The Vanciana Suffusing “The Hunger Games”
(Page 2 of 3)
Regarding strategies for the “Game” itself, tactics and permutations are skillfully described by Vance, as if he were writing for the film!
Hadaul like all good games is characterized by complexity and the multiple levels upon which the game is played. [p.179] Conspiracy is an integral part of the game. Before the game starts the various roblers form alliances of offense or defense, which may or may not be honored. Tricks, crafty betrayal, duplicity are considered natural adjuncts to the game […]. Hadaul is a game of constant flux, constant surprise; no one game is ever like another. […] sometimes tempers are ignited by some flagrant act of falsity, and blood is wont to flow. [V.25, p.180-181]
Or, in the case of The Face, the hadaul Chief Referee declares: “The bout will be free; there are neither regulations nor limitations” [ibid. p.197], and the combatants then take up “double-edged blades almost a foot long” [ibid.].
We see all this transpire with the bloodbath at the beginning of Katniss’ Game, the expostulation by host Caesar Flickerman about “an alliance” he sees forming, about the apparent betrayal by co-tribute Peeta in joining forces against Katniss, the maiming of Peeta by this “alliance”, (Vance: “Some would attempt pre-agreed stratagems; others would betray the same” [ibid. p.185]), the unexpected payback at one critical juncture to Katniss by District 11’s last survivor out of deference for her alliance with Rue, a child from District 11.
Made very clear in the movie, gambling over the Games by the Capitol citizens is rampant. Salient is the preliminary posting of each tribute’s standing in odds. This is yet another feature consistent with Vance’s hadaul: “The spectators wager among themselves, or, at major hadauls, against mutualization agencies” [ibid. p.181].
Further still: the participants are put into a stupendous domed arena that to a Vance enthusiast surely conjures an image of the Glass Box from Vance’s book The Dirdir: “ahead stood the Glass Box, dwarfing all else. Reith began to suffer oppression of the spirit” [V.21, p.528].
[Adam Reith] asked, “What’s inside the Glass Box?” Anacho seemed surprised at his ignorance. “It’s a park, a simulation of old Sibol. Young Dirdir learn to hunt; others take exercise and relaxation. […] Criminals are the prey. There are rocks, Sibol vegetation, cliffs, caves; sometimes a man avoids the hunt for days.” [ibid. p.493]
The glass walls reared overhead like vitreous cliffs [p.529] […] There were low crags and rolling hills, thickets of harsh vegetation […] Below was a brackish pond, a thicket of hard white cactus-like growths; in the near distance stood a forest of bone-white spires identical in shape and size to the Dirdir residential towers. The similarity, thought Reith, could not be coincidental; on Sibol the Dirdir evidently inhabited hollow trees. [ibid. p.530]
Thus, Vancian echoes and resonances! – this time a Vance devotee may identify the Hunger Games and its colossal arena as an augmented Darsh hadaul played inside the Dirdir Glass Box!
(How teasingly interesting, too: there is a “coincidental similarity” – to playfully transpose Jack’s above words – for Katniss to often seek refuge in a tree. It calls to my mind young Glyneth from Suldren’s Garden effecting her successful escape “scrambling up the branches of a massive old oak tree” [V36, p.501]. Vance, parenthetically, is fondly partial to feature both immense trees and vast, enfolding forests, redolent of exactly what we enjoy in this film.)
Having cited all these Vance correspondences to The Hunger Games, my point is, to reiterate, that this plethora of Vanciana permeates The Hunger Games – by my perception – but of course that is not to claim that author Suzanne Collins was a Vance fan, or had ever read Vance, for I have no inkling as to any definite influence Vance had over her. Incontestably, all Collins’ characters and situations are wholly her own creations. My claim is simply that the film to me is evocatively Vancesque, even to a lavish superfluity!, so much that it could even be, to me, ‘as if’ it were some posited Vance novel brought loyally to the cinema.
However … if there were just one Vance novel that singularly strikes an amazing accord and bears surprising consilience, it would have to be Emphyrio.
