Stanley Fish on The Hunger Games

Big-name literary scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting column on The Hunger Games, the popular series of science fiction novels by Suzanne Collins which has recently been made into a highly successful movie:

A couple of weeks ago my daughter visited from California. She brought with her the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games.” She read it in short order and drove to the local Barnes & Noble to get the other two. She finished them in a day, and then passed all three on to me. I devoured them and passed them on to my wife, who also read them in record time.

What accounts for three overeducated adults being so caught up in the story of a teenage girl — Katniss Everdeen — who lives in a dystopian future ruled and controlled by the decadent and cruel denizens of “The Capitol”?

Many have commented on the excellence of the pacing (you’re always on the hook) and on the inventiveness with which Collins devises the obstacles — both animate and inanimate, and a few things in between — that challenge Katniss and her fellow contestants as they play a gladiatorial, televised game whose point is to defeat one’s opponents by killing them and so be the last person standing.

But the technical skills Collins displays are only a part of the explanation of the novels’ power. The other part is the thematic obsession hinted at by the title: just what is it that the characters, and by extension the readers, hunger for? On the literal level the answer is obvious. Kept at a near-starvation level by their rulers, the inhabitants of the nation of Panem (bread) hunger for food, and one of Katniss’s virtues is that as an expert archer she can provide it.

Food, however, is a metaphor in the trilogy for another kind of sustenance, the sustenance provided by an inner conviction of one’s own worth and integrity….

One of the tributes names that as the goal he desires more than survival. Peeta Mellark, in love with Katniss since the moment he laid eyes on her (the moment when he gave her bread), says to her, “I want to die as myself … I don’t want them to change me in there.”

Fish’s emphasis on the characters’ inner struggle for “authenticity” contrasts with the more politically oriented interpretations of the series developed by other commentators. I previously blogged about political and moral themes in The Hunger Games here, here, and here. I also discussed the subject in a recent podcast for the Institute for Humane Studies.