How does The Hunger Games compare to other classic stories of children fighting children?

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.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay



  1. Scheduling the annual high school massacre
  2. The Hunger Games
  3. A lesson from another story
  4. Reviews
  5. 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.


Lord of The Flies

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.

The Kobayashi Maru (novel, 1989)

(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).

Tunnel in the Sky

(4)  Reviews

(a) See all posts of book and film reviews.

(b)  Of the Hunger Games:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014
  2. An insightful review of “Catching Fire” (if only our spirits were so ignitable), 2 November 2014

(c)  Of Tunnel in the Sky:

(d)  About Heinlein:

(5)  The trailer for “Mockingjay”




9 thoughts on “How does The Hunger Games compare to other classic stories of children fighting children?”

  1. As FM has pointed out, Heinlein’s fiction is about as credible as Batman or Superman comics. Tunnel In the Sky offers a delusional libertarian fantasy. Out here in the real world, children provided with weapons and left without adult supervision would slaughter each other until only one was left, as in the real story of H. M. S. Bounty.

    Heinlein’s libertarian delusions fail to survive the harsh glare of peer-reviewed scientific research:

    …research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s.

    An understanding of how the brain of an adolescent is changing may help explain a puzzling contradiction of adolescence: young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous age. Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages.

    Source: NIMH white paper: “The teen brain: still under construction.”

    Sending adolescents, whose brains still haven’t filled in the crucial networks required to appreciate the consequnces of one’s action, out into a wilderness armed with lethal weapons and no adult supervision, is absolute lunacy.

    1. Thomas,

      While agree about Heinlein’s later libertarian fantasies (eg, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), his early works were better grounded. Tunnel in the Sky features people in their late teens and early 20s (senior in high school or college) under conditions they have been expressly trained for. Sending them on such an exercise is imo daft, but that they were able to survive and prosper is not.

      As for age, imo we infantilize our young adults, which accounts for much of their child-like behavior. Nelson was a lieutenant at 19, and commanding a ship at 20. At 21 Andrew Jackson was the Solicitor (attorney general) of the Western District in Tennessee. Our West saw 18 year olds leading herds of cattle along distant trails. Men and women routinely married and started families at 16 and 17.

  2. I rarely see J.G. Ballard’s stories mentioned when it comes to using literary themes to describe current events, yet I find that his stories are for me the most fertile in this regard.

    While none of his stories, as far as I can tell, specifically involve “children fighting children,” some of them may be of interest as far as counterpoint:


    “The Intensive Care Unit” – individual family members live in separate cubicles according to the dictates of society. A mother and father go through the trouble of physically meeting with one another and their kids (prior to this they had all met over a sort of Skype). After an indefinite period of humanity living in isolation, the results are positively wicked as the family, when it meets in person, physically rips itself apart.

    “The Concentration City” – an adolescent or teenage boy dreams of free space in a world that has become overgrown with industrialization. To everyone else the concept of “free space” is an absurdity. So he gets on a train and rides it until he ends up right back where he started. No one will believe him (they forgot the world was round). Note: this story is an absolute masterpiece.

    “Thirteen to Centaurus” – a few families are on board what appears to be a generational, interstellar ship. It is actually an experiment to see how they would fare. A precocious boy sees through the façade – literally, as a deceased member who had died had some time ago showed him the aperture from which the hangar housing the ship could be viewed.

    “The Intensive Care Unit” shows children brutally fighting adults after an unsuccessful socialization process. The other two stories portray boys who have a radical, life changing insight into reality that seems insane, because unthinkable, to everyone else – for every other character to draw out their conclusions would be too difficult or threatening to their status.

    If youth=rebellion and old age=conformity, these themes are coherent with one another & with “The Hunger Games” (as YA literature) as well. It’s like the kids are asking themselves: “Where are the rebellious grownups? ARE there rebellious grownups?” What is required is merely a simple form of rebellion in the sense of the ability to be open-minded and open-hearted, which in itself seems to have become difficult in this day and age.