Indeed, I tender a sub-thesis (corollary to the core thesis: The Hunger Games film is Vancesque), which is: The Hunger Games (film and books) have many fascinating, strong and striking parallels to Emphyrio, though characteristically harsher. Again, this is not to assert Collins ever read Emphyrio. (As an aside, it is interesting to consider that Emphyrio is a formative account going from childhood to young adulthood, a sort of bildungsroman, and since Collins is an established writer for young readers, Emphyrio would seem to be within the orbit of books that might have conceivably attracted her, though it is baseless to say that it did, or that she read it – nor do I.) To be clear, I explicitly contend Suzanne Collins is completely original to herself. But that does not preclude one original thing being likened to another original thing. For it is fair comment and criticism. It is also well to note that Emphyrio has always been held in high esteem and wide acclaim, and is not bad to be compared against! Indeed, the huge readership and vast film audiences who love The Hunger Games may very well greatly enjoy Emphyrio.
The foremost parallel between Emphyrio and The Hunger Games (film and books) concerns the protagonists and how they are symbols. Each story embroils its protagonist with public identification as a significant symbol, and one that is used in both cases for a subversive cause. This is central to both works. Both symbols are employed in an agitating and political function, both carry the import of sedition to a prevailing polity, (though always more seriously mutinous in the case of The Hunger Games, whereas initially in Emphyrio it is mere “tomfoolery”, though still contumacious). While of course not a perfect parallel in all respects, in both cases the symbol helps galvanize disaffection, rebellion and historic mass uprising, which in each story ultimately succeeds with the total usurpation of an oppressive regime.
Because of that symbol, both works are thematically aligned – Liberation from Domination – and share motifs that impinge at many points: both invoke the Young Adult as an Imperiled Individual attached to a symbol-identification, and who is instrumental in helping topple an oppressive regime. Such a theme embodies the plane of “The Hunger Games” series (though this is not to say it evinces no other themes!), and at that level it bears full intersection with Emphyrio. However, Vance’s beautiful novel Emphyrio is a gently philosophical sanctuary for a much deeper current on that theme: Truth is a necessary progenitor for Liberation. By the example of protagonist Ghyl Tarvoke’s life, his dedicated acquisition of Truth from the legend of “Emphyrio” is precisely what leads to liberation, to foster all concomitant freedoms & benefits for a repressed populace. It seems to me Collins’ “Hunger Gamers” saga does not quite walk along that profounder philosophic corridor.
Symbolism in this film is as yet muted, though a hint of its significance is brought a couple times to focus on the screen: by Cinna (couturier & stylist for Katniss) as a conspiratorial secret just prior to Katniss entering the arena, and by President Snow very subtlety malignly when he crowns Katniss as a Victor. As we noted with the trilogy Durdane, subsequent book titles can uphold an issue of crucial significance, and in the case of “The Hunger Games” series they markedly buttress that symbol’s importance. Book 2 is titled Catching Fire, a play on Katniss’ faux-fire dress in book 1 and her burgeoning importance in book 2 at inspiring the Districts as the very symbol of rebellion, outstandingly envisaged by Collins at the bombshell revelation of this symbol, the Mockingjay. (It is something I can’t wait so see handled by the second movie.) Book 3 is then entitled with summative transparency: Mockingjay – purely the symbol itself – on par with Vance’s use of his symbol – derived eponymously from the “legend of Emphyrio” – for the cessation of domination as his book’s title.
The film, as mentioned, doesn’t really yet explicate the symbolism of the Mockingjay, though its source-book has the legroom to do so:
They’re funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol. [Compare Emphyrio, the balloting of that name for Mayor is: “A thumb to the nose toward the Welfare Agency” V.20, p.110.] During the rebellion, the Capitol bred a series of genetically altered animals as weapons. […] One was a special bird called a jabberjay that had the ability to memorize and repeat whole human conversations. They were homing birds, exclusively male, that were released into regions where the Capitol’s enemies were known to be hiding. After the birds gathered words, they’d fly back to centers to be recorded. It took people awhile to realize what was going on in the districts, how private conversations were being transmitted. Then, of course, the rebels fed the Capitol endless lies, and the joke was on it. So the centers were shut down and the birds were abandoned to die off in the wild. Only they didn’t die off. Instead, the jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds, creating a whole new species that could replicate both bird whistles and human melodies. [HG.1, p.42-43]
[Revisited in book 2:] A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live. [HG.2, p.92]
In each work, assignment of the symbol to the young protagonist is not original with them but more inadvertent. Both protagonists are initially manipulated by others, though more so in The Hunger Games, for Vance’s protagonist is able to exert some control whereas Collins has her heroine immured in fairly uncontrollable circumstances. Both protagonists are initially reluctant but eventually accepting of the symbol’s application.
