The Hunger Games and Dystopian Literature

NOTE: This post was originally written in March of 2012.

Ask the average person if they like dystopian literature, and they may not be completely sure. The initial reaction may be, “What’s that?” In fact, the academic and publishing communities do not exactly agree on the definition either.

Ask the average person if they like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and they will know exactly where they stand. They’ve read it or they haven’t, they love it or they don’t, but most likely at this point they know what it is, and probably have a rough idea what the story entails.

What is interesting is how similar the two questions are. The Hunger Games definitely exhibits qualities associated with dystopian literature.

Without getting too scientific about it, sufficed to say that dystopian literature generally involves a future society characterized by the marginalization of the individual in favor of service to a dictatorial government. This society is usually technologically advanced, strictly regimented, and resembles what we would view as a police state.

The most well-known examples in modern literature are inarguably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In fact, the word ‘Orwellian’ is generally the one people use to mean ‘dystopian’. But the tradition of dystopian literature extends much further.

As early as the mid-19th century, authors were experimenting with dystopian themes, mainly in response to numerous examples of utopian fiction. Authors like Jerome K. Jerome, Ignatius Donnelly, and H.G. Wells paved the way for many 20th century contributions.

Novels like Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) and Eugene Zamiatin’s We (1924) were reactions to real concerns about their own societies, as well as speculative concerns about the negative consequences certain technological advances might engender. The former envisions a fascist regime in control of the United States. The latter takes Zamiatin’s experiences in Russia and expands them to envision a state based on constant surveillance, obliteration of the person (people are referred to by numbers, not names), and ruthless efficiency.

Brave New World, 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) raised serious concerns about scientifically advanced communities taken to the extreme, mass brainwashing, and the obliteration of history. Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed juxtaposes a utopian society and a dystopian society located on different planets.

At this point, some of this is probably sounding familiar to those who have read The Hunger Games, which deals with the supremely powerful Capitol (this story’s equivalent of Big Brother) exerting its power over the rest of society. The themes are ones that recur throughout literature, and they are powerful ones.

These are stories of the triumph of individuality over the mindless horde, which is something for which we instinctively yearn. Especially today, when our attention is increasingly occupied by digital displays and television screens, when our selves are diluted in an endless landscape of online profiles and Twitter feeds.

One of the major functions of literature is to expose and examine problems we face as people, and as a society. That said, it seems that dystopian literature should find this an environment in which to thrive. Bradbury stressed the importance of literature’s continued presence and commentary: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” The success of The Hunger Games is heartening. To see more examples of dystopian fiction, click here.

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