Government Violence, Human Nature, and The Hunger Games

Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are young adult novels in which governments force teenagers to kill each other. Comparing these books to classic works by William Golding and Robert Sheckley suggests that, while becoming more skeptical about governments, we've become more trusting about our own nature.

In Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, the government places children aged between twelve and eighteen in an arena where they're required to kill each other. While Collins has said The Hunger Games was inspired by switching channels between reality TV and the Iraq War, her book feels more deeply indebted to the Vietnam War, in which her father went to serve when she was six. Besides the mountainous and wooded terrain where the fighting occurs, the features of The Hunger Games that especially evoke Vietnam are the use of a lottery to select contestants – Vietnam was the last U.S. war in which a draft lottery was used – and the scale of the unrest the games provokes – no U.S. war since the draft ended has inspired mass political protest on a comparable scale. By showing blue-collar people sacrificing their families while the elite and the media pontificate condescendingly and foolishly, the book taps into emotions about war that are still playing out in U.S. political culture. District 12 in The Hunger Games is an Appalachian mining area where memories linger of an Uprising put down many generations before, much as real Appalachians recall the U.S. Civil War.

The Hunger Games is very well-plotted, and is also impressive for the sheer number of adolescent girl fantasies the heroine Katniss gets to fulfill: she saves her sister's life, goes to the big city and gets a free makeover, appears on TV in designer clothes as the star of a parade, learns a boy has had a long-term secret crush on her, gets to kill a privileged mean girl from a larger clique, and experiences her first kiss. Almost every conceivable PG-13 fantasy is covered, including even faking a love pact suicide on TV and, in the sequels, igniting a revolution through sheer personal charisma. Meanwhile Katniss is fulfilling what we see today as the duty of every adolescent – to see through the hypocrisy of her society and figure out how it really works – while forming alliances, competing, surviving, climbing trees, and even losing weight.

Books that combine the power of anti-government rage and teen popularity anxiety are rare enough that the commercial success of The Hunger Games has brought renewed attention to Koushun Takami's 1999 novel Battle Royale, a novel set on an island, under a government that selects a class of school children each year to fight each other to the death. This novel's historical resonance is with the tail end of World War Two, when the Japanese defended various islands to the last man. In an interview published in recent editions of the novel, Takami recalls his mother saying of World War Two, “We were against the war, but we just couldn't say it.” From observations of a parent's experience, Takami and Collins each derived a deep-seated mistrust of how governments behave in wartime, and independently hatched similar plot scenarios.

The main difference between Japanese and U.S. society that comes across between the two books is that Takami sees it as hopeless to try and change the system, since in Japan drastic political change has only ever been imposed from above – Takami also says in his interview, “I wanted to write about the trapped feeling of living in Japan I've felt clearly since childhood – at the very least, from middle school on – and that's what I attempted to do. Here in Japan... even if a rule is clearly ridiculous, nobody will speak out against it...” Collins on the other hand holds the more American belief that one can use the media to subvert the power structure. According to The Hunger Games, there can be a revolution precisely as long as the revolution is televised – as the mutant birds Collins calls mockingjays know how to repeat a refrain, so the media can publicize symbolic actions in a way that may eventually bring down regimes.

“You have to fight on your own,” the sadistic instructor tells the children in Battle Royale. “But that's how the game of life is anyway.” To follow the plot of Battle Royale, it helps to make a list of the forty-two Japanese children and cross them off as they're eliminated – so you can double-check your tally, the number of students surviving is helpfully included at the end of each chapter. I've rarely seen my thirteen-year-old daughter as engrossed with books as she was both with The Hunger Games and with Battle Royale. And after reading the first chapter of Battle Royale, she was able to predict who the first few people to die would be quite accurately, having picked up on far more of the foreshadowing in that chapter than I did. This makes me wonder if the book shows a particular sensitivity to the social dynamics of middle school. Adolescence is when we notice the world is ruthlessly competitive, and that we are going to be forced to participate in it, when like Peeta in The Hunger Games we wish “to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”

Having to kill people you don't know because your leaders tell you to has, since time immemorial, been most people's basic experience of war – indeed, this is something statistically even more likely to happen to people living in a tribal or aboriginal society than to those living under a totalitarian dictatorship. The body language of the teenagers in the movie version of The Hunger Games who, having tracked down a younger teenager who's made the mistake of building a camp-fire, smile at her before killing her, is deeply disturbing because one instinctively recognizes an event that must have happened many times in humankind's long history.

