Gen-Z Needs Suzanne Collins To Answer Some Tough Questions
The Hunger Games arrived five years ago on the cusp of social movements sparked by the next generation of young people, and it could be the perfect time for a comeback of the modern revolutionary classic. A lot of weird things are making a comeback this year. This was the year of the Disney remake, with films like Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King making comebacks in a live-action form that try to find a place within today’s zeitgeist by touching on feminism, animal cruelty, and corrupt leadership respectively. It’s also the year where Gen-Z are more afraid than ever of climate change, neocolonialism, and job-security because it’s safe to say that it affects our future the most. It feels like children and young-adult films are steering further and further away from the real world, in favour of a watered-down perception of what the world looks like today in relation to the classic characters. In the world of sci-fi YA novels, this has not been the case. Most novels of this canon imagine the worst possible progression for human life and frame it as a fictional warning, or just plain sensational fun. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series was the pinnacle of dystopian fiction for the modern teenager, forcing Gen-Z to ask some tough questions about the future while arguing over whether Gale or Peeta was fit to be the lover of Collins’ stoic heroine Katniss Everdeen.
A story about kids fighting to the death was not original, it had already been done with Battle Royale, but a story about a stubborn teenage girl who ended up fighting for love and sparking a revolution is much more captivating in its relevance and to a Western audience. Child-wars happen each day and everyday people are killed in such violent ways as are presented in The Hunger Games. Though readers of The Hunger Games probably were less concerned with that fact than they were about Katniss’ survival. Katniss is the face of a revolution, not just between the pages and on-screen. It’s the face of a Gen-Z woman that sparked a deeper fire within young girls, who were already distrustful of political institutions, to take out their metaphysical crossbows and hunt down injustice. But what is this injustice and how do we face the same kinds of struggles that happened decades before Katniss’ time?
A bleak future seems inevitable, but we are always questioning how to engage with the forces that drive the future, in order to create a new life. All hope can’t be lost, can it?
“The Hunger Games is a bleak series because of its political pessimism — both the status quo and the revolutionary response to the status quo are presented as cruel, bloody and tragic,” Noah Berlatsky wrote in a 2015 piece for the Guardian. The series ends that way as well, with no clear happy ending besides the fall of extreme capitalism and the survival of lovers Katniss and Peeta who still bear the horrific burden of PTSD. It is only right that it begin this way as well. The Dark Days had to have been, well… dark for a world like Panem to be recreated. In the midst of our own social revolutions, there will doubt be similarities to the way Collins’ represents war, uprisings, and protests in the face of authority. There are still questions, and youth, activists or not, will ask these questions. Gen-Z is more politically involved than ever, and the issues we are occupied with are ones that shape the life we want to create. A bleak future seems inevitable, but we are always questioning how to engage with the forces that drive the future, in order to create a new life. All hope can’t be lost, can it?
When news broke, Suzanne Collins has said to the press: “With this book, I wanted to explore the state of nature, who we are, and what we perceive is required for our survival. The reconstruction period ten years after the war, commonly referred to as the Dark Days — as the country of Panem struggles back to its feet — provides fertile ground for characters to grapple with these questions and thereby define their views of humanity.”
With a new prequel on the way, it seems paramount for Collins’ to dive even deeper into the politics of Panem and how it became so divisive after the civil war.
We can’t ignore racial inequity as one of the most divisive issues of our time, as well as the fact that racialization affects every other aspect of our governance and social movements. When Jennifer Lawrence was announced as Katniss Everdeen, the casting choice grew criticism. Why did Hollywood assume Katniss was white and as white as Lawrence? It was never explicitly stated in the novel, no character’s race was. Collins’ book could have easily become a much more intersectionality challenging film that it was investigating racism driven by capitalism, a subject that has proven to maintain social insecurities over time. It might be the whiteness of Collins’ herself that allows the franchise to fall short of addressing this obvious issue. In her new book, that apparently details life before Panem was created, issues of race must drive the formation of an entirely new way of living. In the first book of the series, The Hunger Games, Collins’ touches on physical differences between Katniss and Gale and the merchant class of people. Katniss’ mother and sister are described as having blue eyes and blonde hair, whereas Katniss and Gale are olive-skinned and green-eyed. Without reading too much into this, and not knowing the race of Katniss’ father, it is safe to assume that there are racial differences between Katniss and her mother, and the rest of District 12. District 12 is divided, with poorer individuals (with darker hair and skin) working lower-paying jobs with higher risk factors, such as mining (which is how Katniss’ father was killed), and somewhat wealthier individuals working as merchants and healthcare providers. This visual division is never represented in the film. Nearly all of District 12 is cast as white.
