Table of Contents
2 Content Analysis
2.1 Terror system
3 Analysis from the Point of View of Teaching English as a Foreign Language
4 Teaching Activities
4.1 Pre-reading activity
4.2 While-reading activity
4.3 Post-reading activity
The first novel of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy was first published in 2008 and “[e]ver since [it] became a bestseller, a veritable wave of ‘dystopian young adult’ fiction has been hitting novelsellers’ shelves and cinemas’ screens” (Lehnen, 2015, p. 65) because it was new to the readers after Potter- and Twilightmania. The trilogy consists of the novels The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. The first novel was translated into 53 languages (c.f. Scholastic.com) and according to its huge success the whole trilogy was adapted for cinemas since 2012. The films have grossed over $3 billion dollars and Collins’ world is increasing its profit with theme parks and special attractions (c.f. ibid.). Moreover, it spent more than 260 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has also been number one of the USA Today bestseller list (c.f. ibid.).
The Hunger Games is about a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen who lives in a future America. Wars have destroyed the USA and the country is now called Panem which is divided into 13 districts and the Capitol. Every year each district has to send a girl and a boy, called tributes, to the Capitol where they have to fight for their lives against the other tributes in an arena. Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen as tribute and Katniss immediately volunteers to protect her. Throughout the story one can find several similarities to Collins’ own life like her father who was born in the great depression during the 1930’s and therefore had to go hunting in the woods to provide for his family (c.f. Henthorne, 2012, p. 13). When Collins was a child her father was in the US Air Force and was stationed in West Point and Belgium. He also fought in Vietnam while his wife and children stayed at home worrying about his life (c.f. Henthorne, 2012, p. 13; Rauwerda, 2016, p. 172). According to his mission in the Vietnam war he told his children what caused a particular war and what makes wars necessary (c.f. Henthorne, pp. 14-16).
Collins graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. degree in theatre and telecommunications (c.f. ibid.) and worked afterwards for television. One evening while Collins was channel surfing on TV she got the idea for The Hunger Games: between a reality TV show and a news report on the Iraq war the idea of children fighting in an arena to the death while the whole country has to watch the show live on television came to her mind (c.f. Collins, 2008, introduction, p. 7). By writing The Hunger Games it was important to her to show the effects of war clearly and not to protect children from them. Moreover, she states that people nowadays are not that effected by war footage or pictures because most people do not know the people who are fighting in the war. In Collins’ opinion people became dull and she wanted to do something against this (c.f. Bibliostar.TV, 2012).
The Hunger Games deals with dystopian predictions about the present world and how it could look like in the future if people do not change their current behaviour. Discussions about the expansion of video surveillance because of extremism and the ongoing disempowerment of the democratic institutions for example in Turkey are highly ongoing. Therefore, it is important that students are able to assess societies and situations. Additionally, Collins places her criticism of society into a reality TV show with a thrilling story and fascinating characters which catches the students’ attention and increases their motivation to read the novel.
This paper wants to answer the question which central dystopian elements can be found in The Hunger Games and if and how this novel is suitable for the EFL1 2 classroom. Therefore, dystopian elements are briefly explained and their appearance in the novel is analysed. Afterwards, the novel itself is examined according to its chances and challenges for foreign language teaching. Lastly, possible teaching material on the novel is presented for a Leistungskurs in the German Oberstufe before coming to a conclusion.
2 Content Analysis
Dystopian fictions are essentially political, exploring particular social issues by setting up a horrific alternative world in which those issues figure largely. Many of these fictions present themselves as [...] warnings about the consequences of continuing certain policies or behaviors (Henthorne, 2012, p. 108) today.
According to Voigts and Boller dystopias also depict societal conflicts and dilemmas as well as corrupt media, totalitarian governments, social inequality, forced labour, dangerous sciences, foot shortages and propaganda (2015, pp. 411-413). Merkel defined six criteria of totalitarianism: an ideology, a single mass party, a terror system, a media and weapon monopoly and a central planed economy (c.f. 2004, p. 186). Therefore, Merkel’s criteria include the dystopian elements of corrupt media, forced labour, dangerous science, foot shortages and propaganda. Hence, this chapter focuses on the analysis of the dystopian elements which can be found in the novel by analysing the appearance of Merkel’s criteria of totalitarianism in The Hunger Games. Due to the limited length of this paper, the focus lays on the two most striking criteria which can be found in The Hunger Games: Firstly, the terror system and secondly, the propaganda, both used by the Capitol to control its citizens.
