The Hunger Games
Death, Gladiators and Reality TV
Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games novels struck a chord with audiences who want to believe in love and survival in the midst of deadly battles and who find the dystopian, media-saturated wasteland not entirely unfamiliar. As we await the games’ return to our biggest arena (the silver screen), it’s a good time for fanatics and initiates alike to discover Collins’s inspirations for her postapocalyptic trilogy, from the gladiators of ancient Rome to today’s reality television.
Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy—comprising The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010)—takes place in a postapocalyptic North America where districts of the totalitarian nation Panem are forced to send pairs of their children into arenas to fight to the death. The annual bloodbath, called the Hunger Games—the government’s reprisal for a revolt that was quashed decades earlier—is broadcast as a reality television show that all residents of Panem must watch. All three books center on Katniss Everdeen, who at age 16 volunteers to compete in the games in place of her younger sister, along with Peeta, a boy from her native District 12. The pair’s performance in the games begins to restoke the embers of rebellion in the long-oppressed districts.
The first film was directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), but Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes over for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) returns as Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) reprises his role as Peeta.
Suzanne Collins was inspired to write The Hunger Games, the first novel of her breakaway trilogy, while she was watching television, flipping between images of young people participating in a reality show on one channel and young soldiers in the Iraq War on another. Collins has said the lines between these supposedly discrete entities “began to blur in this very unsettling way.” The juxtaposition recalls the theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who, after watching the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on television, wrote a controversial essay characterizing them as an inevitable reaction to global power.
The show that inaugurated, as we know it, the era of televised popularity contests disguised as athletic competitions is undoubtedly Survivor. The audience reaction to Survivor, which some fans have likened to addiction, paved the way for scores of copycats. And though reality shows supposedly do not follow scripts, many of Survivor’s elements and tropes have survived among the imitators. These include the climactic voting of a contestant off the island or out of the house (or kitchen) and a seemingly unending train of contestants who claim, “I’m not here to make friends.”
The danger-filled world of the Hunger Games trilogy and its grisly contests, in which children must fight to the death, recall stories of the rival nation-states of classical Greece and the gladiatorial exhibitions and trials of ancient Rome. In Greek mythology, Athens was forced to send an annual tribute to the king of Crete in the form of young people, who were then sacrificed to the vicious Minotaur. Author Suzanne Collins has said, “Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’” The name for Collins’s fictional dictatorship, Panem, comes from the Latin expression panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”)—as in, what more could a decent Roman want?
Rome’s public bloodlust has been the subject of many films. William Wyler’s Ben-Hur follows Judah Ben-Hur, played with stoic panache by Charlton Heston, who is enslaved and must fight for his life in a terrifying, violent chariot race before screaming Romans. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, setting the stage and whetting audiences’ appetites for Spartacus (1960), the first large-scale production directed by Stanley Kubrick. Ben-Hur’s epic race inspired a similar scene in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).
Life-and-death contests played out on the big screen often win cinematic gold. The Hunger Games and its sequels stand in a long line of movies in which wrongly targeted heroes and heroines are systematically hunted down. Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” about a big-game hunter who becomes the quarry, has been filmed several times, most notably by Robert Wise as A Game of Death (1945). A more recent example is The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and based on a novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). Set in the year 2019, The Running Man depicts a dystopian landscape in which convicted criminals are tracked down and executed on state-sanctioned live television. The host of this macabre reality show is Damon Killian, hammed up brilliantly by Richard Dawson, who at the time was the beloved host of the game show Family Feud. The film gives Schwarzenegger ample opportunity to deliver his signature groan-inducing one-liners: After killing a combatant called Buzzsaw, for example, with the character’s namesake weapon, Schwarzenegger mugs, “He had to split.”
The fictional reality TV show in the movie The Running Man and the quasi-real reality TV show Survivor are both pageants in which contestants fight to avoid their own elimination. This means something quite different to the “contestants” in the life-and-death battles of The Running Man than it does to those who lounge amid the palm trees on Survivor, but the formula is the same in both: a slow, nail-bitingly dramatic process of one-by-one elimination broadcast to rabid fans. The element of suspense calls to mind Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” (1948), in which the residents of a small town hold an annual lottery to select one citizen to stone to death.
A “reality” program turned into a showcase for murder was central to Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network. As a television executive, played by Faye Dunaway, pushes for more sensationalism in the station’s programming, anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) plunges from depression to madness. In the climax Beale is murdered on live TV, and the film’s—and possibly the show’s—narrator intones, “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”