Experiments in Ontological Relativism

and Other Brain Farts

My Suspension of Disbelief while Reading The Hunger Games

Posted by Jason on March 26, 2012

So I’ve finally started reading The Hunger Games. Yeah, yeah. I’m slow. Oh well. I’m about halfway through the first book (as an aside, does anyone else occasionally find it confusing when “The Hunger Games” is used to refer to both the title of the first book as well as the series as a whole?) and so far, I’m finding it very good… for the most part.

There’s one thing that I find keeps consistently destroying my suspension of disbelief, one thing that keeps pulling me out of the story and setting off the “that just could never happen” bells in my skull. A flying snowman moment, if you will. It’s only one thing, and maybe I’m the only one bothered by it, but it’s sort of central to the story.

It’s the children.

See, I just can’t buy that a society, any society, would tolerate watching children killing other children for entertainment without revulsion and protest at the very least, and armed uprising at the worst. True, there are some explanations given for it in the novel, but I don’t find them satisfying. Now, I freely admit that this may be my problem and not a problem in the novel itself, but that’s part of the point of writing this. I want to try to explain why this bothers me so much, and see if I’m the only one who thinks this is an issue.

First, a bit of explanation for those who haven’t read the books, or a recap for those who have. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t comment on whether or not it covers the same ground.) The following could be considered spoilers, but it’s all backstory-related and is information given fairly early in the novel. Consider this a warning anyway for anyone concerned about potential spoilers.

In the novel, we’re told that after the collapse of North American society the country (now called “Panem” in a clever play on words) is comprised of twelve “Districts” governed by the Capitol, an affluent and powerful city-state in the Rockies housing the ruling class. About 75 years before the start of the novel, the Districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol, but were crushingly and overwhelmingly defeated. A thirteenth District was completely obliterated, at least partly as an object lesson to the others.

After this uprising, the Capitol imposed a number of conditions on the Districts, including the Hunger Games. Every year, each district must send one boy and one girl (semi-randomly chosen) between the ages of 12 and 18 as “Tributes” to the Capitol to participate in the Games. These children, to make a long story short, fight to the death until only one is left alive. The winner’s District is rewarded with extra food and luxury goods.

Now, if the Tributes were adults instead of children, I don’t think I’d have any problems believing this scenario. After all, the real world has a long history of people killing other people for the entertainment of the masses. Even our own society has versions of this kind of entertainment, though without the lethality–boxing and MMA fighting, for example.

No, it’s the fact that it’s children that makes me say “wait, hold up.” As I said before, we’re given a couple explanations for this in the novel. On the part of the Districts, the people fear retaliation from the Capitol if they don’t send their children to participate. Their defeat after the uprising was so devastating that they were forced to agree to any condition. This much I can actually understand and accept, especially given that we’re told that (at least in some Districts) the people do find the Games deplorable and awful–though they’re forced to act as if they enjoy and celebrate them. Indeed, the very existence of such an edict is telling. And, though the novel doesn’t say it directly, I suspect a lot of people adopt the mindset of “the odds of it being my child are so low, best to keep my head down and not make waves.”  Again, this makes sense to me, and I can understand why the people of the Districts would accept such a horrible thing.

What I find much harder to swallow, however, is that the people of the Capitol would allow such a thing to happen. The only explanation given in the novel (at least at the point to which I’ve read) is that the ruling powers established this as a way of saying, “MWAHAHA! Look at how totally we control you! We can even take your children for slaughter, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” I can buy that a small number of morally bankrupt leaders could come up with this kind of thing and think it’s not only acceptable, but also a good idea. What I can’t buy is that the general populace would be able to react with anything but horror to such an idea.

Humans have an instinctual drive to protect children from harm. This makes sense, after all, since it’s a good mechanism for ensuring survival of the species: protect the next generation so the species doesn’t die when you do. It’s an urge that’s buried deep in our DNA. It’s why all the “feed the poor” charity ads always show starving children, or why politicians always push their latest initiative as “thinking of the kids.” We react, strongly, to anything that places children in danger.

I understand that, narratively, this is meant to reinforce how heartless and indifferent the Capitol is to the value of human life. But there are more people in the Capitol than just the government. I can’t believe that the vast majority of the citizenry wouldn’t be up in arms (literally) over the very idea, let alone after actually watching children killing each other, or starving to death, or dying of exposure. These are people with their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and I simply can’t believe that the entire populace is made up of depraved monsters.

