Today’s young adults are under so many pressures that I think they must often feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Utopian and dystopian YA literature is popular because it offers its readers an incomparable element of escapism from their everyday lives. While the stories themselves are imaginative and the settings are a stretch from reality as we know it, these stories and their young protagonists tend to be both relatable and inspiring. They often feature “normal” teen characters who have realistic problems but who fight to overcome extraordinary obstacles and sometimes even end up saving the world.
Utopia and dystopia are opposites. Utopian novels are set in paradise-like societies, or utopias, where everything seems ideal, carefree and perfect, while dystopian novels are often set in hostile, unappealing, scary and degraded societies, or dystopias. Both utopian and dystopian societies explore social and political structures and are commonly featured in science fiction.
The Hunger Games is dystopian science fiction, though it contains both dystopian and utopian elements. However, while the Capitol could be seen as a utopia, its primary function in the novel is that of contrast to the districts, which are clearly dystopian, and to the painful, humiliating and degrading essence of the games. So the dystopian elements outweigh the utopian elements. The dystopian qualities of the districts include the dehumanization and suppression of the citizens ruled by a controlling government that degrades and punishes its people. Each district performs a specific function that benefits the Capitol but they are kept segregated and are unable to share their talents and resources with other districts. This ensures that no one district can excel. Even within the districts, the government promotes hatred, fear and lack of trust through segregation. On page 14, Katniss says: “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided amongst ourselves.” On page 203, she wonders if the Gamemakers are censoring their conversations because “they don’t want people in different districts to know about one another.” The districts are fenced in like prisons and the citizens are forced to live in impoverished, third worldly conditions where they deal with starvation, public whippings and limited resources. Finally, the Reaping itself—an event in which the government selects children from a public lottery, takes them away from their families and kills them for entertainment—is dystopian.
A successful Sci-Fi or Fantasy will bend and stretch our imagination without breaking it entirely. This so-called “suspension of disbelief” is our willingness to suspend what we know to be true in order to enjoy a work of fiction. Still, science fiction and fantasy are very different and as such they require different degrees of suspended disbelief. In science fiction we are willing to believe an alternate or futuristic reality based on things we know to be true in our current reality. For example, it’s easy enough for us to believe a science fiction story in which people live on Mars someday simply because we already have space travel. On the other hand, fantasies like Twilight or Lord of the Rings, for examples, are not based in reality and require a larger leap of faith.
The Hunger Games is science fiction primarily because of its many plausible futuristic elements, including: flaming outfits, instant hair dryers, tracker jackers, hovercrafts, teleporting devices, computer-controlled illusions, temperature and weather controlled environments, magic burn medicines and robotic dogs. Collins creates a believable world by creating things that we think could possibly happen in the future based on what we know now about our own world. Plus, when it comes to the future, we tend to be open-minded about the many scientific and technological possibilities so things like temperature controlled atmospheres, hovercrafts and robotic dogs aren’t so hard to imagine. Also, Collins is consistent with the elements she creates. On page 82 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going says: “Be consistent. Whatever the rules of your world are, stay within them. Don’t change anything for your own convenience.” Collins makes the rules and sticks to them. For example, when the Gamemakers announced the surprising change in their rules that would’ve allowed Katniss and Peeta to win together, it seemed convenient and out of character. If it had simply ended there, no one would’ve bought it.
On page 96, Going writes: “It’s also important to give your imaginary time period a multidimensional quality, alluding to what has come before and what might be in store in the future.” The “present” world Collins creates hovers in between a past that through Katniss’ memories we know enough about to visualize and accept and a future we can easily make rational assumptions about based on what we know about the “present” world and what happens to the characters in the story. We know that even though Katniss and Peeta beat the system and won the games, the games themselves will continue. On page 378, Katniss says, “It’s the Capitol’s way of reminding people that the Hunger Games never really go away. We’ll be given a lot of useless plaques, and everyone will have to pretend they love us.”
Collins is also consistent with the way she develops characterization. She begins with our main character Katniss since everything we see in the novel will be through Katniss’ eyes. We immediately get to know Katniss mostly through her own actions—we learn about her physical strength and warrior mentality through her hunting and we learn what kind of person she is when she takes her sister’s place in the Reaping. Voila! She is multidimensional because she kills but she also loves. On page 60 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Actions also reveal character. What a person does shows us who he is—not just who he says he is.” Katniss herself is a believer that actions speak louder than words so, in turn, she uses a combination of physical descriptions and actions to set up her supporting characters. Since Katniss makes assumptions based on the appearances and actions of others, it’s easy for us to do the same. For example, she sees parallels between Prim and Rue so we do, too. This also makes it so that when she doesn’t immediately connect the dots on a particular character we can use what she’s noticed to make our own very satisfying assumptions—like how we realize Peeta has fallen for Katniss long before she realizes it herself. And based on her actions, we can tell Katniss is falling for him, too.
The Hunger Games is considered a dystopian science fiction novel because it contains many dystopian and science fiction elements. It’s successful because of the consistency and believability of those elements. Like every good science fiction novelist, Collins tells a story that stimulates without squashing our imaginations while creating settings we can easily picture and characters who we can believe in.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York. Scholastic. 2008. Print
Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.