Few people are aware that it was murdered Sturmabteiling (SA) leader, Ernst Röhm, who quipped — apparently just before his execution during the Night of the Long Knives — that all revolutions devour their own children. His papers, discovered after the War, reveal that he thought this observation applied to all revolutions. There was no ‘good’ revolution for Röhm: even that of the United States was poisoned by what came after.
I was put in mind of Röhm’s melancholy assessment of man’s capacity to reinvent civilisation by violently overthrowing the government of the day when I finally — after my last exam on Thursday — got around to reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. Legal Eagle has already reviewed the books, while I provided some context for the obvious Roman elements in the film based on the first one. Legal Eagle’s piece uses a framework borrowed from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: she asks, quite properly, what it is that makes us not like the people of Panem, and employs Pinker’s scholarship to provide an answer.
Like Legal Eagle, I also read the trilogy, (not just the first book). As is inevitable, I noticed different things. Those things, I am certain, were placed there by the author with great deliberation. Collins has written an enormously literate work of fiction while disclosing a terrifying vision of what could happen to modern people — people like us — if we forgot how to make and live in a liberal democracy.
The Hunger Games, I think it is fair to say, is pastiche — or at least very strongly derivative. That said, Collins takes from so many sources (including some of our most confronting imaginative literature, from ancient Rome’s Juvenal — explicitly hat-tipped in the third book — to William Golding, Shirley Jackson, George Orwell, and Harper Lee) and does it so skillfully that one needs to be alert to spot all the cultural and literary references. Chasing them down intersects with the hunting motifs woven into the narrative until there are moments when it seems as though one has stumbled into the Hall of Mirrors at an agricultural show, with its self-referential distortions. And all the while we are watching, constantly watching, turned into mute witnesses as great chunks of the heroine’s life are filmed and broadcasted or shot live (by all sides), until it becomes impossible to distinguish public from private acts, acts willed from acts… merely acted.
As a very preliminary observation, it astonishes me that an American author could so completely pick apart the idea of noble revolution that is such a part of that country’s sense of itself. And in books for children, to boot. I do maintain that The Hunger Games would work better had it been written for adults, because adults can more easily be conditioned to despair, and in any case tragedy is among the oldest and most noble of narrative traditions. I do wonder, however, whether an adult version would be written off as ‘just science fiction’, and thus taken less seriously.
The Roman historians Appian and Florus relate how Spartacus — after one of his fellow leaders, Crixus, was killed in battle by Crassus — compelled 300 captured Roman citizen prisoners to fight to the death in order to honour Crixus’ memory:
Afterwards, he celebrated the funerals of his own officers who died in battle with the obsequies of Roman generals: he coerced the prisoners to fight with arms at their funeral pyres. It was as though he could atone for all past dishonours by becoming, from a gladiator, an exhibitor of shows of gladiators [an editor]. [Florus, Epitome, 2.8]
There is a terrible moment in the third book where the rebel forces of District 13 — having captured the Capitol, the modern-city-with-Roman-culture that was formerly head of the Empire — plan to inflict a new Hunger Games on the Capitol’s children — previously immune from the ‘reaping’ — as retribution for having had it done to them for 75 years. The driving force behind it is Panem’s new president, Alma Coin, and she — like a Roman editrix – seeks to enmesh her confreres in her cruelties.
This horror, of course, does not arise on the sudden. As the rebels are introduced during the second book and come to dominate the third, that they are worse than the amoral Roman analogues in the Capitol is made plain. Collins blends 1984 (with its rigid surveillance) and Tuol Sleng (complete with blood drains and handleless doors) and THX 1138 (with its utter subordination of the individual to the state) into a pastiche that somehow manages to be at least as frightening as the sum of its parts. With its science marshalled by a wheelchair bound scientist utterly without ethical constraint and its distrust of anything pleasurable — especially the creative arts — I waited, sometimes afraid to breathe, for District 13 to overrun the Capitol, drive its inhabitants into the countryside, execute all the eyeglass wearing intellectuals (save, of course, the curiously Strangelovian scientist) and declare Year Zero, scraping the earth’s surface clean of the past.
Pol Pot’s Year Zero – based on Year One of the French Republican Calendar — was meant to destroy or discard all culture and traditions within Cambodian society. A new revolutionary culture was to take their place. In The Hunger Games, only the highly educated but morally ambiguous Plutarch Heavensbee (a Capitol editor who defects, only to have his talents put to use by the new regime) has any sense that there is a history reaching back into the past. Other people know there was once a United States, but its Constitution, its history, its religion have been interred. Only the memory of revolution survives. Plutarch Heavensbee is not a liberal (no-one is a liberal in this world), but he can at least put the notion into words.
