Thursday, October 10, 2013

Out of This World: Feeding the Hunger Games

Welcome to my new YA Stands feature “Out of This World,” which will include posts on the content and craft of speculative fiction!

With the Catching Fire movie just around the corner--and my teenage daughter wildly excited to attend the midnight premiere--I thought I’d do a piece on the book that started the craze, Suzanne Collins’s deservedly popular The Hunger Games.

As with all stories, multiple sources feed into The Hunger Games. Collins has noted her work’s reliance on ancient sources, including Juvenal’s satires (from which she derived the name of her fictional nation, Panem) and the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (from which the concept of the youthful “tributes” comes). I also can’t help thinking of how similar the reaping scene is to Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” (1948).

But in its broad outlines, The Hunger Games is a Cinderella story--a twisted version, but a Cinderella story nonetheless.

The Hunger Games follows the Cinderella story quite closely. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is a fatherless teenage girl, living in squalor with a cruel (or at least inattentive) mother. (The evil stepsisters come later, in the form of Katniss’s main female rivals during the Games, Glimmer and Clove.) Katniss’s star begins to rise thanks to a succession of unlikely fairy godmothers: Effie Trinket, who first plucks her name (or that of her sister) from a crystal ball; Haymitch Abernathy, who begins to groom her for the trials to come; and the stylist Cinna, who completes her transformation by dressing her in a succession of dazzling ball gowns. The ball itself--which Katniss reaches not via pumpkin-carriage but via the (to her) equally magical conveyance of a bullet train--takes place in the center of wealth and power, the Capitol, where the King, President Snow, presides over a ceremony to crown a single victor. There’s no glass slipper at contest's end for Katniss and her prince, Peeta Mellark--but there is a choice for her to make, a life-and-death decision to claim her prize.

It’s not surprising that The Hunger Games should echo the Cinderella story. (Nor am I the first to point this out; Stephen Burt has an excellent article on the subject in Slate, and I even came across some Cinderella/HungerGames crossover fan fiction.) This fairy tale is one of the most widely told stories in the world. And its popularity isn’t surprising either, inasmuch as it’s a paradigmatic coming-of-age saga for girls and, arguably, for all young people: an abused and misunderstood child grows magically to adulthood, gaining wealth, prestige, and power over her/his tormentors. At an even deeper level, it might be said that the Cinderella story represents the YA version of Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949): “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his [her] fellow man.” Sounds like Katniss to me!

In its Disneyfied form, the story of Cinderella can be a saccharine dream that presents young women with a distorted vision of their own potential. But The Hunger Games plays against such stereotypes to make the story relevant and resonant for young readers today. The cruel and glitzy entertainment that is the Hunger Games perfectly updates Cinderella’s cotillion for our own time, a time in which young bodies--and especially young women’s bodies--are broadcast worldwide for symbolic bloodletting. (Just ask Miley Cyrus.) By placing the story of Cinderella in the modern world of televised violence and power politics, Collins produces a tale as sharp as glass and as bitter as ashes.

What myths and fairy tales underlie Catching Fire? I'd love to hear your thoughts!