Floriel was becoming drunk. He laughed rather foolishly. “I say, elect Emphyrio, mythical hero or not!” [V.20, p.110] […] [The next day Nion Bohart surprises Ghyl:] “So we nominated you, under the cognomen ‘Emphyrio’.” Nion came forward, slapped Ghyl jovially on the back. “My lad, you may be the next Mayor!” [Ghyl:] “But – I don’t want to be Mayor!” [p.119]. [Eventually:] Gyhl said, “I have no objection – if one condition is met. […] That I am in control of the entire affair. You will have to take orders from me.” [p.120] […] Nion shrugged. “Whatever you say.” [p.121]
Without Katniss’ permission or even foreknowledge, she becomes linked beyond just carrying her mockingjay token: A shadow of recognition flickers across Caesar’s face, and I can tell he knows that the mockingjay isn’t just my token. That it’s come to symbolize so much more. […] resonating in an entirely different way throughout the districts. [HG.2, p.253] The significance […] will not be lost on President Snow [p.254].
Over time, both protagonists personally internalize their symbol, although in this case that is far truer within Emphyrio, which Vance reveals to readers in his book’s anachronistic first chapter.
For both protagonists there is a diffuse sense of their being fey or fate laden. It comes across well in the The Hunger Games film in how the movie makers revise Katniss receiving the Mockingjay pin: a gift tendered curiously free at the black-market “hob” from a far-seeing and mayhap oracular woman with kindly wizen eyes; Katniss gives it to her little sister Prim as a protective charm in answer to Prim’s dream premonition of being selected at the Reaping; after Prim’s presagement becomes true and Katniss volunteers to take her place, Prim in due course returns the pendant to Katniss, saying the words “To protect you”, which thus comprises a sort of full circle of fated actions. (The book is different: Mayor’s daughter Madge, written out of the film, gives it to Katniss at the point that the film has Prim give it to her; it is banal, and lacks all the touches of augury, protective charm, and any full circle of gifting, where the ‘charm’ must (as if in a sweet homage to Romanticism) fatefully wind-up with whom it was ‘meant’ for. Worse: in the book Katniss nearly forgets it[!]: “At the last minute I remember Madge’s little gold pin” [HG.1, p.42]. This is an instance where the film only, not the book series, finds its echo with Emphyrio.) Vance represents this fey or fated sense likewise early in his novel, directly after a brief chat between Amiante and his inquisitive child Ghyl about who was the novel’s historical “Emphyrio”:
They walked in silence. Then Ghyl asked, “What is it to be ‘fey’?”
Amiante scrutinized him curiously. “Where did you hear the word?”
“Holkerwoyd the puppet-master said I was fey.”
“Ah. I see. Well then. It means that you have about you the air of, let us say, important enterprise. That you shall be remarkable and do remarkable deeds.” [V.20, p.17]
Back to the topic of oppression: The populace of Ambroy is rigorously manipulated to labor sedulously within craft guilds, overseen by a meddling proctorship, and for this they receive trifling recompense from a cumbrous & impervious bureaucracy, but to the ultimate enrichment of only the remote surprise exploiters. This oppression stands in parallel to Districts residents being forced austerely to toil within their District specialty – mineral mining for District 12, agriculture for District 11, etc. – implacably tasked with an ironhand by the Capitol and for only the Capitol’s benefit; and while the District residents languish into abject poverty and destitution, Capitol citizens attain levels of luxuriance and overindulgence nearly approaching that which Vance consigned to his remote exploiters in Emphyrio.
Just as a Hunger Game is harsher than hadaul, oppression within The Hunger Games is more coercive and tyrannical than in Emphyrio. Young workers and artisans in Ambroy can apply at various guilds if so disposed (if there are openings), albeit remaining constrained under the enacted status quo, whereas District residents have no such freedom, for they are chained to their District’s assigned function via the accident of their birth.