    While the “Hunger Games” as a fictional event involve children fighting children, the series itself progresses to children fighting adults and ends up with adults fighting each other as the children have become adults.

    Also (from wikipedia): “David Sexton of The Evening Standard compared The Hunger Games unfavourably to Kinji Fukasaku’s Japanese film Battle Royale, as did several other critics.”

    I would like to futher note that the Japanese film “Battle Royale” is of atrociously poor quality; it’s on Netflix, if you can watch more than 1/3 of it you have more endurance for bad art than I.

  3. The sheer magnitude of delusion and self-deception by both FM and Robert Heinlein remains startling.

    Let’s recall what Heinlein’s little piece of libertarian propaganda actually says, shall we? Around 100 horny adolescents get dumped on an alien planet, 2/3 of them adolescent boys with raging hormones…and we’re told their first order of business is — to pass laws, write a constitution, and elect leaders!

    After you get finished laughing, take a look at what actually happens when large numbers of adolescent boys and girls get left to their own devices without adult supervision.

    “The Lost Children of Rockdale County,” PBS FRONTLINE documentary, aired 18 October 1999.

    Heinlein describes a society in which 2/3 of the population are adolescent males, 1/3 adolescent girls, and in which the boys and girls pair up after a few months, leaving half the adolescent boys with no prospect of any sexual contact for the rest of their lives. Heinlein then blithely depicts the boys tolerating this situation with no problem, and no violence.

    Out here in the real world, we have a real-world analogue of Heinlein’s imaginary society: China, with its one-child policy.

    In China, traditional son preference combined with modern sex selection technology
    and the one-child policy has resulted in high and rising sex ratios (males to females)
    at birth since the 1980s. In 2005, 120 boys were born for every 100 girls in China,
    a surplus of one million boys in that cohort alone. Unprecedented in its scale, the
    social implications of a large number of men with little or no prospect of marriage are
    largely unknown. In this paper, we look at crime rates, which nearly doubled in the
    last two decades, and argue that male-biased sex ratios have contributed to this rise.

    Source: “Sex Ratios and Crime: Evidence From China,” UC Berkeley Institutions and Governance white paper, 2009.

    We now end this unwanted interruption of reality and return you to the fantasy world depicted by Robert A. Heinlein and gullibly endorsed by FM and Heinlein’s foolish readers.

    1. Thomas,

      Your comment makes no sense whatsoever.

      (1) no, making laws was not the first thing they did. It was an activity in the settlement during the evenings, when there was not much else to do. Heinlein clearly describes the meetings and committees as partially entertainment.

      (2) you believe that the existence of a school shooting — an extraordinary event even in America — tells us something about the behavior of a carefully selected and trained group of students (most of whom were in college, and not adolescents)? Weird, very weird reasoning.

      (3) what is the relationship of China’s sex selection to Heinlein’s story?

  4. Clearly FM didn’t bother to read the transcript of the PBS FRONTLINE special “The Lost Children of Rockdale County.” The kids were having indiscriminate group sex and get drunk because they were left alone and not supervised by adults.

    Anyone who thinks the same thing wouldn’t happen to a bunch of horny adolescents dumped on an alien planet and abandoned by adults is dreaming.

    And the obvious end result would be jealousy and violence from the half of the horny adolescent males locked out of sexual access to the 1/3 of the females, resultin gin ever-escalating internecine violence until you wound up with one guy left alive.

    1. Thomas,

      “Anyone who thinks the same thing wouldn’t happen to a bunch of horny adolescents dumped on an alien planet and abandoned by adults is dreaming. ”

      There’s no arguing with reading FAILs. Again, these were not “horny adolescents dumped and abandoned”, there were carefully trained students operating under the conditions there were trained for. Most were in college, and so not adolescents. While we infantize people 18-20, there were considered full adults by almost every society in history.