2.1 Terror system
A terror system is lead by the party, the secret service and the state apparatus (c.f. Merkel, 2004, p. 186). In Panem there is no party because President Snow owns absolute power. Katniss refers to “the people who rule our country” (Collins, 2008, p. 15) but throughout the story it becomes obvious that President Snow controls the whole system. He sets up the rules everyone in Panem has to follow under the illusion of peace keeping. Snow has got teams for the different tasks in Panem: The Gamemakers have to make the games work (c.f. ibid., p. 83) whereas the Peacekeepers have to ensure that the people in the districts follow Snow’s rules (c.f. ibid., p. 24). According to Merkel the mass party of a totalitarian regime is lead by a single leader (c.f. 2004, 186) who is in Panem’s case Coriolanus Snow.
Moreover, there are several rules which are set up to isolate people from different districts from each other. “The Capitol rules Panem primarily through division, pitting various individuals and groups against one another so as to make political opposition all but impossible” (Henthorne, 2012, p. 46). That is why it is forbidden to travel between the districts (c.f. Lehnen, 2015, p. 82) because every district should stand on its own. The isolation is supported by the games in which children from one district have to fight against children from other districts. By doing so people will always remember the one who has directly murdered their child and not putting the blame on the Capitol that has initialised the games which have killed their child.
Furthermore, the Capitol “also prevents people from identifying with those from other districts, from sympathizing with their plights and possibly making common cause with them“ (ibid., p. 47) by not only separating people from each other geographically but also socially and morally. Districts 1, 2 and 4 are the wealthier districts of Panem (c.f. Collins, 2008, p. 88) with District 1 making luxury items and District 4 doing fishing for the Capitol (c.f. ibid., pp. 65-67). The tributes from these districts differ from the other underfed tributes because they “have been fed and trained throughout their lives for this moment” (ibid., p. 88) and they want to participate in the games. Therefore, the people from poorer districts are pitted against the inhabitants from the wealthier ones because they have enough to eat, are in the Capitol’s favour and are most likely the ones to kill their children in the arena.
The Capitol itself is the embodiment of separation: while people in the districts are dying of starvation because they are not allowed to go hunting in the woods or to provide otherwise for themselves people in the Capitol only have to press a button and a whole cooked menu appears in front of them (c.f. ibid., p. 64). Although people in District 11 grow the food for the Capitol they are not allowed to eat it themselves because otherwise they are publicly whipped out (c.f. Collins, 2008, p. 177). Additionally, the peacekeepers in District 11 are much stricter than the ones in District 12 because one time they have killed a simple-minded child since he wanted to take a night vision gear with him (c.f. ibid., p. 178). This is done to demonstrate the Capitol’s power by showing the people that although they are starving and growing the food that could nourish them, they are not allowed to have it because it is reserved for the Capitol. Moreover, the people in the Capitol are completely different from the ones in the districts. They are more focused on their looks rather than on surviving, they speak in high pitch, do not really open their jaws while talking, their voices rise at the end of a sentence like in a question and they hiss on the letter ‘s’ (c.f. ibid., p. 61) by which they are portrayed as a different kind of species Besides the discrepancies between the districts, there is also hatred between people of the same district (c.f. Henthorne, 2012, p. 47) because they are admonished to observe their neighbours and friends whether they say something against the Capitol that could be seen as rebellious. Although Katniss walks around in the woods and only mutters something to herself, she worries: “Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you” (Collins, 2008, p. 15). Moreover, Katniss mentions that the discrepancies between the wealthier and poorer districts are also valid within the districts themselves. It is a “way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another” (ibid., p. 22). Without trust in each other people will never walk against the Capitol because they are too afraid of being betrayed by the ones who they allied with.
According to that, Panem’s power structure relies on separating its citizens. By doing so, Snow accomplishes two things: firstly, he makes it harder for people to coordinate a political response and secondly, he creates a unity in separation because the only thing that unites the people of Panem is their lack of basic human rights (c.f. Heit, 2015, p. 19) like equality, freedom and security. People are characterised by their districts rather than by themselves (c.f. Henthorne, 2012, p.116) to show them that they are nothing special and just chess pieces of the Capitol. That is why Peeta is afraid of being used by the Capitol before dying in the games (c.f. Collins, 2008, pp. 127-128).