You could argue that perhaps the Capitol is some sort of police state, and compliance there is as brutally enforced as it is in the Districts. That may be, but it doesn’t comport with what we see of the Capitol (again, at least as far as I have read). Also, it doesn’t fully explain the lack of a mob-reaction to the first establishment of the Games: the Districts go along with it because they’re bloodied and beaten down, but that certainly wouldn’t apply to the Capitol populace. Also, maybe there was such an uprising, but our narrator doesn’t know about it. Certainly possible, but the fact that I have to stop and think so much to get to that point is problematic from a storytelling perspective, especially given that it would be relatively trivial to have her mention that such a thing had happened, or even that there were rumors of it happening.

Now, maybe you the reader are just not supposed to think about this so much. It’s a YA novel, after all, which means that the protagonists are almost required to be children or teenagers. Maybe we just have to shrug this inconsistency off and put it on the shelf in order to enjoy the story. Certainly, I’m capable of doing that, and have done it with other works of fiction. The problem is that I keep getting reminded of it by the events of the novel. Every time the level of violence in the Games goes up a notch, or some new level of horror appears, my brain throws up a big red flag and says “there’s no way people would allow this to happen to children!”

Another plot point that keeps getting reinforced is that the Games are very much an every-person-for-him-or-herself situation. The Capitol insists that the Games are supposed to be an expression of competition between Districts, but why prevent the two Tributes from each District from working together, then? If the competition were to come down to the two Tributes from the same District, why not declare them both (and their District) winners? Why force one to kill the other? No, the very rules themselves seem to belie the idea of the Games being an expression of competition or rivalry, and instead show them to be entirely about watching children die. I just can’t believe that that would be blindly accepted, even encouraged, by the populace at large.

As I said, it’s quite possible that I’m the only one who finds this to be a stumbling block. Did anyone else notice this in reading the books or watching the movie? Or is this just my own personal hangup?

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3 Responses to “My Suspension of Disbelief while Reading The Hunger Games”

  1. “Humans have an instinctual drive to protect children from harm.”

    Do we, really? Oh, certainly our own children. I’ll fight to the death to protect my son from harm. But someone else’s child? That’s a hard sell.

    The Capitol doesn’t send tributes to The Hunger Games. Their own children aren’t in harm’s way. Not a one. Plus, the people in the Districts…well, they’re hardly people at all, are they? Look at them: grubby and mewling and pathetic and fawning and ever so eager to stay out of trouble. They’re more like well-kicked puppies than human beings. They just happen to be puppies that provide our coal and food and electronics—well-trained puppies, but also well-kicked (again and again and again).

    And, let’s face it: we here in the real world see children in harm’s way all the time and do very little about it. They’re starving or working in a sweat shop or being sold into the sex trade; we’re aware that it’s happening, but what do we do? Maybe send a few bucks to Freedom From Hunger, or “Like” that KONY 2012 video on Facebook, but they’re so far away and they’re not our kids, and so we push them to the back of our minds and we live our lives and make sure that the children we’re responsible for bringing into the world are as safe as we can make them.

    “It’s not the same as watching kids kill each other in a nationally-televised, government-sponsored event,” you might say. Well, no. It’s not. But we haven’t spent the last 75 years being told that the Districts are practically subhuman and all they need is for us to let our guard down for one second and they’ll rebel and take away our very way of life. Is it really that difficult to look at what we DO allow to happen with little more than an “oh, that’s too bad, maybe five dollars and a periwinkle ribbon will help” and believe that maybe, given the right circumstances, society might allow much, much worse?

  2. Yahnatan said

    Nice post and good point. Here’s my reaction: what is the cutoff for “child” vs adult? If there is such a drive, does it include a fixed age cutoff, or is it more subjective? Is it possible that in the fictional society of Panem, the tributes are understood in a way more similar to the military drafts of yesteryear? Furthermore, does the existence of child sacrifice within primitive societies in human history suggest that even the most basic, most powerful instinctual drives can be overcome by powerful forces.

  3. I agree completely. I had never thought of it in terms of being unrealistic because humans themselves wouldn’t act that way (instinct to protect and all), but it was hard for me to get into the world simply because it was far too black and white. Yes, the upper class tends to have a disconnect with how the lower class lives; I understand that theme and how it can be shown through the Capitol residents finding nothing wrong with the Games. However, the characters themselves are taken to an extreme that makes it unbelievable for me. The Capitol people are, for the most part, either a) all bad, or b) nice but oblivious to the fact that their way of life is apparently completely wrong and horrible. Likewise, pretty much everyone from the districts is brave, kind, open-minded, all those things you want in the Good Guys. It’s just a very straight forward good vs evil story. I’d have liked to see a little more back and forth, and maybe have the Capitol toned down (did we really need them to have vomit cocktails are their parties because they have SO little regard for reality that they waste food to that degree? It’s just so… heavy handed).

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