      As for the PBS documentary, that’s an absurd comparison:

      “‘The Lost Children of Rockdale County‘ explores how a 1996 syphilis outbreak in a well-off Atlanta suburb affected over 200 teenagers and revealed their lives unknown to parents: group sex, binge drinking, drugs and violence. Some were as young as twelve and thirteen years old.” These sensational reports about teenagers’ sexual behavior have been a staple of western culture for 2 centuries. Oh My God, look at what the children are doing! It’s the Apocalypse! Clickbait.

  5. It’s now clear that FM is living in a dreamland along with Robert Heinlein and his readers. Obviously no amount of facts will dissuade the self-deluded from their delusions, so let’s just lay out clearly and simply what would actually happen with a bunch of horny teenagers dumped onto a planet with 2/3 boys, 1/3 girls, and everyone armed to the teeth with either guns or knives.

    Back in my high school days, here’s the way things worked: some 16-year-old girl would hook up with some guy, then she’d get bored or manipulative or just pissed off, so she’d dump the original guy she was fucking and hook up with some other guy. The original guy would get angry and slam her new boyfriend in the face until some teacher broke it up. Rinse, wash, repeat. This is how teenagers operate. Their brains aren’t fully mature (first scientific article I cited, which FM will predictably and falsely dismiss as “clickbait”) and teenagers’s brains up about age 22 don’t process the consequences of their actions. Standard stuff, I’ve seen this a million times — some teenager playing soccer darts out into the middle of racing traffic to get a soccer ball in the street. The possibility that the cars might run hi/r down never seems to enter their little minds. That’s how teenagers’ brains work, and science confirms it.

    So now we’ve got a bunch of horny teenagers on a hostile planet armed with guns or knives. half of the boys don’t have girlfriends and no access to a girlfriend, while the rest of the kids are fucking like bunnies. What do you think will happen? Three guesses. Obviously when some 16-year-old girl gets bored or pissed or manipulative and breaks up with her boyfriend to hookup with one of the boys who’s locked out having a girlfriend because of the sex ratio (2 boys for ever girl), the original boyfriend will go berserk. Only this time there are no adults to intervene. And the boy has a gun. What do you think will happen? You know what will happen just as well as I do. There will be an epidemic of violence resulting form the massive imbalance of boys to girls (my second scientific article, which FM will once again dismiss as “clickbait.”).

    The entire community will quickly unravel into serial killings over girls by boys who have no access to girlfriend and the prospect of never having any for the rest of their lives. With everyone armed with guns or knives, it won’t take long for the entire 100-odd boys and girls to be reduced to a couple of survivors after all the serial sexual-jealousy killings.

    This in fact is exactly what happened on Easter Island to the Bounty crew and Tahitian islanders they brought with them. At the end, there was exactly one male survivor. All the other men killed one another.

    FM obviously loves and adores and worships Heinlein’s ludicrous libertarian fantasy, because it shows American teenagers as noble mini-Solons sagely creating an Athenian state in the wilderness. Again and again FM emphasizes that “these are not horny teenagers, most of them are college students.” Let’s take a look at how college students behave:

    “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone, 2014:

    Drew ushered Jackie into a bedroom, shutting the door behind them. The room was pitch-black inside. Jackie blindly turned toward Drew, uttering his name. At that same moment, she says, she detected movement in the room – and felt someone bump into her. Jackie began to scream.

    “Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn’t some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they’d return to the party.

    “Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

    She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men’s heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on.

    As the last man sank onto her, Jackie was startled to recognize him: He attended her tiny anthropology discussion group. He looked like he was going to cry or puke as he told the crowd he couldn’t get it up. “Pussy!” the other men jeered. “What, she’s not hot enough for you?” Then they egged him on: “Don’t you want to be a brother?” “We all had to do it, so you do, too.” Someone handed her classmate a beer bottle. Jackie stared at the young man, silently begging him not to go through with it. And as he shoved the bottle into her, Jackie fell into a stupor, mentally untethering from the brutal tableau, her mind leaving behind the bleeding body under assault on the floor.

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