Something is bothering me. I have been seeing it around a lot where people, primarily girls, are stating that they loved Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series and are looking for other Dystopian books. I liked the books, I thought they were a lot of fun but let’s get something straight here: Hunger Games was not a Dystopian novel. Not at all.
I love Dystopian literature. I have since I read 1984 when I was 11 for a science class that gave extra points for pointing out the science in science fiction books. I wasn’t good at labeling chemicals and compounds but my reading comprehension game has always been strong. From 1984 by Orwell I went onto Brave New World by Huxley. My mother saw my growing interests and introduced me to Soylent Green (spoiler alert: It’s people!) which began my exploration into the branch of film filled with heroes that would never realize their journeys, nihilistic worlds that all spoke, somehow, to my soul.
That’s where Collins’ fails. Her series was well written, it certainly had some very dark moments that we’re not used to seeing in the YA genre. But there’s a reason why Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the kids from Battle Royale are only known to a subset of the American population even though they’re pretty much the same premise (side note, Collins has said that she had no knowledge of BR when she wrote her book and I believe her to an extent, however, let’s not pretend that Koushun Takami didn’t invent the genre of kids brutally slaughtering each other. But then Richard Bachman aka Stephen King did it before with adults).
The reason that The Hunger Games is not a true Dystopian novel really has to do with the end of the book. In short, things get better. You can make the argument that all of her friends died and her sister (oh god, Prim!), not to mention the hardcore PTSD trauma that she no doubt has but ultimately she does defeat President Snow. Her actions spark a revolution that changes the world for the better. In the epilogue she finds peace with Peeta and has a couple of babies. The end.
Which is very sweet. But it is not how a Dystopia works. Things don’t get better.
Part of the tenets of Dystopian genre is that no matter what the “hero” does, they are trapped in their reality. Things do not get better except for a brief time before they find themselves right back where they were or perhaps, even worse off for having tasted a life that was different. Or they get the things they think they want but realize the price they have to pay to keep them actually just makes them another, slightly different cog in the machine they thought to escape. This is not Katniss’ story.
Ironically, it is the story of Haymich. If you want a true Dystopian tale, look towards him. He defeated the overwhelming odds of the games, outlasting and surviving through wit and what was probably blind luck only to then have to spend the next 25 years of his life watching children who just weren’t as lucky die terrible deaths. If you end his tale right before the 74th Hunger Games, that’s a Dystopia. Sure he has money and creature comforts, but is he or the world at large any better off for what he had done? He found a flaw in the game, and it changed nothing. He outsmarted the powers that be and they said, that’s real cute, now get your ass back in your box.
Then there’s Katniss as the hero. She isn’t a Dystopian hero. Then men and women who rise (and subsequently fall, as just discussed) are not known for their selfless acts and if they are it is only because they are punished for them. The hero of the Dystopia is always the antihero. They make selfish choices based on their own survival. Katniss spent three books talking to herself about her survival instinct and then throwing herself in harm’s way (“I volunteer as tribute!, taking time to mourn Rue, offering to commit suicide with Peeta, and that’s just book one). She was a very brave girl with a big heart. But she wasn’t a Dystopian hero. If he was a true Dystopian hero, she may still have gone to the games in her sister’s place but she would have left Peeta to die and mourned Rue quietly. She would have won but she would have been Haymich in the end.
There are obviously elements in the story that do meet the qualifications, which is where the confusion comes in. The Capitol and its Districts are a highly segregated society in which the balance of power swings heavily in one direction. There’s rampant poverty at the time that a select group of people live in dizzying wealth. Their technology is used in a harrowing and oppressive way to control and subjugate the vast majority of the population. These elements are handled very well and certainly set the stage for the overall story.
A crapsack future world doesn’t a Dystopia make. Sure life sucked, and it sucked hard in those books, but ultimately, Katniss made a change for the world, her actions set a revolution in motion and eventually, she would die a hero at some ripe old age. To reiterate, this is not how a Dystopia works. Nothing the hero does matters, they may change their circumstances but it won’t last and the world moves on as if nothing at all happened. Because it didn’t. Not to the greater society at large.
This isn’t some post about how the Hunger Games wasn’t a good book. It was good. It had its flaws (I’m looking at you completely unnecessary and under developed love triangle) but it did feature a strong female lead which YA needed after that mess of Twilight and an inventive world. So kudos for those things.
I just think that when people ask for something, they should know what they really want and when they ask for a Dystopian book “like Hunger Games” what they really want is a dark science fiction novel that features a strong female lead who overcomes impossible odds.
They don’t want The Sheep Look Up. They want Divergent. And that’s totally fine.