And you know that the society depicted is culturally and politically in deep, deep shit when you realise that Collins’s Gamesmaster has somehow to be John Stuart Mill and David Hume and Adam Smith all at once.
As I was ticking off the cultural and literary references (including the one from Appian and Florus above), I had cause to wonder whether it mattered that the series is so derivative. There have been explosive internet debates accusing Collins of nicking the plot to everything from Battle Royale to The Lottery to accusations of copying material from George Orwell and a good two thirds of the writers in the known Roman literary canon (although with an emphasis on Juvenal, who provides various plot points, two major set-pieces, the country’s name and the extraordinary portrait of Roman excess that animates the Capitol). I do find it revealing that when Collins strays away from her skilled use of pastiche, the books strain credulity. A signal example: the education of everyone in impoverished, Appalachian District 12 until the age of 18 before they go ‘down the pit’ (the phrase is from Barry Hinds’s A Kestrel for a Knave) coupled with aspirational educational ideals despite the fact that education leads nowhere.
Somehow a civilisation as cruel and self-indulgent as the Capitol has managed to pass the Factory Acts. And somehow the parents of District 12 would rather their children go to school than ‘down the pit’ to earn money for their families. In an interesting exercise in the (dis)remembering of childhood, we (and Collins) have forgotten that there was serious and long-term opposition to the Factory Acts… by the parents of children pulled out of mines and mills and sent to school. The legislation turned children into liabilities, rather than assets, you see, and we have lost cultural contact with a world where the only reason for many people to reproduce was to ensure familial economic support — the sooner the better.
Yes, my suspension of disbelief did require new shock absorbers at that point, although I kept reading: the second book is the weakest of the three, and I suspected that once Collins got to District 13 in Mockingjay, it would be appropriately Orwellian. Her borrowings from the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong added to rather than detracted from the portrait of the ‘opposition’, complete with the detail that it, too, needs to wall its citizens from flight: imagine a Cold War between two East Germanies. The use of historical and cultural material from Indochina has its origins in Collins’s father’s memories of the Vietnam War, which she references in the endnotes to Mockinjay. The effect is almost Kafkaesque, and sustained for a good 150 pages before a piece of ‘non-pastiched’ material breaks the spell.
So: pastiche it may be, but in a good cause. We need something to wean us off the ideal of violent revolution and its near relative, the naive belief that people without any liberal democratic tradition can have it imposed upon them from without. One only has to recall the cloying sentiment attached to early reporting of the ‘Arab Spring’, then contrast that optimism with the appalling, misogynistic reality. That we are standing back while the awful Syrian regime butchers its own people has little to do with Syria’s absence of oil wealth (there isn’t much oil in Egypt or Tunisia, either, and we helped their revolutionaries) and a great deal to do with the lesson that Collins teaches so very well: all revolutions devour their own children. As horrifying as it to contemplate, a revolutionary regime in Syria will likely be worse than that of Bashar al-Assad.
Even that in the United States — the signal revolutionary exemplar about which no lesser figure than Edmund Burke was cautiously optimistic — was unpleasantly equivocal. The two largest groups excluded from the revolutionary settlement — African-Americans and women — came back to haunt America in ways extraordinarily consumptive of its blood and treasure. The Civil War devoured 625,000 lives as the US worked slavery (partly) out of its system while Prohibition created a society where organised crime grew so powerful it could outgun and outspend the state.
Daniel Okrent’s superb history of the ‘Noble Experiment’ recounts how — unable to control their own lives thanks to illiberal laws — American women instead used both their numbers and their newly won franchise to attempt to control men’s lives, in a perverse exercise in ‘turn and turn about is fair play’. Suffragettes allied with everyone and anyone (including, incredibly, the Ku Klux Klan) to both secure the ballot and ban the booze. Post the 19th Amendment, in many parts of the country there were extraordinary cases of the block voting we associate with tribal groupings in newly independent African states, but on the basis of sex, not ethnicity or language.
Not a failure on the scale of 1789 or 1917, then, but for a long time the American version — to use a phrase beloved of social workers — ‘failed to thrive’.
I do wonder if there is an American director bold enough to depict District 13 and its rebels as Collins does. Revolutions in other countries are terrible, bloody failures, regardless of who ‘wins’ or ‘loses’. But so is this one, and it takes place in a country that, once upon a time, was the United States. And Americans believe that their revolution is the exception that proves the rule.
[Note for US readers: I have used 'liberal' in its British and European sense.]