There is an line that runs through the background of The Hunger Games, one that resonates through the history of “America” as a concept and an idea; it’s something akin to a love of nature, or even a wilderness ethic. This line pokes at the rough edges of American Romanticism, a notion as complicated as US history can possibly be, having produced a great deal of harm and violence in our national history, and also art that lives.
This wilderness ethic in The Hunger Games piques interest, existing as it does in Collins dystopian future in which Panem is run by a dictator who maintains total and violent control over his people. Collins’ America provokes something curious to a lover of both the actual wilderness and the idea of wild spaces, and something in these divided times I think should be wrestled with.
Most of the North American continent in The Hunger Games appears to have returned to wild control, with seemingly the entire West off the grid. Outside the districts is land untamed, and time in those spaces–when such time can be attained–is freedom from the hardship of day to day life. None of which is unusual in American literature. This is classic American Romanticism. Our historical stories present safety in society, but the literary character of the American is to leave that safety anyway. To venture past safe borders and into the unknown of nature, where lives excitement and danger.
Go West, young man!
This same appeal exists in the heart of The Hunger Games. But there’s a simple additive in Collins’ series: visits to the wild means not only finding peace with oneself; it is also a time to escape a dictatorial totalitarian government who performs the ritualistic murder of children, and the persistent suppression of its people. The dangers of the wilderness remain, but they are dwarfed by the costs of life in a totalitarian society.
The through-line plot of action in the books/movies is one of the least interesting elements of The Hunger Games. But there is a richness in the series—something I’ve noticed in other young adult series of late—which relies on a strong mixture of the attraction and danger of wild spaces, and the relation of that feeling to the government.
Not to overgeneralize (cue generalization) but writing and talking about American wilderness has become an inspirational enterprise. It’s a way to commodify the wilderness; tame it and sell it to the suburban populace who would of course love to get out camping again but who has the time.
This is not inherently to be criticized. Time is hard to come by, after all, and why should we criticize the desire to get back to the woods? But it seems that we are interested now in buying an over-simplified reduction of what the wild is really like, in order to put it on our walls, preferably with an inspirational quote about what the wilderness has to offer our soul.
Such simplification is part of our national identity. When we Europeans showed up on the new continent the woods were terrifying. William Bradford found a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men”. Though this interpretation may seem extreme, it is not hard to understand for, quite literally, going into the woods could mean death from any number of unknown causes. The fear of the untamed wild inspired Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and a host of other stories meant to remind us of the danger of the woods.
Such an impulse was understood and countered by the romantic Americans of the 19th century. And in the time since, we have set about taming the dangers of wild; either by killing it off, or developing suburbs on top of it.
We have gone too far in this direction. I celebrate our National Park System as among the greatest assets the American Government has ever given its citizens. But I worry that Ken Burns has transformed the parks from the opportunity to encounter the face of nature into an immovable photo collage of the past. Which is perhaps unfair, but the world is changing and our perceptions of wild spaces are too. If Thoreau went to woods to live deliberately, today we go to the woods to see nature served to us on a platter. What’s left of it, anyway.
How else to explain the rise of wilderness vacation packages? See it all from the comfort of your butt? And for record, I’m no different; I look at these packages and assure you that everyone one would move me.
There is contradiction here, of course, and it’s part of the character of the American identity. The Hunger Games taps a minor vein in that contradiction: Wild spaces should inspire us, but they should also make us at least a little afraid. Even, or especially, when our government makes us afraid. Humans are visitors to the wild spaces, and we are meant to be cautious. We are supposed to return to our civilization changed, better. Ready for the fight. We need to be ready, now, for that fight. Our batteries need charging, and the wilderness charges many batteries. My own included.
In a series about terror and fascism and propaganda, there still remains the undercurrent of that most American trait: the danger and sacredness of the woods outside our borders. Visit, sometimes.