‘The Hunger Games” Bread and Circuses

It’s not until the final book of “The Hunger Games” trilogy that Katniss Everdeen learns that Panem, the name of her country in the dystopian world, comes from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses.” The phrase “bread and circuses,” her mentor tells her, comes from a Roman writer who lamented that “in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”

Each year, the Panem government forces 12 surrounding districts to surrender a boy and a girl as “tributes,” who must participate in a televised fight to the death. In this fictional version of Roman gladiatorial games, only one child may survive. Author Suzanne Collins, a former children’s TV writer, told The New York Times Magazine that the idea for the books and now blockbuster movie came to her as she was channel-surfing and clicked from a reality TV competition to images of the Iraq War.

If you ever have wondered how gladiators could proclaim “Morituri te salutamus” (We who are about to die salute you) as they faced imminent death to entertain the masses, see “The Hunger Games.”

Most contestants are young kids afraid of the fight. Stylists provide dazzling outfits to make the child warriors rock stars, just as Roman gladiators distinguished themselves in choosing trident or spear. These teens need popular support in order to attract wealthy sponsors, who can parachute in containers of water, medicine or other necessaries that might save a life. Thus, Everdeen and her rivals must chat up TV icon Caesar Flickerman to generate fans.

Panem throws in extra incentives — special homes for the victor, and the winner’s district receives extra rations for a year. The games work, President Coriolanus Snow observes, because the contestants impart “hope.”

In contrast, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd sees a downer trend in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, which involves a dominant male and a submissive female; its hot-seller status, Dowd writes, is a sign of modern female self-debasement.

Maybe. I haven’t read those books.

But I’ve read “The Hunger Games,” and I know that American girls (and boys) are lining up at movie theaters to watch a skilled huntress — a young Sarah Palin, if you will — who does not submit to authority. Everdeen might be a girl, but she has a chance of surviving because she mastered the bow and arrow to feed her family after her father’s death. Everdeen is not cruel. She always strikes a squirrel in the eye so that it doesn’t suffer. She is fierce, but not fearless.

The popularity of “The Hunger Games” demonstrates that today’s young readers want to be challenged. Collins writes in a deceptively simple style. Everdeen narrates in the first person and the present tense. Yet throughout the trilogy, Collins slyly schools readers about combat tactics, the value of stealth in the arena, the potentially fatal cost of not knowing the turf and the human toll paid to deliver the bread served on Panem’s well-appointed tables.

Every choice involves an equation. Before the competition, should contenders show off their skills to win sponsors or soft-pedal their prowess to mislead opponents? When the games begin, should Everdeen sprint for a bow or run toward water? Should she ally herself with others or try to survive on her own?

Collins rejects the suggestion that she writes about teenagers in a teen world. “I don’t write about adolescence,” she told the Times. “I write about war. For adolescents.”

Yet “The Hunger Games” meets the first rule of kid-book writing. It urges teens to be true to themselves. Peeta Mellark, the boy from Everdeen’s district, doesn’t think he has a chance of winning, so he enters the arena with a more modest goal: “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster I’m not.”

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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