RadioActive on The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games are upon us in book and on screen. This is of course the Hunger Games, the immensely popular fiction trilogy set in a dystopian future. The first film treatment just opened last week. The Hunger Games has broken the Fahrenheit 911 record, it earned, box office gross domestically, over $150 million in one weekend. And anything earning over $150 million is worth taking about I think. And with us here in studio to talk about Hunger Games, she has a Ph.D. in English Lit from the University of Iowa. Her fiction, poetry, non-fiction work have appeared in publications ranging all the way from the New York Times to Best American Essays. She calls herself a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but tonight we’ll talk about the Hunger Games heroine. Dr. Holly Welker. Also joining us in studio Associate Professor of Communication at Westminster College her Ph.D. is from Oklahoma State. She teaches in areas of rhetorical theory, feminism, and pop culture, and also creative writing, Dr. Christine Seifert.
Thank you, I’m a Buffy fan too.
Oh two Buffy fans, okay. So we can talk about sword play. I don’t know who to toss this question to first but for perhaps to initiate it, how would we sum up the story of Hunger Games and Katniss our heroine?
Well I think, just sort of at its simplest, the Hunger Games is a dystopian book about what happens when the government takes over and decides that, in order to show people whose in charge, that they are going to require each child under the age of 18 to register to potentially compete in these deadly games, which are the Hunger Games. And the series and the movie are set on that premise. What would happen if these kids had to participate in these games in which they have to kill each other in order to survive.
It’s to the death. Only one winner. And they’re little kids. Some of them more adept than others. Some train and hope they’ll be picked, others loathe it. Very interesting. And of course its all broadcast live as sort of a reality television show, which of course adds to the complexity of the entire narrative. As a way to jump in here, what would you throw out if we were going to compare, because Katniss is the heroine here, you know she’s barely getting by, she’s starving to death with her family. I will point out that unlike so many books this is a dead-dad book not a dead-mother book. You know there’s so many Disney books and so many Disney movies with dead moms, here we have a dead dad which I thought was kind of an interesting twist. Here’s this subsistence kid, she’s a hunter gatherer, incredibly successful with a bow and arrow. The book talks about how she can shoot out the eye of a rabbit so the pelt will still be useable. So you think of her and then you think of the other two heroines that come to mind over the last ten years and that would be Bella, who knows what she wants, but its sick and twisted. And I can think of Hermione too from the Harry Potter franchise and I wonder how would you compare her Holly, how would you put Katniss alongside Bella or Hermione?
I’m not a Harry Potter fan, I read the first two novels, saw two or three of the movies.
I mean Hermione is like the smarty-pants girl with all the answers, so I think there’s a stereotype there.
Yeah, I’m not the person to make that comparison, but I can say something about where I think Katniss ranks alongside Bella. I’d like to see her rip her throat out. I’d like to see Katniss rip Bella’s throat out. The wonderful Buffy vs. Edward mash up, I’m waiting for someone to do that with Katniss and Bella and I am confident that Katniss will prevail because she’s actually smart and Bella’s only real talent is that she can produce a stupor of thought. That’s the super power that is revealed in the book.
And she can be full of longing and desire. Right, she can pine really.
For a book and a half, pretty much. So no pining here at all Christine, there’s no room for pining.
No, and Holly’s statement is funny, I think a lot of people who read Twilight and read the Hunger Games found the Hunger Games to be the superior book. But I do think its important to remember that Twilight, at the end of the day, is a romance novel and the Hunger Games is a dystopian novel. And so I think the genre frees it up, and I’m not excusing Bella or Stephenie Meyer but they’re different genres, and as a result I think that Katniss has the ability to be the stronger heroine. And like Holly I also have only read a couple of the Harry Potter books, but I think Hermione gets to operate in a different genre so I think that maybe says more to us about romance novels than anything else.