In William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, a group of boys on an island revert to a “state of nature” in the absence of adult supervision. The book is set during, and is on some level about, World War Two, in which Golding served as a Naval officer – but despite the murderous nature of some key governments in that conflict, the point of Lord of the Flies is that the violence ultimately lies within us. Golding wrote of the ending of the novel, “The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?”

Neither The Hunger Games nor Battle Royale bother with the ominous landscape descriptions Golding gives us in Lord of the Flies, partly because for Takami and Collins the evil is not in our nature, but in our government. For the same reason, few of the contestants in these books succumb to delirium as the boys in Lord of the Flies do – with only a few exceptions, they handle their predicament as rationally as if they were competing in a video game. One sense in which Lord of the Flies may be the darkest of these books, despite its comparatively modest death toll – only two murders – is that so many of its characters go mad. Even Ralph, the most clear-headed survivor in Lord of the Flies, keeps forgetting the boys' long-term goal is to be rescued rather than to thrive as savages, and by the end all the other boys are united in trying to kill Ralph -- whereas Katniss in The Hunger Games and Shuya in Battle Royale succeed against the odds in maintaining healthy alliances and remaining focused on a strategy, and only a few minor characters in those worlds go insane.

Moreover when a character in Battle Royale behaves evilly, Takami always supplies an explanation – this boy was born a sociopath, this girl was abused, most of the kids are just scared to trust each other in case they're taken advantage of – evil is not seen as humanity's default setting as it is in Lord of the Flies. The Hunger Games is less explicit on this ethical question, but the guiding principle of the series seems to be that people are good until power corrupts them. Both Takami and Collins portray the adult world as one of brutal conflict whose rules frustrate our normal instinct to cooperate. For Ralph, after he's been hunted, wildness loses its attraction, but Katniss draws power from nature – hunting in the woods is how she becomes resourceful enough to stand up to authority, and it's significant that even the harmful creatures she encounters there are not naturally occurring species, but mutations artificially engineered by her government.

While the government in The Hunger Games is staging a contest to punish the people for a past rebellion, the annual slaughter in Battle Royale is allegedly for military research purposes. Shogo in Battle Royale reflects our contemporary skepticism about government with the observation, “My guess is that when this lovely game was first proposed – some crazy military strategist probably came up with it – there was no opposition. You don't want to stir things up by questioning the specialists. And it's terribly difficult to end something that's already been established. You interfere, and you're out of a job.”

A Robert Sheckley story from 1953 suggests how our fears have changed since that time. In “Seventh Victim,” the government determines that the only way to prevent war from destroying humanity is to provide alternative outlets for men's urge to kill each other. Government-created Emotional Catharsis Boards legalize murder for those who want it. Many men and a few women sign up and are assigned a Victim to kill – in return, they have to be a Victim for someone else, who they are permitted to kill in self-defense if they are quick enough. Sheckley here treats murder as a natural human need that the government must, in the general interest, find a way to channel and control – an explanation that today seems unimaginable even as satire.

At the close of the Korean War, it came naturally to Sheckley and Golding to portray people as the problem and government as the solution – Takami and Collins, writing in our times, begin with the reverse assumption, and to make this comparison is to sense how far, in the intervening decades, the pendulum of consensus has swung from Hobbes towards Rousseau. Books like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games would have seemed too subversive of adult authority to have been published or perhaps even conceived in the 1950s – but does this mean we have become less naïve, or just that we have become naïve in a different way?

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular