Summary: As we watch “Mockingjay”, the 3rd movie in the Hunger Games series, let’s compare Suzanne Collins’ books to the other classics of children fighting children — Lord of the Flies (William Golding , 1954) and Tunnel in the Sky (Robert Heinlein, 1955). Children fighting for their lives against other children, a gripping story-telling motif these authors use to illustrate the nature of a society — or even of humanity. Each paints different possibilities for our future.
- Scheduling the annual high school massacre
- The Hunger Games
- A lesson from another story
- The trailer for “Mockingjay”
(1) Scheduling the annual high school massacre
These three books show children at war with one another. The first two show children as castaways, thrown into nature from adults and society. Unlike Hobbs — life without society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — in Lord of the Flies Golding shows that children are not solitary, and naturally form gangs. Unfortunately Hobbs got the rest correct; gang life is, as seen on the island (and in US inner cities) “poor, nasty, brutish” and often “short”. Order is restored only by the return of authority. The children (and perhaps, by extension, the mass public) cannot do it on their own.
Critics often describe Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky as a rebuttal to Golding, but these books describes very different conditions. The children in Tunnel have been trained to live on the interstellar frontier. To get their certificates, as its final exam each class spends 2 to 10 days on a wild planet with whatever gear they can carry (plus the even more valuable knowledge in their minds).
It’s a daft scenario. Imagine students from your high school armed with their weapons of choice and dumped as individuals in the wild without supervision or even observation. Blood would flow in revenge for years of insults and abuse, retribution by ambush without mercy. See this list of school shootings in America; imagine making these easy, even routine. If that wasn’t motive enough, every student is a WalMart for anyone amoral enough to kill from behind.
How does the school compose the telegrams to the parents, afterwards?
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Your son/daughter failed the test by dying. Regrets.
Written for young adults, Heinlein’s story tells of no revenge killings (don’t give the kids bad ideas). Still, in his telling the first murder-theft happens minutes after arrival, to an unwise but expensively-equipped boy. The teachers warned the students that their peers were the greatest threat (fiction foreshadowing our “shooter on campus” drills).
A nova disrupts the tunnel to the stars, so the students cannot return. Stranded, they apply their lessons and organize a colony. Civilization restored, the killing stops and they begin to accumulate “wealth” (i.e., better equipment, improved tech). Their training and social capital (plus their greater age) produces different outcomes than in Golding’s book. As in Lord of the Flies, adults eventually arrive and bring everybody home.
(2) The Hunger Games
A lottery randomly selects children as “tributes”. The games require a fight to the death, preventing effective cooperation. The games are totally controlled by adults, making this scenario quite unlike those in the first two books. Even when the games are subverted in Catching Fire, students are pawns and adults run the show. The conflict among children is superficially natural and Hobbesian, but in fact completely serving political goals of adults outside the games. In a sense, the survival test of Tunnel in the Sky and the bloody spectacle of the Hunger Games both reflect mad dynamics of their societies, as in neither book are the test/games a very rational means to the alleged ends.
(3) A lesson from Star Trek
In Julia Ecklar’s The Kobayashi Maru (1989) we learn of about Star Fleet Academy. As in Tunnel (and Ender’s Game) Star Fleet subjects its students to intensely stressful training programs. But even the most carefully designed, elaborately staged training exercises run differently when one of the participants is James T Kirk.
The staff arms the students with phasers and sends them into a dark and deserted base, after warning them of a armed foe ahead. This strips the students of their organization, their feeling of strength and superiority — reducing them to isolated pawns stumbling around in the dark. Shooting at shadows, and each other. They’ll know uncertainty and fear. They’d learn useful lessons about themselves.
That was the plan. As so many others learn in future years, the staff’s intentions didn’t survive the collision with Kirk. He saw what would happen, and deemed this a foolish outcome (considering what the Academy intended didn’t occur to him). The odds of one student changing the outcome would seem small, but — as in real life — power lies in an individual’s vision and ability to lead others. He took some friends to the head of the line, and disarmed each student as they entered the installation.
The staff gathered to watch the fun (professionally, not for enjoyment as in the Hunger Games), but instead saw the students gathered together in the cafeteria. Peacefully. Chaos averted. It’s what Kirk does throughout his career.
Civilization is the maintenance of order. The Star Trek universe describes a different world than that of Golding, Heinlein, and Collins. It’s a vision of what we can do, without recourse to external authority (our ruling elites, parents of our society), without the need for hobbesian social mechanisms (children fighting children, no health care for the working poor). We can build a better society. It takes vision, and a willingness to work together for a common goal — qualities current events suggest we have lost (but can find within ourselves, again).
(a) See all posts of book and film reviews.
(b) Of the Hunger Games:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014
- An insightful review of “Catching Fire” (if only our spirits were so ignitable), 2 November 2014
(c) Of Tunnel in the Sky:
- “Beware of stobor!: Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky“, Jo Walton, Tor.com, 14 November 2011
(d) About Heinlein:
- “Heinlein’s Female Troubles“, M. G. LORD, New York Times, 2 October 2005
(5) The trailer for “Mockingjay”