'The Hunger Games': How reality TV explains the YA sensation

hunger-gamesImage Credit: CBS/Landov; FoxThe Hunger Games is an incisive satire of reality television shows. It’s easy to compare Suzanne Collins’ series to earlier “totalitarian government/media bloodsport” stories like The Running Man and Battle Royale. But there’s a key difference. In those earlier most-dangerous-game stories, the bloodsports were essentially ghoulish game shows (the film version of Running Man made this explicit by casting Family Feud host Richard Dawson the villain.) But The Hunger Games was written in a very different media context. Collins has discussed how the initial spur for the series came when she was channel-flipping between war coverage and reality TV. Just consider how effectively Collins weaves so many reality TV tropes into her story:

The Makeover: One of the great running subplots on American Idol is the steady Hollywood-ization of the contestants over the course of a season. Remember when Clay Aiken had glasses? Or when Adam Lambert didn’t wear guyliner? Practically the first third of Games focuses on a similar makeover process, including a full-body wax.

The Dress: What’s a makeover without some new clothes? One of Katniss’ closest allies is Cinna, her Alexander-McQueen-esque stylist. In stark contrast to the flighty prep team, Cinna is a semi-heroic figure in Games. Cinna almost seems like a contestant on a fascist version of Project Runway, using Katniss’ outfits as a vehicle to express potentially dangerous ideas.

The Showmance: “Showmance,” in its most cynical definition, refers a fake reality-TV romance created to aid the two contestants’ gameplay. That’s a pretty apt summation of Katniss’ forced flirtation with Peeta in Hunger Games. (Sure, Peeta thinks the romance is real, but as everyone who’s ever watched The Bachelor can attest, a good showmance always needs a sap.) SPOILER ALERT IN QUESTION FORM: Since Peeta and Katniss win/survive two separate Games, are they basically Panem’s version Boston Rob and Amber?

The All-Star Edition: Catching Fire focuses on the Quarter Quell, a special edition of the Hunger Games, in which former winners come back and compete. Practically every major reality show has had an “All-Stars” edition, but the Quarter Quell most resembles MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge, the mash-up franchise in which old enemies and ex-lovers engage in sub-Wipeout feats of strength.

The Host: Caesar Flickerman is the ageless TV host who interviews all the tributes before they go into the arena. Crazy suits, perma-tan, smile etched in his face: He’s basically Ryan Seacrest in forty years. (Heck, he’s Ryan Seacrest tomorrow.)

Readers, did you spot other reality show tropes in The Hunger Games? Are the Gamemakers like the Judges? Does that make Plutarch Heavensbee Panem’s version of Simon Cowell?

Comments (70 total) Add your comment
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  • Scott

    The Long Walk (also Richard Bachman/Stephen King, like The Running Man) is and always will be my favorite “media bloodsport” story. Hopefully it’ll get some recognition now that this type of story is getting popular. :)

    • PTB

      I agree. I love that story. I wish they’d figure a way to make a series out of it but I guess walking and talking is just too boring.

      • Scott

        If I recall correctly, Frank Darabont has the rights to do a movie of it but he’s finishing up a couple of other things first. I really hope he gets to it – with the right people and the right script it could be really good, even if it is just walking and talking. I have faith in Darabont! ;)

    • C

      ITA!! So glad someone else recognizes it. I love how it gets into the characters’ heads.

  • Joseph

    I love this blog. I am reading Catching Fire right now and just finished The Hunger Games. This blog is spot on. I really pity the players in the reality show like Katniss & Pita. Just for the sole purpose of entertainment.

    • Paden

      Actually, it’s not really spot on, though the story does resemble those aspects of reality tv competitions and such, the focus of the series is on the oppression of the districts by the capitol, the mental and emotional struggle of the characters, and the beginnings of rebellion and how small actions can have a huge influence in such things.

      • Plato

        Remember “Kid Nation”? It seemed like the producers were trying to create a real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

    • Lucy

      Hey its PEETA not PITA!!! I hate it when people get his name wrong.

  • ak

    so true. i think these books are brilliant, actually, and i try to explain them with some of your points above, and with a post-apoco spin. when the parachutes came in with gifts, i couldn’t help but think of the survivor contestants who get “rewarded” for winning a challenge with a little slice of home: a videoed greeting, perhaps. dovetails nicely with the bread from peeta’s district.

    • nodnarb

      The parachutes sorta annoyed me. She didn’t explain how they just popped out of nowhere!

      • Tiff

        Yeah, that was one of the many unexplained things in the series

      • Heather

        It was not unexplained – a district or some individual people would pay for it/sponsor it – then I guess the Games people would ship it in.

