While civilians died in Syria and pundits raged over Iran, I was out walking in Rancho San Antonio, 4,000 acres of riparian woods and upland pasture in the hills over Los Altos, California. Rounding a bend, I came across three mule deer — scrappy, undersized specimens, hungry from the drought. I expected them to bound away, and was shocked when they didn’t — when they remained, staring and grazing, while I passed by within feet of them.
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I felt strangely affronted. As a pacifistic vegetarian, I’ll admit I didn’t pose a significant threat to the deer. But I didn’t want them to know that. I felt that these creatures owed me timidity, even if I couldn’t quite articulate the reason until I caved to peer pressure and bought a copy of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.”
Published way back in the fall of 2008, Collins’ romantic sci-fi teen gorefest has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity among the college kids who missed its debut, thanks in large part to an aggressive publicity campaign for the upcoming film. For those who have yet to be taken in by the striking images of a bow-wielding Jennifer Lawrence, the book concerns a futuristic North America in which an oppressive central government conscripts the children of the hinterlands to slaughter each other in annual gladiatorial games.
“The Hunger Games” simultaneously condemns and celebrates violence, the inherent perversity of the “Battle Royale”-like plot and the emotional demises of certain characters coexisting uneasily with writing that shows its true muscle in scenes of bloodshed. No one is reading these books for a revelatory look at teenage love — they are there for the action.
Collins herself claims that the book and its sequels arose in response to an evening of flipping TV stations through images of real war and reality entertainment that soon began to blur together. Besides this critique of modern media culture, it’s also easy to read an incisive attack on American imperialism — a government that enlists young men and women from beyond the centers of political power and sends them off to kill in the wilderness. The film’s release will occur less than two weeks after a stock trader-turned-soldier slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians on his fourth deployment to a combat zone, and its vision of innocents transformed into brutal killing machines by the inscrutable dictates of a powerful state offers an implicit, timely comment.
Besides these clear contemporary references, there is something more elemental about the violence of “The Hunger Games.” The novel’s heroine succeeds in large part because she is a killer, a poacher who dispatches squirrels and lynxes without sentimental compunction. Yet she kills out of hunger. Bushmeat supplements her meager diet at home; in the arena, food and water are systematically denied or hidden to force the competitors into battle. While there are a few allusions to literal cannibalism, the name and nature of the brutal contest both allude to an ecology of eat-or-be-eaten.
Our other violent heroes kill for justice, for love, even perversely for fun. But hunger is a different and more terrifying motivation. We have an inherent revulsion towards acknowledging our own predatory instincts. That was the terror of the original human-hunting tale, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” in 1924. To some extent, it’s the same fear that pervades our language’s first horror story, “Beowulf,” still bone-chilling over a millennium after it was written down. In their nocturnal battle, the warrior hero and his ogreish foe grapple until the listener can no longer tell them apart. Zombie films and literature play on many phobias, but not least among them is the simultaneously sickening and elating premise that scores of other humans must be decapitated, or they will feast on the flesh of you and your loved ones. By highlighting the twinned terror and attraction of killing for food, “The Hunger Games” harks back to an unfathomable past, to Neanderthal bones bearing the cut marks of flint knives.
What does our primal and conflicted relationship toward hunger and its bloody necessities have to do with this moment in time — with uprisings and viral videos of African atrocities, the drawing down of some wars and the potential escalation towards others?
I would hazard that it means we must fear ourselves more than we do. Leaders, activists and artists alike have often overestimated their capacity to do global good and underestimated their very real ability to make the world worse. And part of that, “The Hunger Games” suggests, lies in how easily we forget our predatory nature, the awful psychic link between surviving and killing, which wreaks havoc whether suppressed or unleashed.
The unfazed deer of Rancho San Antonio had little to fear from me. Instead, they served as a reminder that I could not afford to be so complacent.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.