Before making the Star Wars movies, it is said that George Lucas sat down and wrote out a character sketch of every single character that would appear in the movies – whether that character spoke or not; regardless of if they were on screen for one second or for six hours. Every character in the Star Wars universe has a name, a history, a backstory, and a personality. We, the viewers, will never know a vast majority of that information, but George Lucas didn’t care. He did it to make the world he created more real – to give it more depth.
Much space in the Lord of the Rings books is taken up by the history, culture, customs, language, and geography of Middle Earth. Intricate maps grace the first pages of each book. Chapters are devoted to things that happened centuries prior to the main storyline. What could be seen as superfluous J.R.R. Tolkien saw as adding rich texture to the world he created. The history and detail, again, gave the story depth.
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins spared no ink for such details. Rarely are we told how things came to be, or even how they look. Action rather than description guides the narrative. Only the main characters are given names. Twenty-four tributes entered the arena for the 74th Annual Hunger Games in the first book of the series; only nine of them received names from their author/creator. The number of different maps attempting to sketch the very basic geography of Panem must be climbing into the hundreds if not thousands, because incredibly few details are given on this matter as well. We are left to our own imaginations to figure out how a complex and incredibly segmented post-apocalyptic economy such as the one in Panem would even begin to operate. (Or, for that matter, why the Capitol would set up their new economy in such a fashion in the first place.)
And we know next to nothing about the two most pivotal events in the history of the Hunger Games’ universe: the disaster(s) that destroyed North America and the rebellion of the Dark Days which led to the creation of the Hunger Games. Were the disasters that necessitated the creation of Panem natural? Man-made? War? Disease? Famine? All of the above? We are never told. And what was the rebellion of the Dark Days about? Why did District 13 rise up against the Capitol? Why did every other District follow them? Why couldn’t they defeat the Capitol? What was the Capitol doing to incur such wrath from the Districts?
There are so many things about the Hunger Games universe that we will never know. It will never have the depth of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or other science fiction creations.
But perhaps surprisingly, that’s okay. Because despite those shortcomings, The Hunger Games succeeds wildly because of its greatest strength: its ability to tell a story people can relate to.
I once lamented to a group of friends that I wished J.R.R. Tolkien had written the Hunger Games. One of my friends responded, “Yes, but then I wouldn’t have read it!” There is something to be said for making the themes of dystopian literature accessible.
But the Hunger Games not only does that, it goes one step further and makes them relatable. The Hunger Games, at its heart, is a parable – and like any good parable, it allows us to see ourselves in its midst… to enter into the story. It invites us to not only cheer for the main characters, but to see a piece of ourselves as we watch them triumph; it invites us also to not only despise the antagonists, but to face the uncomfortable truth that there is a bit of them in us as well.
The Hunger Games speaks to different people in different ways. I’ve read several headlines and articles over the past week that purport to know what the real message of the series is. Are the books a riff on our modern obsession with reality television and how watching “reality” unfold on TV actually removes pieces of our humanness? Are they an exploration of teenagers’ modern lives and emotional issues? Are they a warning against right-wing oligarchical government? Or perhaps a warning against left-wing centralized federal power? Are they a warning about what our society could become if we don’t change our ways? Or an observation of what our society already is?
In a word, yes.
At least according to all those media stories they are. But that is the beauty of telling a good story — it connects with different people in different places in different ways. Parables are reflections, invitations to see ourselves and our world anew.
So we may never know what the geography of Panem looks like, or the histories of all the tributes who enter the arena. We will never know what instigated the original rebellion that led to the Dark Days, or how the Capitol was able to keep such a segmented economic system churning for 74 years.
But we do understand, at a very deep, human level, themes of oppression and injustice. It is by tapping into that reservoir of human experience, and allowing us to come to our own conclusions about those themes, where the Hunger Games finds its immense power. It’s what makes the books, along with the first movie, so good.