Hunger: Does it Justify the Means

Dr. Wendy Glenn, associate professor of English education at the Neag School of Education and young adult literature expert, gives a review of the book “The Hunger Games” for the French newspaper, Le Monde. Below is her review.


Theater image from The Hunger Games movie. (Google images)
Theater image from The Hunger Games movie. (Google images)

The Hunger Games series has become so successful among both teens and adults given both the quality of writing and the complicated issues the novels raise.  Readers enter a world that is described in compelling, rich detail; they witness a reality that, on the surface, seems distant, and come to care about the well-developed characters who inhabit this place.

However, as is true across dystopian titles, the three novels in the series call into question assumptions about readers’ own realities and societies, thus encouraging connection and reflection.  The fact that the story is grounded in the coming of age process, one that is often defined by idealism and hope, heightens readers’ willingness to root for Katniss and those close to her.

I appreciate how Collins avoids the glamorization of violence in the novels; the violence is both uncomfortable and necessary.  We, as readers, witness the results of a class-based system gone awry, one in which entertainment is derived in ways reminiscent of the Roman gladiator tradition.  Collins uses violence to show just how low those in this community have gone, effectively issuing a warning to readers in our time and place.

In the midst of violence that results from a persistent belief in societal stratification and the valuing of people based upon where they live and what they possess, those moments of empathy and human connection that do arise (such as when Katniss sings a lullaby for Rue upon her death) are all the more poignant and somehow special.  I believe these moments serve as a reminder of what really matters, thus urging us to honor and fight for equity and respect among all people.

The Hunger Games can be defined as political in nature.  I argue that the series can be read as a critique of a capitalistic economic system that inherently creates disparities among citizens and rewards and punishes in inequitable ways.  This theme can be likened to school funding in the United States in which students who hail from wealthier communities enjoy up-to-date school facilities and text materials, ample resources in the form of technology and extra-curricular opportunities, and, subsequently, greater opportunities for enrichment and success.  In less affluent communities, the pervasive influence of concentrated poverty inevitably introduces greater challenges into the school and larger community.

Young adult (YA) fiction is thriving in part due to novels like Twilight and The Hunger Games.  Admittedly, publishers recognize that adolescent readers have more expendable income than in the past and are a ready market for sales; interest in YA titles among movie makers doesn’t hurt either.

However, the field is strong beyond these high profile titles and offers teen readers incredible variety and high quality.  John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars challenges readers to embrace life and loss in their full complexity.  Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy exposes readers to new and culturally influenced ways of defining their identities.  And Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains tests and contests readers’ assumptions about history and those whose voices have been historically silenced in the United States.