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Roots of Dystopia (Another Hunger Games Post)

For those of us old enough to remember the year 1984, we can recall the discussions and hand-wringing as we compared our world with the future that had been prophesied by George Orwell in his novel 1984, written in 1948. I recall earnest discussions about the topic from casual conversations in public to stories on news programs. It was a time of anxiety in an era of anxiety. The threat of mutually assured destruction loomed as the US and the USSR maneuvered to wind down the Cold War. The new threat of terrorism and hijacking from rogue states in the Middle East and elsewhere had people on edge. Industrial pollution and environmental disasters had people wondering if their communities might be next. Amidst the anxiety and rumination, Neil Postman began writing his now classic critique of television and public discourse, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the foreword, Postman contrasts the dystopian futures presented by George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In the first, society is ruled over by the totalitarian big brother that always watches citizens and rules through a combination of propaganda and fear. In Huxley’s version the world is controlled not through brutality and coercion but through pleasure. Postman asserts that in the debate between Orwell and Huxley that Huxley got it right. In Postman’s estimation we have created a society that doesn’t need a dictator to control us or deprive us of our freedoms, because we will happily forfeit our freedoms to have them replaced by pleasure and trivial nonsense.

1984 and Brave New World stand as the most essential modern dystopian novels. Yes, there were dystopian visions before them like We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, but 1984 and Brave New World are the two models for the modern dystopian novel. There is a continuum for dystopias when using these two as models. On the one end, we have a future where we are controlled by that which we hate (as in 1984) and on the other end we have a future where we are controlled by what we love (as in Brave New World).

Where would The Hunger Games fall on this continuum? On the one hand, you definitely have a repressive regime in control. On the other hand, you have a lot of glamor and fanfare leading up to the games, not to mention the gladiatorial spectacle that must be thrilling for many in the districts. Just as the name of the fictional setting of The Hunger Games, “Panem,” suggests, the people are given both bread and circuses (panem et circenses). Perhaps for roots of the dystopian world of The Hunger Games, we need to cast our gaze farther back to ancient Rome.

— Joel Bruns is currently reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Zahra’s Paradise by Amir Kahlil

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Joel Bruns

I am a librarian who lives and works in Indiana. I love all outdoor activities (running, cycling, skiing, kayaking...).

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  1. i’ve heard a lot of good feedback in Hunger Games, no wonder a lot of people wants to see this on big screen. and i am one of those people who will go to cinema and witness it in action.

  2. Hunger Games is a good read, but lacks the dystopian credentials of Brave New World or 1984. The premise of Hunger Games had promise, but lacked the social impact of Orwell or Huxley. We don’t see our own society refelcted back in the pages of the fantasy society. I think that’s key for a meaningful dystopia.
    I wish the author showed us the road signs of how we got to this bad place and let the (young) reader see something about their own society in the process. Orwell and Huxley did that very well, but Hunger Games missed the mark there. Orwell and Huxley were entertaining, intellectual, and meaningful writers… Suzanne Collins work is a good read but terribly superficial.

    John G. Nelson
    Author of Against Nature

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