Though Katniss’ young apprentice Rue was never stated as Black in the novel, she was cast as such in the film, played by Amandla Stenberg. It’s not until her tragic murder that we see the shot of District 11 and it is composed of nearly all Black individuals. They are the first to revolt in the name of an innocent child, Rue’s father is the first to attack a “Peacekeeper.” Was this the only statement on race the franchise was willing to make? Why cast the home-District of a murdered child as predominantly Black? The sorrow, the anger, the killings of protestors, all chillingly echoed countless events in the United States and beyond. But that’s kind of it for a race struggle in the film. These few minutes are a barrage of pain, and then the games go on, much like the grim reality of brushing aside Black deaths in favour of other kinds of progress. The rest of the film still champions Katniss as the hero of the movement, and though she is charged with avenging Rue’s death, her main motivation is to live, and for Peeta to live as well. Though dressed in flowers, Rue becomes just another martyr. It reminds us of constant loss, and more disturbingly, for some white audiences, Rue’s death means very little.
Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, is the other Black martyr in the second instalment in the franchise, Catching Fire. When he is alive is a figure of beauty and servitude, wearing impeccable makeup and speaking in that stylish Lenny Kravitz whisper. The audience likes him because he is sexy and because he is kindly getting the heroine where she needs to go. Then he is graphically murdered as Katniss enters the arena to her second Games, his blood smearing the white surfaces of the pod. There are merely a few seconds of mourning, and life goes on.
You can’t create a truly fleshed-out dystopian sci-fi story about the fate of all of humanity without giving diverse characters a voice.
The fact that Collins left much room for random casting choices (in terms of race), meant that the story was deeply affected, at least for viewers of colour, by the killings of Black individuals who supported a white Katniss’s goals towards the revolution. With the films having made such a clear statement, will Collins decide to leave this issue open-ended yet again in her writing? She seemed to have a passive stance on it when casting news came out before the film franchise’s beginning in 2014. The formulation of Panem, from both the books’ and the films’ standpoints, seems to have been at least somewhat racially affected. In an era of Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, a flood of Black trans-women murders, violence against Black churches, the Prison-Industrial-Complex, and countless other injustices, the racially charged class issues that result in hard-labour and death cannot be ignored in this new instalment.
Popular media likes to talk about how Gen-Z is the most racially and identity diverse group, using interviews and stats to prove it. But when it comes to pop-culture, the representation just isn’t there, especially in Hollywood film and popular fiction. With Collins’ new prequel slated to hit the big screen yet again, there is tons of room for intersectional storytelling and diverse representation. You can’t create a truly fleshed-out dystopian sci-fi story about the fate of all of humanity without giving diverse characters a voice.
With such a visually graphic immigration crisis looming over the United States, will Collins talk about the formation of a country with strict boundaries between districts and the Capitol? The inhumane conditions at U.S camps already look like something out of a dystopian novel, and because of social media, younger generations are not blind to it either. Gen-Z takes an active role in supporting things like gun-control and anti-Islamophobia, so it’s clear that the treatment of humans at the border will be a concern to young people, whether they are from immigrant families or have heard first-hand accounts from friends whose families fear ICE. According to a poll from Morning Consult, most American Gen-Zers are not proud of being American. Katniss and her young comrades were also not proud Panemians. There are comparisons to make between Panem, it’s dangerous yet slightly flamboyant President and American culture. The incarceration of immigrants and people of colour is not a prevalent theme in The Hunger Games franchise, however disobeying the Capitol (and President Snow) lead to the death of most characters, without trial, without warning. That feeling of constant fear is not so far off from current anxieties.
We don’t know if the immigration crisis it will get worse or better. It might not happen any time soon. Its progress will certainly depend on American presidential leadership in 2020. Assuming Collins’ has already written the book, it’ll be interesting to see how it is received in relation to the leadership of the U.S at that time. Some might say Collins should digress from making a political statement in order to attract more readers, but she has already made a colossal political statement in her initial trilogy by creating an anti-capitalist revolution lead by a woman, criticising media’s glamourization of violence and materialism when it comes to sponsorships, socio-political performativity, and taking a stab at predicting new technologies, such as the mind-control serum that turns Peeta’s memories of Katniss into negative ones. There’s no need to shy away from politics in 2020.
There is no concept of a better life, but there is also nowhere to escape.
The districts are very strictly divided in the trilogy, and the characters are unable to leave the place they were born in. Confined to a social location at birth, there are not many opportunities to progress in the social or financial hierarchy or increases one’s life chances. Though boring and bleak, in an ideal world this seems like it should offer some sense of security. Yet some districts are far poorer than others, or poor in different ways because this is not a utopia, it is a dystopia, and people suffer. They each have their own speciality, 12 for mining, 10 for livestock, 11 for agriculture, and so on. They are only able to mildly sustain themselves because they are worth something to the luxurious economy of the ruling class. There is no concept of a better life, but there is also nowhere to escape. Was this system suggested after the Great War, or before, and did it have anything to do quelling the flow of immigrants to larger and more prosperous countries? Either way, this anxiety of stagnancy and social policing is real for Gen-Z in this political climate. It is especially relevant to marginalized peoples in a predominantly white nation.
