Stanley Tucci’s blue hair, Elizabeth Banks’ pink eyelashes, and the brutal slaughter of young children could easily have distracted you from a quieter question at the center of dystopian future in The Hunger Games: who fights in wars and why do they volunteer to do it?
If you’re one of the millions who've read or seen The Hunger Games, you know the premise: each child in the 12 districts surrounding the all-powerful Capital has to put his or her name into the pool of names from which, each year, one boy and one girl from each district are chosen in a lottery, or “reaping”, to participate in “The Hunger Games,” a reality TV-style competition. You become eligible at age 12, so the year you’re 12, your name is in the pool once, when you’re 13, your name is in twice, and so on until you’re 18. Those chosen children battle each other, in front of cameras, until just one is left.
But here’s the twist.
The Capital will give you more food rations each additional time you put your name into the hat. Gale, the best friend of main character Katniss, lost his father in the same mine explosion that killed Katniss’ father. Now he has with several siblings to feed. In the movie, we find out on reaping day that he has his name in “The Hunger Games” lottery over 40 times — way more than the seven he was required to submit. So when the Hunger Games hosts repeat the line "May the odds be ever in your favor," we know that actually the deck is stacked against the poorer kids who face the choice between starvation and really bad odds on reaping day.
This perverse incentive came up on The Brian Lehrer Show last week during our End of War series. In a conversation about war portrayals in film, on stage, and in popular culture, Brian asked his guest Clive Thompson, contributor to the New York Times Magazine and columnist for Wired, whether the food ration incentive in the Hunger Games is just like the GI Bill:
Brian Lehrer: So there's an incentive for poor kids in increasing their chances of getting chosen to fight and probably die in The Hunger Games. And I wonder, maybe this is apostasy, is this the GI Bill? Is it the same kind of perverse incentive for lower income people to join up because they think they're going get their only route to a college education out of it and I don't know if that's what Suzanne Collins would say.
Clive Thompson: I don't know if that's what she'd say but it's definitely a parallel that leaps out at you. I mean, this is something that soldiers talk about and is the open secret of war fighting in this country, which is that only a tiny tiny chunk of the population fights wars, and they are increasingly from poorer and poorer parts of the country. So going to war is part of how you pay for an education, it's part of how you attempt to further yourself with the industrial economy, sort of, essentially torn apart. So i don't know the demographics of who are reading those books, but it wouldn't strike me as unusual if some of the readers picked up that parallel.
The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has often recalled that the book's premise came to her one night when she was flipping from reality TV to news coverage of the war in Iraq. When presented with the idea that her trilogy is an allegory of adolescence, she told the New York Times. “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.”
Collins grew up in a military family. Her father served in the Vietnam War, and she’s said that her father’s absence while he served in the Vietnam War influenced the development of the Katniss character, who loses her father at age 11. “If your parent is deployed and you are that young, you spend the whole time wondering where they are and waiting for them to come home," she recalled. "As time passes and the absence is longer and longer, you become more and more concerned — but you don’t really have the words to express your concern. There’s only this continued absence.”
I wonder what Suzanne Collins would say to the comparison of the food ration incentive in the Hunger Games to the GI Bill — and to the question: Is serving in war ever worth it?