Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Classics And The Hunger Games Trilogy

Plutarch, Cato, Octavia, Fulvia, Brutus, Castor & Pollux. You'd expect to see these names in history books, but as character names in the hottest young adult (YA) blockbuster? Not so much. And yet, Suzanne Collins, the author of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, seems bent on making us think about the ancient world.
The most obvious classical connection in the trilogy, of course, is the story’s recasting of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which Collins read as an eight-years old.

“The myth told how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur,” she states on her publisher’s website. “Even as a third grader, I could appreciate the ruthlessness of this message. ‘Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children.'”

She also credits watching gladiator movies, which “dramatized the Roman’s flair for turning executions into popular entertainment.”

In many ways, Katniss is Theseus and Peeta is Ariadne (or tries to be in the early books—this is not a spoiler, I swear). Peeta’s love, like Ariadne’s string, is meant to save Katniss’ life and pull her out of the maze of blood-drenched, reality-TV destruction.

There are other classical references, of course, including the fact that the Capital city is called Panem and the Games, “Panem et circenses”—which, of course, means “Bread and Circuses,” Juvenal’s classic phrase for describing how the Romans surrendered political involvement/power in exchange for full bellies and coarse entertainment.

But one Roman name especially jumped out at me—President Snow’s. No, not the “Snow”-part (aside from its intended irony) but the president’s first name: Coriolanus.

Coriolanus was a Roman general whose downfall was his prideful rage against Roman society. To make a long tragedy short, Coriolanus clashes against the plebians who want a voice in ruling Rome. He gets so angry at their “audacity,” he ends up marching on Rome, and is later assassinated for his treachery.

Sound familiar?

Despite the fact that Coriolanus’ story has faded into oblivion (even though Shakespeare wrote a play about him), his name is a reminder, once again, of Collin’s depth and talent. Clearly, she thought through every character’s name and its symbolic meaning.

There’s so much to talk about with teens in this bestselling trilogy—the nature of power, the futility of war, the cost of violence, etc. etc. But making the classical connections gives you yet one more way to examine this fascinating work—through the prism of ancient history and its connections to how we live today.  Clearly, Collins knows her history. And wants her readers to know it too.

How dare you imply this picture of Gerard Butler is simply gratuitous! Butler, as pictured here, plays a key role in the movie, Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Feines, which is currently in production. 


Robyn Lucas said...

Great research. I can appreciate HG and how it ended more fully.

Thanks again!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks Robin! It's kinda like that old saying--if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I see classical or mythological references everywhere! I appreciate your comment.

Jessica Leader said...

Cool research--thanks! I never knew that Collins was inspired by the Minotaur story--just thought it was generic expectations of sacrifice. I bet Ancient History teachers would enjoy hearing about this.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Dang - I wish I'd known all this when I was reading. It adds so much more depth to the stories! Thanks Vicky! :) e

Elizabeth Burton said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I saw your link on the MidSouth SCBWI list and I'm very glad I took the time to come over here. I'm getting ready to teach The Hunger Games in a college English class and this will add a lot of depth to our discussion. Apparently my own memory of ancient myths is seriously lacking (shh...don't tell my students!), so it's great that you did all the work for me! Thanks again, :-).

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth (s)! Elizabeth B., I hope you share your student's opinions about Hunger Games. It would be interesting to hear their take on it!

Karen Strong said...

This is so interesting! Of course you know how much I just love listening to you talk about history anyway. You are right, I didn't realize until now how much the names do have a connection to Collins's idea spark.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks Karen! I have a feeling there are many more ancient references than the ones I picked up--I just wasn't looking for them. But now, if (when) I reread the books, I'll be on the lookout even more!

Amalia Dillin said...

I've only read the first book yet-- but I thought the hype about it being a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur was a bit excessive compared to the book-- I did a comparison on my blog a bit ago. But I didn't catch the president's name reference! Now I'm even more interested to read the rest of the series! Great post!

(I found you via Gary Corby's blog :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks so much for visiting, Amalia (which just happens to be my maternal grandmother's name, so I have tiny starbursts of happiness when I see it!). I think I agree with one of the commenters on your post who said that Collins used the myth as a jumping off point. The rest of the HUNGER GAMES series is just as remarkable as the first one in terms of her mastery of pacing and tension.

I'm fascinated by your fascination with Theseus. Looking forward to reading more of your posts on your blog!

Amalia Dillin said...

I'm named for my Great Aunt on my Mom's side who has been kind of a grandmother to me! How funny!

In regard to the Theseus myth and the Hunger Games, I definitely agree-- it just seems like it got a lot of attention for being a "retelling" and I went into reading it thinking as much. Perhaps that was my own error in not fact checking before I started reading!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Amalia, I totally get the sense of almost-"protectiveness" about Theseus. I get that way about whatever person I'm writing about or focusing on. It's part of the passion for the subject matter!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am currently writing my dissertation on the reception of the Fulvia in modern literature and film. I was wondering if you had any more information about Suzanne Collins' reasons for naming this character Fulvia and if she is based on the real historical figure? Any information would be extremely helpful, I can't seem to find any anywhere!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Tarana, I do not have any more information about Suzanne Collins' reasons. I would recommend contacting the publisher and/or editor (David Levithan at Scholastic) and asking him if he could facilitate you asking her directly. Good luck!