This is The Story… of a woman who lost her father, and in the grieving process, stumbled onto something horrible. She could have kept it a secret, but she decided to spread a message that inspired millions.
This article is a written version of Episode 4 of The Story Podcast: The Woman and The War.
Season 1 features twelve women trailblazers who changed the world, and it’s brought to you exclusively by Salesforce.
And now… onto The Story
As a little girl, her first memories were filled with confusion. It was the 1960’s and Vietnam was raging.
Suzy was six years old, her father’s Air Force unit was deployed to Vietnam. The girl’s father became overcome by worry, and her mother became distant.
She was the youngest of four, and her home life became chaotic. There were many sleepless nights and she wondered why all this was happening. Why did her father have to leave?
Soon, the Vietnam War permeated all aspects of the culture. Her mother tried to shield her, but the media was relentless. The little girl would watch cartoons, and when they ended, footage of dead American soldiers in the jungles filled the screen.
Years passed, and her father returned. The time apart, the fear she felt worrying about him, and the images on TV would never leave her mind. Her father had earned the Distinguished Flying Service Cross and Bronze Star in Vietnam, but it didn’t seem like a victory.
Her father returned in body, but his mind would never be the same.
He suffered from nightmares, and she would wake up in the middle of the night to his screams.
Soon after his return, the family moved to Belgium. Suzy dreamed of seeing fairytale castles, but instead, her father showed her battlefields. He showed her where arrows were fired from slits in the castle walls. They visited the place where her grandfather was gassed in World War I, and where her Uncle was injured in World War II. Her father told and retold the tales of how millions lost their lives. He would tell her stories of his childhood, of poverty in the Great Depression, when his family had to hunt for food in order to survive.
They traveled all over Europe, and her father showed her the Roman Colosseum and taught her about gladiators. He even taught her about how the Roman rulers would distract their citizens with “panem et circenses”, the Latin phrase for bread and circuses, while they waged war. He taught her of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth told how the city and people of Athens would be punished by the rulers. In the myth, rulers send fourteen children to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.
Suzy took it all in and was transfixed.
She couldn’t believe the terrible things that humans were capable of doing. She never resented her father for his lengthy and often violent stories, or for opening her eyes to the world.
The little girl grew up, and like everyone else affected by Vietnam, she did her best to put it behind her. She turned her focus towards college and earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, and then a master’s degree in writing. She worked odd jobs before catching a break at 29 when she landed a job writing for Nickelodeon TV shows. Although she was only 29, she had far more life experience than the average television writer. She became prolific and churned out scripts for shows like Clarissa Explains it All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and Clifford.
She turned her passion for writing into a great job. At this point, it would be easy for anyone to get comfortable, and she did. A decade of hard work passed. Meanwhile, each stroke of her pen was drawing her closer to turning her own childhood revelations into a story that would resonate around the world.
At 40, she took the leap and wrote her own book, Gregor the Overlander. It debuted the next year and sold enough copies for her publisher to order the next book in the series. For the next five years, her publisher kept reordering, and she wrote sequels in that same series of books. By the time she turned 45, she was burned out on writing the same series and called it quits. It had sold well, and even become a New York Times bestseller, but she didn’t feel complete. She was a wife and mother of two children and knew she needed to find a new story to write, but it was hard to find time. There wasn’t that one BIG idea pulling her forward.
One late night, in a daze, she was flipping through the TV channels. Reality television was on one channel and footage of the Iraq War was on the next. In this light, she caught a glimpse of what the media had become: one big reality show. To the media, “war” was just another channel. It was just another reality show they covered, and no one dared to present a concrete plan on how to end it. In that moment, the feeling of separation from her father reemerged.
She was no longer watching a reality show. The war was real to her, and the fact that millions of other people treated it like a reality show was deeply disturbing. When she tried to talk to people about it, she discovered that most people thought wars were something mandatory or inevitable. They treated it like a topic they weren’t allowed to talk about, and that sent chills up her spine.
She knew what it felt like to be a girl and have her father’s number called. She knew it was even more real for the men and women who were in combat.
She looked back and remembered how powerless she felt as a child watching the madness. But now, something was different. She was no longer powerless. She had friends, connections, and savings earned through her hard work. She had her pen and immense skills that she had developed over decades of honing her craft.