Macaluso and McKenzie state that “Panem is not a totalitarian state” because its citizens have many options available which help them to survive (2014, pp. 103-107) but this statement does only partly fit to Panem’s society. In order to escape starvation, Katniss goes hunting in the woods but “could be whipped on a daily basis [... or] a whole lot worse” (Collins, 2008, p. 177). Therefore, traitors are killed, tortured or enslaved like the Avox girl and her friend who Katniss saw in the woods (c.f. ibid., p. 78). Avoxes are traitors whose tongues have been cut out (c.f. ibid., p. 74) to ensure that they are not able to pass on their rebellious thinking. They are “visual evidence of [the Capitol’s] ultimate authority” (Macaluso & McKenzie, 2014, p. 110). In addition to that, the Capitol killed the Avox girl’s friend to show her the Capitol’s power. She has to live on as a servant in the Capitol, not being able to talk about her experiences and always being remembered of what happens if one resists the Capitol.
The Hunger Games have been set up after the Dark Days in which the districts fought against the Capitol but lost the war (c.f. Collins, 2008, p. 25). The Dark Days are the reason why the districts are afraid of the Capitol and a new rebellion because they fear what might come afterwards if they lose again. The Capitol owns all weapons of Panem, or at least the strong ones like nuclear weapons with which the Capitol destroyed District 13 during the Dark Days. Therefore, the Capitol possesses the weapon monopoly and the districts only own the weapons they need for working like knives (c.f. ibid., p. 15). That is why children who are not from the wealthier districts are in a disadvantage because they only learn to handle weapons during the training sessions before the games. The games are televised to every district which leads to the next dystopian element that can be found in the novel: propaganda.
“In fact, I wonder if the Gamemakers are blocking out our conversation, because even though the information seems harmless, they don’t want people in different districts to know about one another” (Collins, 2008, p. 177) thinks Katniss while talking with Rue about their districts. This shows that the Gamemakers control which content is televised over the country and which has to be censored because people in Panem are forced to watch the Hunger Games. By that the Capitol ensures that its citizens remember how powerless they are compared to the Capitol. “We don’t wallow around in the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must” (Collins, 2008, p. 300) but for people in the Capitol it is just entertainment without realising that children are brutally killing each other. Katniss cannot stand this and is “sickened by their excitement, knowing [that] they [the citizens of the Capitol] can’t wait to watch us [the tributes] die” (ibid., pp. 59-60) because people in the Capitol watch the games with pleasure. For them the games are a reality TV show.
One of the main reasons for Collins to write The Hunger Games was that in her opinion people are desensitised for war and brutality (c.f. Bibliostar.TV, 2012) due to its representation on television. Since television turns “real events into distance, filtered images” (Shau Ming Tan, 2013, p. 66) the televised content loses its meaning. One sees people crying, suffering and being publicly humiliated on reality TV so that real suffering which is shown on the News does not affect people anymore (c.f. Henthorne, 2012, p. 95). Therefore, it “is this element of The Hunger Games that is most often cited as connecting Panem with contemporary society” (Lehnen, 2015, p. 66) and makes television Panem’s most important propaganda tool. The Capitol uses television to force its citizens into a specific way. By showing how tributes kill another tribute in a close up they ensure the rage of the districts against each other like already mentioned in chapter 2.1.
Although Katniss hates the games, she is rescued in the arena by the fact that the games are televised live several times. She understands Haymitch’s way of communication because she understands how television in Panem works. When she is in desperate need of water she knows that Haymitch is not sending her a bottle of it because she is near to it herself (c.f. Collins, 2008, p. 150). Moreover, Katniss knows how to play with the cameras when she knows what to do to make the audience think about her: “[...] I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I cock my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There! Let them figure out what that means!” (ibid., p. 146). Television is the reason why Peeta’s and Katniss’s love story works and why they both survive the Hunger Games. Without television Peeta’s and Katniss’s conversations in the arena would not be seen by the audience as well as their special abilities and they would not have been able to gain sponsors (c.f. ibid., p. 147). Additionally, Katniss knows how to turn the rules of the Hunger Games against the Gamemakers by betraying them of their victor who they desperately need to fulfil their task in the Capitol, otherwise, they would pay for it with their lives (c.f. ibid., p. 292).
1 Abbreviation TEFL (EFL): Teaching (English as a Foreign Language)
2 Model by Lothar Bredella that refers to changing perspectives, intercultural learning and understanding