Reviews 2014

Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy

Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc., 2012. 245 pages. $40.00 (paperback).

In the introduction to Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark make a case for the exceptional status of Suzanne Collins’s groundbreaking trilogy as “a literary masterwork in its own right” (11), even as they contextualize its place within the genres of science fiction and young adult (YA) fiction. Following Susan Dominus’s classification, they deem it part of a “postmodern trinity” (10) of YA bestsellers, alongside Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The editors further point out that although Collins’s work has received widespread critical acclaim, there exists a dearth of scholarly commentary on the trilogy. This ambitiously diverse anthology sets out to fulfill this critical lacuna by presenting twenty-one essays, grouped in four distinct sections, that explore the various facets of Collins’s series “by using theories as varied as historicism, postmodernism, feminism, humanism, cultural studies, political studies, queer theory, and media studies” (2).

Section I, entitled “History, Politics, Economics and Culture,” includes essays that investigate the operations of Panem’s fractured post-apocalyptic society. Anthony Pavlik’s and Gretchen Koenig’s essays look into the politics of violence that shape Katniss’s world: Pavlik utilizes Umberto Eco’s notion of Ur-Fascism to argue that although the series advocates pacifism, the ways in which armed rebellion works in the narrative suggest an over-reliance on violence as means to end totalitarian oppression, while Koenig lays bare the despotic power-plays inherent in the construction of national narratives that seek to shape collective cultural memory for hegemonic purposes. Valerie Frankel’s “Reflection in a Plastic Mirror” and Tina Hanlon’s “Coal Dust and Ballads: Appalachia and District 12” study Panem’s mirroring of elements of American culture. Whereas Frankel finds a reflection of “the dystopia of present-day America” (49) in the luxurious excesses and superficial lifestyle choices of Panem’s citizens who gleefully watch the Hunger Games as a form of shallow entertainment akin to contemporary reality television, Hanlon explores depictions of District 12 that ground itself in the folkloric roots and cultural traditions of the Appalachian region of the United States, noting how the idea of “home” functions in locally specific ways even within the expansive universe of the trilogy. The most compelling essay in this section, however, is Bill Clemente’s “Panem in America: Crisis Economics and a Call for Political Engagement.” Clemente deftly unpacks Collins’s allusions and references to Roman antiquity in her world-building, but points out that in terms of economic and political structure, Panem operates “more like a modern global conglomerate” (24), and that the Capitol essentially takes advantage of the principles of disaster capitalism to enact “a corporate takeover that turns the twelve districts into production centers in a fully integrated economic system that bleeds the people of their potential power and wealth to sustain itself” (25).

Section II’s essays survey the thematic concerns of “Ethics, Aesthetics and Identity.” Guy Andre Risko’s article uses Giorgio Agamben’s theories of the state of exception and of the concept of Homo sacer—“a figure emerging from Roman law where the citizen has lost all legal value, can be killed but not murdered (the killer isn’t held legally responsible) or sacrificed” (qtd. 82)—to muse on the ethical impact of Katniss’s decision to volunteer for the Games in place of her sister Prim: this deliberate act of agency lends her actions the potential for revolutionary ethics. Next, Tammy L. Gant and Katheryn Wright explore different ways in which the category of aesthetics manifests itself in dystopian Panem. Gant’s essay focuses on the importance of music as a path to spirituality in Panem’s religion-less society, stressing music’s therapeutic, rejuvenating properties throughout Katniss’s own journey, while Wright’s “Revolutionary Art in the Age of Reality TV” is a succinct analysis of the ways in which aesthetics and politics merge in the arena of the televised Games. Wright delineates further how Katniss uses the medium of the “event” to perform an act of aesthetic subversion (i.e., the threatened double suicide with the poisonous berries) that changes the nature and import of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games by exposing the brutal politics of the “entertainment” on offer. The last two essays of the section unpack the gender politics of the series: Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel offer analyses of Katniss’s “male-identified” gendered portrayal along with the cross-genre merging of tropes of heterosexual romance and war narratives that makes Collins’s series equally popular among male and female readers, and Jennifer Mitchell investigates Katniss’s “queer,” fluid gender performance that adapts behavioral codes at will to suit her situational needs—for instance, Katniss’s emphasis on her supposed “femininity” while enacting a romance with Peeta Mellark as a deliberate survival strategy within the Hunger Games arena.