And most importantly?
Now she had the BIG idea for her next book. She didn’t just have this new idea, it had her. And in a culture obsessed with watching reality TV or violent shows, the time was right to tell it.
At 46 years old, she decided to do something about the evil she saw in the world. She put pen to paper and wrote her story. All of the stories her father taught her bubbled to the surface of her mind. She included all of them. The death, people being gassed, arrows and bombs… She told the story of a girl who lost her father, whose family had to forage for food, just like her father’s family had to.
It was a story about war.
The twist was that she wrote the book for young adults. The former Nickelodeon TV writer who used to write episodes of Clarissa Explains it All, was now presenting war to kids. And she even named the government in her story, Panem, after her father’s lessons about the Roman rulers. Her main characters fight and kill in a war they were forced into — and now must learn to live with the consequences. They wake up in the middle of the night screaming — something she knew all too well.
After the book was published, a small release and launch followed. Then, the book caught fire.
Fourteen months after her first book in the series debuted, there were 1.5 million copies in circulation. The film rights were sold. A sequel followed, and then it became a trilogy. And then the movies began rolling out to an even larger audience than the books.
Suzy is, of course, Suzanne Collins.
Suzanne Collins has sold over 87 million books. The Hunger Games has become a massive global phenomenon. With such a reach, it’s astonishing that the trilogy’s message and impact on culture is rarely discussed.
She put a radical message into The Hunger Games trilogy. It requires a huge amount of courage to present or discuss an accurate view of war. The truth about war goes against almost every taboo of culture, government, and media.
Her story is a stark contrast to others in modern-day pop culture. Most modern “artists” chose to glorify war without presenting the whole truth — it doesn’t end well.
So what type of questions and debate was she trying to spark? Collins’s own words are illuminating. She says:
“We have so much programming coming at us all the time… Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?… I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.”
“If there’s a real-life tragedy unfolding, you should not be thinking of yourself as an audience member. Because those are real people on the screen, and they’re not going away when the commercials start to roll.”
At least in reality shows, the audience has a chance to develop empathy for the characters. Collins points out that the media treats war as a reality show but doesn’t even cover the basics of creating empathetic connections with the cast. Instead, the audience is trained to view the cast as people who are “doing their duty”. Collins’ trilogy boldly shows us how most people in the world (or Panem) view war. It’s something that, every once in awhile, they watch on TV.
Suzanne Collins is one of the first authors to create a story with widespread popular appeal that doesn’t have a happy ending. There is no glorified message about war, and for good reason. War is almost never justified. Her stories force us to ask a question: will we continue to accept the same, boring, sacrificial altar that is war? Will people continue to remain silent while young people die? Or, will we demand that our politicians learn to negotiate peacefully?
The Hunger Games is an example of a creative genius hiding philosophy inside a story. Collins used just the right amount of war glorification to introduce the series, then took a radical deviation once the reader was inside.
There was a good chance that The Hunger Games wouldn’t be a commercial success. After all, there are few people brave enough to seriously critique their culture. But luckily for us, Collins is such a masterful storyteller that her talent drove the series’ massive commercial success.
With her approach to an already touchy subject, Collins could have offended someone at the publishing company. She could have been blacklisted by the entertainment industry. A wise person once said that, “thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations”. Anyone who goes just an inch deep into The Hunger Games will find it’s written by a thinker. Moreover, it’s brimming with ideas that will spark thinking in the reader.
Ideas that make people think too much are usually the first to be killed. In our modern day and age, many people are terrified of speaking honestly about their beliefs for fear of losing their jobs.
Suzanne Collins’ victory proves that wonderful things can happen when you’re bold enough to speak the truth. She took everything that life threw at her:
- The separation from her father she faced as a girl
- The problems it created in her family
- The uncertainty she felt wondering if he would live or die
She took all of that and ensouled her story with it.
Herein lies the magic of The Hunger Games and what the love between a father and daughter can create.
As children, we might not have the power required to stop violence. But as adults, with skills, resources, and empathy? We possess the power required to help free those we care about from society’s sacrificial altars. As adults, we don’t have to spend our lives on the sidelines. We can build up our own expertise, become powerful, and prove — once and for all — that the pen can be mightier than the sword.
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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