And the Harry Potter novels I read, Hermione is still a child and she’s not expected to do the sorts of things that either Katniss or Bella are. She’s pretty much just a student, an eager and kind of prissy student, but she doesn’t face situations of life or death in the same way that either Katniss or Bella do at least in the early books that I have read.
And again the series follows Ron and Hermione and Harry all the way through puberty which is somewhat frightening in a few of the books. I’m curious about this though, as you say Christine, its genre fiction in a way. It’s an incredible page turner, its very hard to put it down, especially I would say in the first novel the second half is them running through the words goring and maiming and shooting each other. Although they don’t have automatic weapons, its all kind of hand to hand combat which I found interesting. I couldn’t help but think about two things when I read about Katniss. One was Diana, goddess of the hunt, but I also kept thinking of that movie The Incredibles, where each family member has a super power. You know the little kid runs real fast and mom is like a super tasker – they’re such stereotypes. And I thought about the teen daughter in the Incredibles and her super power is invisibility right? And You think about how so many teen girls have this sort of split where they feel powerful but then they don’t feel powerful and they don’t know where they fit. And I found her kind of strangely empty that way, Katniss. That she’s very reactive she’s very capable she’s very talented. She is smart. She’s a great provider. She takes care of her mom because her mom falls apart after the dad dies. Yet she’s totally at the affect of everything in the book. And to me there was a certain kind of almost emotional invisibility, there’s a certain invisibility in Katniss that was odd to me. And it made her somewhat of a blank slate in a way that surprised me for a book that’s first person and yet I had a hard time putting my finger on her.
Well I think that part of what we’re seeing is the genre again. In dystopian fiction, we’re seeing a world that has gone completely awry. We can envision what our world might look like if this happened. Largely, this is a world that has similarities, it’s analogous in some ways and we can talk about that, but I think we’re seeing a world in which the rules don’t apply anymore. I don’t think that Katniss is able to have that kind of emotional depth, but Holly is going to disagree with me.
No, I agree with you absolutely actually. I’m saying no, she does not have that. I was thinking, for instance, I actually saw the movie just this afternoon and one of the things that really bothered me was all of the shrieking from Primrose, her sister. And I thought people who are cowed, people who are terrorized do not react – they are more frightened. And Katniss struck me, Katniss is a well-trained victim who is doing her very very best to outsmart her tormentors. I read her as pretty darn authentic. She is not allowed a lot of emotional affect. That’s pretty true for people who are abused and terrorized. I thought, and especially for somebody whose subjected to it young.
So in Maslow’s hierarchy, she can’t afford any of that?
She absolutely cannot. She is able to love her sister because her sister cannot be taken from her in the same way her father was. Or so she imagines until Prim’s name is drawn at the reaping. The extent to which she likes Gayle, but can’t invest in him, she seems pretty clearly to bet he emotionally damaged goods that sort of state is determined to produce.
And so what then do you think makes her resonate for so many young readers?
Oh I think we’re all pretty damaged goods.
I also think that if you look at other young adult books outside of the dystopian genre I think you see a lot of that kind of depression, checking out of life in some ways, which I think is typical of teens who are depressed. The book that comes to mind for me is the book Speak which is about a girl whose date raped. And she essentially loses the ability to speak, she can’t tell anybody what happened. She kind of checks out of life and just observes it. She’s certainly less powerful than Katniss is because Katniss is forced to go out and fight but this idea of feeling like the power is so heavy and there’s nothing that you can do about it. I think Katniss’ response is to simply survive, which is what Holly said before, that’s her primary desire – simply to survive.
Is this a kind of post-traumatic stress she’s living in then? With the horror of her family and her dad dying in the coal mine and all that?
I would say so and I think that a lot of the ways that she reacts are typical of especially teens who are dealing with post traumatic stress. And I wonder if that’s why a lot of teens are connecting to Katniss in a lot of ways, feeling that same kind of pressure from authority. It’s certainly not what the capitol or what President Snow is doing to these kids in the book but I think all teenagers can relate to that pressure that they feel and the powerlessness that they feel.