      • nodnarb

        How did they “ship it in”? That’s the part that’s not explained.

      • MoMama

        Remember how silently the hovercrafts would fly down when they picked up the dead? I assumed they had some smaller version to bring in the “gifts”.

      • dicalcious

        The best part of reading a book is using your imagination. Some things just don’t need to be explained.

      • nodnarb

        Could you be any more condescending? Yes, imagining what characters look like is enjoyable… but understanding how key plot points work typically requires some exposition.

      • Carrie

        That part didn’t bother me at all. If the Gamemakers can change the weather in the arena, shoot fireballs at the tributes, create a wall of fire, drain the lakes, etc., they would have no problem delivering little parachutes to the tributes. Think of all the animal hybrids they created at the Capitol and the miracle cures. They basically brought Peeta back from the dead. Those little parachutes are not the biggest head scratcher.

      • Jessica

        It’s a P2C2E :D

        …google it if you dont get the reference haha

      • Sookie

        The arena where the games take place is a man made structure created by the gameskeepers. They control the whole area so there is no reason that they couldn’t drop in parachutes. Just like they can change the environment when they want to likes starting a fire to herd the contestants together.

      • Leila

        How the parachutes get to the contestants is not a key part of the story that needs explaining. Most of the arena is a mystery. The gamemakers have complete control over what goes on in there. That includes the parachutes. So how they get in there is nowhere near important as what is going on in the arena.
        The great thing about reading is, you get to figure things out on your own! How dull and completely unnecessary would it be to have every little thing explained in a book.

  • Anitamargarita

    How tributes team up at first to screw over everyone else only to end up double-crossing each other, which is straight off Survivor.

  • nodnarb

    Alliances are formed during the hunger games, just like on Survivor. In fact, I think Survivor is probably the most influential reality show on these books because the contestants have to find food and water, make camp, etc.

  • la

    I only watched the movie for Battle Royale, not read the book, so can someone explain to me why Battle Royale is considered a “game show”? From the movie, it looked to be more a harsh “lesson” for the younger generation where the students are put into the scenario without their knowledge and against their will. Well, I guess it could be a “game show” if you consider being the last one alive to be the “prize”.

    • Ginny M

      Battle Royale wasn’t really a game show like Hunger Games was – In Hunger Games, the whole this was a sporting event, whereas in Battle Royale, it was a random bloodfest so the government could prove its superiority over the people. The winner was televised and awarded handsomely, but more like a Nobel Prize event.

      • Paden

        Actually in the HUnger Games it is an event put o n by the government in order to assert superiority over the districts, it was created after the dark days in order to show the districts that the capitol had absolute power over them, and they couldn’t fight back. Though it is treated as a sporting event, the entire point is to oppress the districts.

  • crystalj

    Ewwwww please don’t ever compare Peeta and Katniss with Boston Rob and Amber.

    • nikkido


    • jeanster

      Agreed, double.

  • Mary

    The home district token (her mockinjay pin)that they get to bring with them reminded me of Survivor. I don’t remember if Petra brought anything? I do know one girl tried to sneak in a pin that could shoot poison or something.
    I no longer watch Survivor,but when I did the players always got to bring “one” item to the island.

    • BPAX

      it was a ring that when you twisted it, spikes popped out.

    • Sarah

      The girl you’re thinking of had a ring that, when the gem was twisted, contained a spike to stab people with.
      We’re never told what Peeta’s was… use your imagination… :P

      • Veronika

        is the girl with the ring from the hunger games? i don’t remember that part from the book at all

      • Lauren

        Yes, that part is from the Hunger Games. Cinna mentions it when he is helping Katniss get ready to go into the arena. He gives her the pin, saying that it almost didn’t go through because some people thought she could unpin it and stab people, and then he says that the girl from District 1 got her ring taken away because when the gemstone was twisted, a poison spike was revealed.

      • Sadie

        The girl from District 1 (Glimmer) had her token taken away because if you twisted the gemstone on the ring, a poisoned spike popped out.
        She said that she didn’t know that it could transform but they confiscated it anyway. Katniss almost had her mockingjay pin taken away, as Cinna tells her right before she is launched, but it did make it through.
        The only people we know whose tokens were in the 74th Games are Katniss’s (the pin) Glimmer’s (the confiscated ring) and Rue’s (the necklace with the carved pendant) In one part of HG Katniss mentions that one girl a few years ago had a wooden ball as her token, so we only know a few.