Panem translates to “bread,” in Latin, and bread is a word that is often used to describe bounty or money, as in, “let’s get this bread,” because it is an object of sustenance. Panem, then, was also meant to be a country of sustenance. It clearly is, for some, for others it just a country of production and labour without a clear reward. In that way, it’s not so different from the world we live in today.
Collins’ basically addressed Marxism by making Katniss the leader of the proletarian revolution, but the fact that such a revolution happened so late into the development of Panem signals that it is the first that was able to gain traction because it centred around love, an accessible concept to many. It is said that the Districts did try to rebel against the Capitol 74 years prior to the trilogy, but failed, and were put back under a probably more strict version of the Capitol’s rule. It also led to the assumed destruction of District 13. The concept of a District 13 is also interesting in that it was the district of graphite mining, and District 12 seemed to take over the mining duties once it was gone.
However, even within the districts, there seems to be a bit of a hierarchy. District 1 is the district of luxury and has one of the most favourable relations with the Capitol. Is that because it was created first? Were the districts created in order of need? District 2, the district of masonry, is another favourable district because it holds a military base. Despite various levels of favorability, each of the districts is still subject to struggle and war within the Hunger Games. Reminiscent of the capitalist hierarchies created by various national corporations?
Physical currency doesn’t exist within the districts of Panem. Everything is traded. When did this abolishment of money occur, and why? From a 2019 standpoint, money is becoming less and less of a physical object. We can’t feel money anymore, we can only see a digital version of it entering and leaving our bank accounts. What does this mean? Where is the currency and where does it come from? It’s a complicated idea since we don’t know if there are physical paper bills backing up every transaction we made. The Capitol uses money, unlike District 12 where we know only uses trade. Does that allow the Capitol to dominate and control physical currency in order to oppress the bartering folk and working-class? It seems like a small idea, but the source of money and where it’s power originates is essential in understanding how one group could become so much more powerful than the other.
With massive spikes in global-warming symptoms, soaring water-levels, and polluted oceans, the children of Gen-Z, or Gen-Z itself, might not be around for very long. The gamemakers possess the power to fluctuate weather inside the arena where the Games are taking place but was this technology created before or after the formation of Panem. Is it what ended up saving the world from climate-destruction? Is this tech what caused the great war that created the Dark Days, which in-turn induced this new and depressing world called Panem? It is safe to say that the population of our world today, roughly 8 million people, was more than half-gone by the time Panem’s Capitol ownership structure was created. Panem is one country, but where? Is it the U.S? Which countries became the home for a civilization that managed to survive so far into the future?
There might always be a hidden “out.” For Katniss and friends, that out was District 13. After the other Districts were razed by the Capitol, District 13 was found, it’s members had created an underground bunker world from which to escape the hostile world above. It’s a common thread in nearly every dystopian YA. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series also featured a hidden society, people that, in their rebellion, had become outcasts and decided to make their own living outside of an oppressive system. The City of Ember series, aimed at younger readers, also featured an underground society that survived a supposed natural disaster and reemerged when the environment became sustainable again. In The Maze Runner, a society on the outskirts of the Earth has survived deadly sun flares. Is that we need to survive the climate crisis? It doesn’t seem unlikely that there are ways to survive it, and Collins might use this trope to address it or face a lot more questions.
Gen-Z is no longer wholly occupied with romantic narratives. But that doesn’t mean this is a cynical generation. Among other names, Gen-Z can be labelled the activist generation, and are self-proclaimed as such. We’re shit-disturbers, meme-makers, lazy when we deserve to be, but we’re also passionate and vocal about what we believe in. We’re also overwhelmed as f*ck by the plethora of anxieties threatening our world.
If so many of the aspects of The Hunger Games have clear connections to issue in the real world, then these issues should be dominating factors in this new prequel. With Katniss and Peeta probably not in the book, there is an opportunity for Collins to create something that focuses on science and politics of our times by using the future to create a past (which is also a future). This is where time is on her side. Her world hasn’t happened yet and as such, it leaves so much room for creation. What does she want this civil war to look and like and how will its driving forces reflect on the anxieties of 2020? The creator of something so predictive, interrogative, and revolutionary as The Hunger Games franchise should be able to take an analytical look at the world make projections about its drastic reformation, even if she is white. It’s not a guidebook necessarily that we need, it’s a brain picker, something to help us consider where the heck it is we need to go next.