and other atrocities, as long as they themselves are comfortable, well fed, and entertained.

In a nod to the phrase panem et circenses, the name of the world in The Hunger Games is Panem, or bread. This implies that the government is concerned for its citizens and acts as a benevolent provider of the resources they need. Yet in Panem, only the Capitol benefits from panem et circenses. It is the districts that provide the food and other resources, while their children serve as "tributes" in the deadly Hunger Games.

Reality TV

Collins has stated that the Hunger Games is, in effect, a reality television program: "An extreme one, but that's what it is." The similarities are certainly clear. These shows rely on placing ordinary people into unusual and sensational situations, while cameras capture every reaction. Rather than use actors with scripts, the producers of these shows manipulate the participants in a variety of ways to create drama and use selective editing to develop story lines and to shape how the audience views each "character." This is exactly how the creators of the Hunger Games deliver their own wildly successful entertainment.

Collins says that while she understands the success of these shows, she also finds them unsettling for a number of reasons. She discusses the "voyeuristic thrill" viewers get from watching people being humiliated or physically suffering. She also believes there is a potential for desensitizing viewers, so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn't have the impact it should. Collins is horrified by this possibility and wants her readers to understand that reality is not a game, nor should it be entertainment. More importantly, those who witness violence or injustice should never allow themselves to become only passive observers.

Video Games and Violence

In addition to crafting The Hunger Games trilogy to reflect reality TV, Collins used both the structure of the story and the details within it to mimic video games. Readers view events through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen, much as they would experience a game through the eyes of a chosen avatar. Similarly, in Mockingjay, the third book in the series, Katniss's perspective during her battlefield experiences mimics a multiplayer first-person shooter game.

Collins also embeds common elements of video games in the Hunger Games arenas. There are pods that trigger dangerous obstacles, threats in the form of monsters, and physical challenges for the players to overcome in specific areas. Players can also gather special items gained along the way that bestow powers or replenish health. This begins at the Cornucopia—a large source of food, weapons, and resources—but also includes items provided in a backpack, or the gifts from sponsors delivered via parachute. Collins also structures the series as a whole like levels of a video game, with each book introducing an increasingly difficult environment: the forest arena in the first book, the jungle arena in the second book, and the real war in the Capitol in the final book.

More disturbing, however, is the Games' resemblance to first-person shooters, in which the player's goal is to kill as many of the "enemy" as possible. Katniss Everdeen's goals are similar—if she doesn't fight, she "loses a life." But unlike video games, she has only one life to lose. More upsetting is that her opponents are not monsters, zombies, or faceless enemies. For the most part, they are young people like herself, most of them just as desperate and even more terrified. Collins seems to address this dilemma by structuring the story so that most of the tributes' deaths are at the hands of others, not Katniss's. The people she kills are those like Cato, who murders the innocent Rue.

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