Right and for teens today there’s got to be this incredible disconnect or even schizophrenia between what they’re being told daily in media and then what they see around them.
And theres a line in the book I really like her mother is chastising her for her less than exemplary table manners and her mother says “you eat like you’re never going to see food again” and Katniss says “I won’t unless I go out and catch it.” And the sense that her absolute subsistence is something that she is responsible for and also for her mother and sister. And I doubt there are too many teenagers who experience exactly that but the sense that happiness is truly fleeting.
Well and it’s such a throwback to me too. I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ve just read the book. But I think of all those wonderful 70s dystopian movies that were so popular at the end of the Vietnam War. Maybe that says more about us as readers than it does about the genre.
I mean I think it does like you said, two teens a world in which it appears that everything is falling apart and dystopian novels might be one way to work through those issues. I also think it’s important to remember that you could argue that dystopian novels are hopefully at the end of the day because there’s something worth fighting for. I mean Katniss and Peeta they recognize that there is still something there there’s still something worth fighting for and I think that in many ways the books might appeal to young readers because it suggests that you can fight for a better world. It’s actually Katniss and Peeta who can fight against President Snow and the government for a better world and that’s a message that’s ultimately hopeful.
And I mean if you’re a kid what’s left if you don’t have some scrap of hope? And that’s a good question though, thank you, you’re a step ahead of me. This is RadioActive, we’re talking about the Hunger Games series, talking with Dr. Holly Welker and Dr. Christine Seifert. So Christine, this notion of the parents. I mean mom is missing in action and I love that Katniss takes care of her mom but resents it. That’s very teen accurate. That’s certainly how I was with my mom. But Peeta’s mom and dad clearly not a great relationship but somehow he grew up with some humanity that it doesn’t seem like his mom and dad have. There’s the mayor who appears briefly more in the form of the daughter but maybe that’s one reason these resonate. Because not only is this world something they can relate to but the parents aren’t exactly something to write home about. And that’s typical for all YA literature. You often see absent parents or poor parents because I think as teenagers we all like to think about what we would do if we were in charge. But I think in the Hunger Games what we’re seeing is kids who know more than the adults around them. I mean the adults are all sort of ridiculous in a lot of ways. Haymitch is a drunk, for example. President Snow is vindictive in a lot of ways. Effie is silly, right? She’s puffery. Then we see Katniss and Peeta, and Gayle as well. They’re taking care of their families. They’re doing the adult thing and they’re fighting for their own humanity. They’re fighting to make the world different than the adults have made it.
Yeah I think of inner-city life for some people, right? There’s not much left. I mean there is schooling that’s mentioned but not much of the focus goes to that. So what do you make of, she goes to the big city because she’s chosen and then she volunteers – we don’t want to go through the plot page by page - but she ends up in this game, which involves going to the big city. And then she takes the train and of course all these people have these crazy hairdos. And except for her dresser Cinna, they’re all kind of weird people. So I wanted to ask about Cinna, but also about the political message of the book, which to me seems kind of reductive and simple, kind of cardboard, but again that’s true to the genre, but there’s a lot that reflects the world we live in today. Holly?
I’m not quite sure exactly, the political message?
Sure, that she’s exploited on television while she’s forced to defend herself. The political, those doing the oppressing, the 1%, have very clear and concrete rules for repressing the 99 everywhere else. And these things are just accepted because people are beaten down. So on the one hand the message seems quite relevant today, but true to the genre it seems quite simplistic to me.
So one of the ways that I read Susanne Collins describe it was based on the myth of the minotaur. Where cities were required to give a young man and woman to the minotaur. And I think of it myself as the minotaur meets survivor. Taken to its most hideously logical extreme. And in terms of, I mean we do like to watch people suffer. And I think of it partly in terms of a combat novel. One of my academic interests is combat literature, particularly combat memoirs. And I think it’s really interesting given the wars that are going on now, we talk a lot about what it means that we ask young people to die for our country. We don’t talk a lot about what it means to ask young people to kill for our country. And there’s actually a book called On Killing, but I don’t think of the political message as that simplistic. That it is extremely financially profitable and politically exploited that we expect young adults to kill for us.