Section III offers essays that focus on the “Resistance, Surveillance and Simulacra” that are integral characteristics of Collins’s dystopia. Amy L. Montz’s “Costuming the Resistance: the Female Spectacle of Rebellion” provides insightful analysis of the ways in which the female form (Katniss’s body, in this case) becomes a “visual and public site of resistance through consistent, stylized use of spectacle” (140) in her stylist Cinna’s hands. Collins presents fashion as a double-edged sword, however. As Katniss transforms from girl to symbol via fashion, the flesh-and-blood girl is eventually considered expendable—the symbol is all that matters to the Resistance. Kelley Wezner’s essay examines Panem’s panopticons, inextricably embedded in the power structures of both the Capitol and District 13. Nevertheless, Katniss’s growing understanding of these omnipresent disciplinary structures allows her to strategically subvert and manipulate those very mechanisms. Shannon R. Mortimore-Smith critiques the insatiable audience desire that fuels reality (television) spectacles in contemporary society as well as its fictitious counterpart in dystopian Panem. Mortimore-Smith’s analysis is also interesting because she surveys students of her undergraduate course in order to dissect their viewing habits and participation as consumers of “reality” shows that hinge on constant, intrusive surveillance. Next, Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra prove central to Helen Day’s incisive comparative analysis of Stephen King’s The Running Man, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and Collins’s trilogy: each literary text features similar themes of totalitarian dystopias utilizing inhumane televised “games” as a means of brutal political and social control.

Section IV, “Thematic Parallels and Literary Traditions,” focusing on comparative analyses of Collins’s trilogy, works best when authors clearly demonstrate thematic/genre equivalences in the texts under comparison, but falters in the essays where authors discuss the relative merits or respective themes of different texts without justifying why such comparisons are useful for the critical reader. For instance, a comparison between Katniss and Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s second Henriad may seem incongruous and startling at first, but Catherine R. Eskin’s essay does “not argue for the parallel roles” (179) of the respective protagonists. Instead, by narrowing the analytical focus solely to the ways in which both Katniss and Prince Hal create and navigate a public persona via effective use of public relations/rhetoric, the essay brings up interesting characterization parallels in two extremely diverse sets of texts. Sarah Outterson Murphy’s “The Child Soldier and the Self in Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games” is another sterling example from this section with its analysis of the “allegories of adolescence” in each series. Both Ender Wiggins and Katniss are forced to participate in, but eventually subvert and reject, the violent politics and machinations of an adult universe. However, Mary F. Pharr’s “From the Boy Who Lived to the Girl Who Learned: Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen” does not adequately provide a rationale for comparing the two series, apart from, presumably, their placement in the abovementioned “publishing holy trinity” (qtd. 10). Although Pharr opines that Collins’s trilogy is a “step in the postmodern reinvestment of the epic” (219), this attribution requires further unpacking. An epic is a specific literary form with classical antecedents, and as such, any attempts to claim a modern book series as an “epic” requires more justification on the author’s part—otherwise, the comparisons to the Iliad and Gilgamesh in the introduction (co-written with Leisa A. Clark) seem hyperbolic.

The lengths of the essays in the anthology are rigorously uniform for the most part—this seems to be a deliberate editorial choice in order to include as many critical perspectives as space allows. The wide range of scholarship thus displayed is a definite strength, making the collection suitable for undergraduate courses in science fiction, children’s literature and introductory cultural studies, for instance, as well as for the advanced researcher (or even the YA literature fan) looking into different aspects of Collins’s series. I should note here that this anthology focuses exclusively on the novels, and does not include discussion of the film adaptations released (or currently under production) by Lionsgate. This textual focus is another strength of the volume, which situates itself as one of the first cluster of critical commentaries on the trilogy, rather than the last word on the subject. Thus, it whets readers’ appetites for future scholarship that takes into account cross-media adaptations of Collins’ series as well. Additionally, the core bibliography on dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and criticism (with an emphasis on YA works) that the collection includes is a useful research tool. Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games is, above all, a testament to the interpretive resilience and scope of Collins’s trilogy, providing readers with a virtual cornucopia of scholarly insights.

Poushali Bhadury
University of Florida, USA