Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Bachelor & The Hunger Games

If you haven’t read this runaway successful novel, I’ll fill you in. The story follows the brave and unexpected adventure of a teenage girl named Katniss. She lives in a futuristic society that also seems slightly medieval. This is a world of oppression, where the government cruelly orchestrates the lives of ordinary people. Katniss struggles to provide for her mother and younger sister by illegally hunting.

What she doesn’t realize is that she is soon to be hunted herself.
The governing body has ruled that every year there will be an event called The Reaping. On that day, one boy and one girl from every district is entered into The Hunger Games – a deadly event that requires contenders to fight to the death.

The Reaping reminded the English teacher in me of Shirley Jackson’s chilling story “The Lottery”, while the Games themselves were reminiscent of Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” The act of hunting becomes a gritty reality when the hunter and hunted are both human and can think and reason and strategize.

But there was one other disturbing (and much less sophisticated) comparison that kept ringing through my mind at the end of the book.  I kept thinking about our national obsession with reality tv.
During the entire hunt, Katniss and the others are filmed and recorded clips of their struggle to stay alive are broadcast for the entertainment of the entire country. Viewers delight in the fighting, mishaps, feuds, alliances (kept and broken), and, of course, the possibility of romance. The government knows that high drama will mean high viewership and revenue for the games – so The Capital encourages and orchestrates drama of any kind.

Not so unlike our reality television shows. Take The Bachelor, for example. In this non-violent, Hollywood-produced show, 25 women are tasked with “hunting” one desirable bachelor. Their objective is clear (to win at all costs) and the game is carefully controlled by the producers – there is even a disclaimer (if you notice it) that says the producers have the right to decide who stays or goes.  

Viewers know that controversial contestants seem guaranteed to stay around for awhile. After all, people will tune in to see what this loose cannon will do or say next. Extreme reactions of joy or sorrow or frustration are filmed for the world to see. When someone breaks down after being sent home, the social media boards light up with reactions.

In reality shows like Survivor, The Bachelor, or the original MTV’s The Real World, there are sets of rules that create a sort of altered reality – and all of the contestants must accept them to participate. They give up privacy, are transported to unlikely settings, forced to interact with a diverse group of other contestants, and must allow every action to be filmed.  Just like in The Hunger Games, the producers can, and often do, change the rules at any time, introducing new problematic situations to heighten the drama.
The closing section of the novel struck me as weirdly aligned with The Bachelor: After the Final Rose when the victor is forced to watch a blow by blow of the “reality” they had just encountered. And, just like the real life Bachelor couples who fall apart from the strains of daily life, the end of The Hunger Games leaves us questioning whether what happened was just a game after all.

The Hunger Games asks important questions about what we will do in contrived, manipulated circumstances. Will we join the competition and win at all costs? Or, will we make wise and brave and honorable choices, even if they cost us the win?
But, perhaps the book also questions our latest obsession with televised games that mimic real life. The scary part of reality television, is that we can become just like the voracious viewers of The Hunger Games – relishing in the missteps of others…. desiring only to be entertained…even when what happens is affecting the lives of actual people.