You don’t have to have read or even heard of American author Suzanne Collins’s teen trilogy, The Hunger Games, to recognize a pop-culture phenomenon unfolding. Mockingjay, the final volume, is getting the full J.K. Rowling-Dan Brown treatment. All 1.2 million copies were held under tight wraps, with no advance versions available before its Aug. 24 release, and over 100 bookstores in Canada alone held midnight release parties the night before. While they waited, Collins’s fans—and, with sales of the first two volumes, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, topping four million copies in North America, there are a lot of them—were whiling away the time fantasy-casting for the upcoming movie version. (The current favourite to play the 16-year-old heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is Kick-Ass’s Hit-Girl, Chloe Moretz, 13, who should be able to look the part by the time filming begins.) And then there are the celebrity endorsements: although there isn’t a sexy bloodsucker to be found, vampire queens Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) and True Blood’s Charlaine Harris, not to mention horror master Stephen King, are all serious devotees.
There is, in fact, nothing supernatural about The Hunger Games’s grimly dystopian world. Sometime after a future destruction of North America, the nation of Panem consists of the ruling Capitol (somewhere near the Rockies) and 12 poorer outlying districts. In a reprise of the myth of Theseus—in which, every nine years, the city of Athens had to send seven girls and seven boys to be devoured by the Minotaur on Crete—every year each district sends one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games, a televised event where the so-called tributes fight to the death until only one remains. The purpose behind this for the Capitol’s ruling clique is the same one Collins, a veteran children’s writer (for TV and print) and mother of two, ascribes to King Minos of Crete in the Theseus story: terror. “He was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ ”
The series opens with Katniss, a fatherless girl and expert hunter from Appalachia (District 12) becoming a tribute—for love, since she volunteers to take the place of her randomly chosen sister. And surviving it too by love, or perhaps a facsimile thereof. In another echo of the story of Theseus, who was only able to win against the Minotaur because of the help of lovestruck Ariadne, whom he later abandons on an island, a conflicted Katniss is far from sure when she declares her love for the Appalachian boy tribute, Peeta—who does love her. The two refuse to fight to the death and threaten suicide, in a successful bid to force the Capitol, under audience pressure, to declare them joint winners. By the second novel, Peeta has a rival (Katniss’s old friend, Gale) for the heroine’s affections, while the act of defiance in the arena has sparked rebellion in Panem, threatening Katniss’s life again.
It’s unlikely that many of Collins’s readers have classical allusions uppermost in their minds. Her many adult fans appreciate, for themselves and for their daughters, the themes of standing up to oppression, and the necessity—and risk—of trust. Teen readers, judging by the online fan fiction, and the reasonably polite—compared to Twilight’s Team Edward vs. Team Jacob battles—exchanges between Team Peeta and Team Gale, are most interested in the possible romantic resolutions Mockingjay will finally deliver. Whether the protagonists are vampires or gladiators, some things never change.