Fascinating, especially given argument in the Supreme Court. That people want to make you buy health insurance but we can make you go kill and die. Which is kind of a strange irony, but that’s a different show I think. So I’m glad you brought up this notion of the Minotaur because a lot of the names here are very Greco Roman. It certainly seems like the author is playing with the notion of some noble past in gladiatorial combat.
Well and even the name of the country, Panam. At first I thought that the name Pan-am was taken and that she couldn’t use that because it was the name of an airline, but it wasn’t until I got to the final book that I realized it was Panam, as in bread. So yeah, there’s definitely some kind of classical reference going on.
I think its interesting that Holly brings up the idea of reading this book as a combat novel because now that I’m thinking about it I recently read the novel Matterhorn, its based on the authors experiences in Vietnam and apparently he has been writing this novel since Vietnam and it just came out last year, but if you take a look at that novel next to the Hunger Games you’ll find that many of the experiences that both Katniss and Peeta have are similar to the experiences that the characters have in this Vietnam novel. Everything down tot heir own fear for their own lives as well as their inability to process that they are going to have to kill people. Even Peeta says at one point when he wonders if he’s going to be able to kill and Katniss says are you not going to kill anyone and he says well you know I have to. But they’re still reckoning with that issue and it’s similar to what we see in war novels.
Where we left off is a really interesting character, he is her dresser or costumer, and I wondered what each of you thought about this guy Cinna who takes care of her and sort of becomes a confidant in a way.
An accomplice actually. By the end of the series he’s an accomplice and when the actor came on screen I said I know that guy I know that guy and it wasn’t until the end credits that I saw that it was Lenny Kravitz. He was not as big a part of the movie as he was in the books which was too bad because he really is a very interesting presence. He’s instrumental in her survival. And he is one of the adults who is not ridiculous. Which is nice, that someone concerned with fabric and fashion and all these girly things is actually a deadly earnest person with a great deal of power. And I think personally that one of the things about the books that young women like is that Katniss gets to be pretty and gets to enjoy being pretty and disdain it at the same time. One of the things about Bella that just drove me nuts is how little happiness she takes in anything but Edward. You know Alice dresses her up in these great costumes. She’s a klutz and a slob and she resents the nice things that people do for her. Katniss can’t help but be charmed and delighted by these wonderful clothes she gets to wear, but at the same time she gets to do the teenage thing of kind of sneering at them because it’s for such.
Well it’s hoisted on her right? So yeah you’re right, she gets to have it both ways. Speaking of her costumer, this book has an incredible hair fetish, which must really resonate with 13 years old girls.
And you don’t’ see as much of that in the movie. Inf act I read an interview with the director and he talked about howt hey had to pair back the story because theres so much in the book. So you don’t get to see so much of the team, in fact I think you only get to see the Lenny Kravitz character.
What an interesting thing to cut out because that to me was one of the more interesting parts of the read. Of course I know everyone wants the bloodletting. So the balance isn’t in favor of them. But you’re right Holly about this notion that she doesn’t come from this land of make believe and dress up and its almost as if she’s coming awake to these feminine ways that she couldn’t ever have time for or afford when she was younger.
Yeah and she gets to do it without seeming too silly and girly.
Because we don’t want to detract from the badass archer.
And I also think that what we see as Katniss gets to be a character who is a strong feminist character who can protest herself she can provide for her family at times she’s protecting Peeta you know she’s an active participant in these games. She’s someone to be reckoned with. But she doesn’t give up her femininity to do that she doesn’t have to become a boy to do that. The book lets her be a feminist while still being a girl and I think in some ways you could argue that’s a stronger feminist message than if a woman has to give up any sort of remnant of femininity in order to be considered effective.