Emphyrio is replete with examples of the grey drudgery of life in Ambroy; for example, Ghyle Travoke’s “usual routine: carving, polishing, a walk to the shop for food, eating, sleeping, more of the same. All for the sake of a monthly stipend!” [V.20, p.146]. The Hunger Games film conveys something of this bleak trudging, explicated by the book as: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” [HG.1, p. 4]. But harsher, life in District 12 is much more hazardous; the whole subtext early in the film of Katniss’ impatience with her mother is due to her mother having mentally “clock[ed] out” [ibid. p.35] when Katniss was 12, abandoning her at this specially vulnerable age (Reaping), after her husband (Katniss’ father) “was blown to bits in a mine explosion” [ibid. p.5]. (Here, HG.1 is helpful to clarify what the film must compact into a few brief lines, starting with Katniss’ hurried admonition to her mother: “You can’t tune-out again”. Still, the film’s assay is faithful to the book.)
And while the “recipients” of Ambroy are subject to pervasive drains on what little capital they have:
Amiante’s face took on a mulish cast, always the case when he spoke of voucher’s paid to the lords. “Meters are everywhere. Meters measure everything except the air you breathe. Even the sewage is metered. The Welfare Agency then withholds from each recipient, on a pro-rated basis of use, enough to pay the lords, together with enough to pay themselves and all other functionaries. Little enough is left for the recipients.” [V.20, p.58]
Deprivation for District 12 is far more grim:
Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. [HG.1, p.28]
In consonance, encounters with the affluent, splendiferous worlds out-of-reach to each protagonist present identical cultural shocks. For example in Emphyrio, when the roguish young lad Ghyl and his fellow rapscallions sneak into the space-yacht:
Visible only was the inside of the air-lock and, beyond, a tantalizing glimpse of carved wood, scarlet cloth, a rack of glass and metal implements: luxury almost too splendid to be real. […] They let out their breath slowly in delight and wonder. [V.21, p.42] The walls were paneled in gray-green sako-wood and tapestry cloth; the floor was covered with a thick purple rug. […] “Isn’t it marvelous?” breathed Floriel. “Do you think we’ll ever have a space-yacht? One as fine as this?” [p.43].
We observe this abundantly in The Hunger Games film when Katniss first boards the train and comes upon overflowing cornucopias of sweets & pastries and all the posh furnishings, and again when she is assigned to her opulent penthouse apartment, with its hyper-lavish furnishings. The book denotes this as well:
The tribute train is fancier than [anything she’s ever known]. We are each given our own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area, and a private bathroom with hot and cold running water. We don’t have hot water at home, unless we boil it. […] I’ve never had a shower before. It’s like being in a summer rain, only warmer. [HG.1, p.42]
Indeed, faithful to the book, the film depicts Katniss having to take a nineteenth century tub-bath at home when preparing for the Reaping. Such imposed pre-modern poverty accords bitingly with the standard of living in Ambroy:
Amiante, rising, took his plate to the wash-table where he scraped it very carefully and cleaned it with a minimum of water and sand. [V.21, p.57]
As another clear parallel, the very genesis and rationale for both of these oppressive regimes comprises near parity:
“Long ago there was a great war. Ambroy was left in ruins. The lords came here and spent many vouchers in reconstruction: a process called investment. They restored the facilities for the water supply, laid down the Overtrend tubes, and so forth. So now we pay for use of these facilities.” [V.20, p.23]
Thus: we have utter ruination brought by war, the externally furnished restoration, and the consequent imposed obligation. We can see The Hunger Games is alike to this model in outline:
It’s the same story every year. He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. He lists the disasters, [environmental calamities and] the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games. [HG.1, p.18]
Consistent with The Hunger Games being harsher, their obligation is flagrant punishment that is part of the on-going oppression of Districts, rather than the inexorable taxes imposed upon Ambroy “recipients”:
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at the mercy. [HG.1, p.18]
To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. [ibid. p.19]
Thus in comparison, oppression in The Hunger Games is open subjugation and deliberately persecutory; in Emphyrio it is repressive and insidious. Nevertheless both are prodigious evils, especially considering, as the great Ambroy proclamation at long last declaims: “For over two thousand years you have plundered us without pity or regret” [V.20, p.273] – thereby inaugurating for two millennia that generations live in pauperism – the evil in Emphyrio acquires a substantial gravitas.