  • Scott

    I am a high school librarian and I have over 50 students reading this book. They are enthralled with it. Our book club meeting (about this book) is this week. I am going to ask them their thoughts on this…

  • Scott

    BTW, I ripped through all three books in less than two and a half weeks. I found the third book, the most serious and the hardest to get through. Is this because of the lack of “reality game show” in the third book?

    • Meghan

      The third book was definitely the slowest, and the ending felt a bit rushed. I felt like the action should have been spread out further in the book, rather than cramming most of it in at the end.

    • BPAX

      yeah i completely agree about it being too rushed. i read it a little while ago, i think i’ll probably have to read it again.
      i think another thing, was the lack of relationship of katniss and peeta. i think it was all just so serious. it was still an awesome book, but yes i agree, not as good as the first two

      • ms black

        i haven’t finished mockingjay yet, i have about a 75 pages to go, but the whole strain between katniss and peeta is kind of the point to me. it’s awful, and lonely. and even when they are reunited it’s even more of a let down. i think it’s brilliant in its melancholy.

      • Nicole

        I agree with the others who felt the ending of Mockingjay was rushed. I was so disappointed because of how much I loved the Catching Fire and its plot pace. When Mockingjay ended I was left wondering why Gale would leave Katniss and move to another district and honestly why Peeta still seems so wholesome at the end (even though I loved him) and winning a new family. It was just so uneven.

      • Courtney

        I felt the reason katniss and gale had that fallout was very easy to understand. The never knowing if it was his bomb that killed her sister she couldn’t bare to think about and he knew that. That’s why He let her live in peace without him because no matter how much he loves her he knows she feels differently and he doesn’t want to hurt her anymore than what has already been done. The fact that he too doesn’t know if it was his bomb means he will never be able to prove to her it wasn’t and he knows she will always question it and he didn’t want it to be that way.

    • allie

      I agree with everything you, Meghan and BPAX said. It was the most difficult to get through and I think a lot of that was because of the lack of competition…. and the strain between Katniss and Peeta. I hated that!!!

    • Sookie

      Yes, the third book was just so depressing. But I did love the first one. The ending (with the berries)was just so perfect.

    • Leila

      The third book was the one that gave us a look that was closest to real life. How would you cope with all that Katniss and Peeta went through? How would you mentally deal with it?? Just because it was as action packed as you would have liked it, or as even spread out as you preferred, does not diminish the quality of the book. It was well written.

      When all that action happens with the attack on the Capitol, yes, it would be fast paced action with so many things happening at once. That’s what happens in real life. Pay attention or die. You can’t let yourself get distracted or you die. There was absolutely no need to know every single detail about where Gale was, or what the other leaders were doing and so on. That distracts and diminishes from what Katniss and her team are doing.

      Pay attention to what you read. It’s not just about YOUR entertainment. The amazing part about reading is how those characters come alive. What makes this series amazing, is how close to real the characters are. How the situations they are in can be such a possibility in our world.

  • Hillary

    Great points all around. I actually think Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, is a better analogy for Plutrach Heavensbee. I actually see Simon Cowell as more synonymous with Haymitch in terms of a tough love mentor type. The Victory Tour after the Hunger Games is also akin to reality show winners appearing on talk shows afterwards.

    • Veronika

      i agree with hillary!
      simon is a perfect match for haymitch!!!!<3

  • Sookie

    Of course the tributes have no choice to compete so in that way they are not like the reality stars whose motivation isn’t to stay alive but to become famous. After the games the winners do become celebrities and SPOILER we learn in the last book that they are forced into that also.

  • Veronika

    The book also sorta reminds me of that show on The Discovery Channel a little. Its called “The Colony” and they are in this sort of experiment where they have to live and survive as if they are living in a post apocalyptic world.

    oh and i think Christian Siriano would make a great comparison for Cinna!!!

  • jeanster

    Katniss and Peeta are better than Amber and Boston Rob.

  • Kerry

    so does this mean that they are turning the hunger games into a tv series??

    • Lauren

      No, but they are making a movie!

    • Yuri

      The Hunger Games may be a book tten qt the fifth or sixth grade reading level artlbrariiy, but at the same time, I have strong doubts that there even IS souch a thing as a fifth or sixth grade reading level today. I work with a lot of young teens and Tweens sometimes when a show I am in has a large ensemble of children, such as Jsus Christ Superatar, and I get to observe what the kids are into these days. At that age, it is RARELY reading. Kids just aren’t reading as much. Harry Potter gave us a generation that would read but would often onl read that one thing. Kids today don’t have ONE BIG BOOK the way our era did.

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