I am a huge fan of the The Hunger Games trilogy. It rivals my early enthusiasm for the Harry Potter books, and I frequently invoke references to it in conversation. I am clearly not the only one with this obsession—the trilogy has sold tens of millions of books, the movie spinoff has earned over $600 million, and thousands of young adults and children, inspired by the heroine’s deadly skill with a bow, have taken up archery classes. The trilogy is incredibly entertaining, which might surprise some, given that the entire series is about kids killing kids. In each book there is an arena, the location where the competitive killing takes place, which grows more expansive with each book—from an isolated forest in the first to the entire country by the end of the third. Death is a constant theme, and the series does not have an incredibly satisfactory ending.
If you have not read The Hunger Games, then my description above might read dreary, and you might be disinclined to read the trilogy now (sorry for the spoilers). But the book is grippingly entertaining, despite its macabre theme, and likely because of it. What makes this trilogy so enthralling is the concept, and the reincarnation of competitive killing in each book suggests the author, Suzanne Collins, might have recognized its importance as a plot device. Harry Potter fans love their books for the magical world created by J.K. Rowling, whereas fans of The Hunger Games seem to be captivated by something less benign. Why am I, along with millions of others, so gripped by this trilogy’s gladiatorial plot?
It is useful to separate out The Hunger Games’ plot into two concepts: death and organized competition. This is a distinction Suzanne Collins has made before—in several interviews she has said that the inspiration for the series came from flipping between television stations that showed scenes of the Iraq War on one channel and reality television competitions on the other. These two concepts together deliver the plot that has driven the series’ success. But perhaps one concept is a more significant driver than the other.
Organized competition has been the most prolific form of entertainment over the past 3,000 years. There is the early example of Rome’s gladiators, who fought in a spectator arena against other fighters or animals. Professional sports are a more recent example, where players follow specific rules meant to derive an entertaining experience for the viewer. The shot clock in basketball was developed specifically to make games more entertaining to watch, and millions around the world are devoted to watching spectacles of organized competition. One might hypothesize that democratic politics, in recent years, has become another form of organized competitive entertainment, despite its loftier goals of public welfare.
This summer, I became a big fan of the reality television show Big Brother, where contestants are placed in a house under 24/7 surveillance and compete to be the last houseguest voted out by their roommates. I promise the show is not voyeuristic—it is at its best when contestants plan and implement clever and deceptive strategies that take them further in the game. Most of the houseguests are insufferable to watch, but when they compete against each other, they suddenly become a lot more entertaining. Great reality television shows, like The Amazing Race or American Idol, are always centered on organized competition. Organized competition is a consistent obsession not only in my own life, but also in the lives of a large swath of the world.
Death and war might be additional drivers of The Hunger Games’ popularity, but I suspect few find killing for its own sake entertaining. The target markets of the series, young adults and children, seem more enthralled by the idea of the arena itself than the slaughter. The popularity is driven by the novel take on organized competition, an approach additionally heightened by the stakes of the game and the drama between characters. The series’ love triangle and plot twists are subsumed by the games itself.
Why are we then so entertained by organized competition? Do we crave the glory of victory as we put ourselves in the competitor’s shoes? Are we captivated by the spectrum of human values, courage, strength, focus and intelligence, which are showcased in full force? Are we hypnotized by narratives of triumph against all odds and look to the spectacle for inspiration? Or does organized competition appeal to our more evolutionary sentiments? It is likely a combination of all of the above, with weight to each determined by one’s personality.
I often wonder if Suzanne Collins sees her enthusiastic fans, who obsess over the idea of the arena more than the books’ characters, and worries that the goal behind writing The Hunger Games has been missed. I doubt she wanted readers to become obsessed with the idea of kids competitively killing each other. Perhaps the series is meant to actually criticize society’s addiction to organized competition. Regardless of the aim, the resulting success of the series provokes introspection of our reasons for enjoying them. It is one place where Harry Potter is a better series, because it is a lot easier to pretend to be a wizard than to be a tribute.
Patrick Oathout is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Patrick a message on Twitter @PatrickOathout.