Twelve years ago, Suzanne Collins introduced us to The Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, 2008), a dystopian world where children fight to their deaths on television in a brutal annual competition. It takes place in Panem, a fictional sovereign state established after a series of ecological disasters and global conflicts brought about the collapse of modern civilisation. With The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the widely successful trilogy published earlier this year, we are invited for a deeper exploration of the dystopian world. The new book emphasises on the extent to which media and political control shape our decisions as a society, and how political and surveillance systems become more complex over time, often leading to uncomfortable implications.
The prequel showcases the early life of Coriolanus Snow, the future president of Panem and the central villain of Collins' series. But more importantly, it is also an origin story of the Hunger Games themselves. We learn how the Games weren't always the entertainment spectacle we saw them as in Collins' original trilogy, how something so horrific turned into something not only accepted but celebrated, and the role that Snow played in that change.
Ballad begins with the 10th Hunger Games, 64 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteers as a tribute in the place of her baby sister. At this point, the Games are minimalist, with fewer audience. They still feature two children, called tributes, from each of the 12 impoverished districts of Panem, but they are taken by a truck to the Capitol (federal district) zoo and dumped into a monkey enclosure until the Games begin. They are thrown into an arena with weapons, without any prior training, and forced to fight to their televised deaths.
This early arena isn't the magnificent and ever-changing outdoor landscape that Collins put to such memorable use in her earlier books, such as the wild forest in The Hunger Games or the eerie clock-shaped arena in Catching Fire (2009). It is a broken down, bombed out stadium, where the tributes spend most of their time hiding from each other in the stands. In these early days, the tributes have no tracking devices, the cameras haven't yet begun to follow them around all the time, and there aren't even many microphones to capture every juicy moment of the Games. To inject some fresh interest under the guise of unity between the Capitol and the districts, 24 students from the Academy—a high school for the Capitol's elite—are selected as mentors for the tributes. Among these students is 18-year-old Snow. As a mentor, he aims to guide Lucy Gray, his tribute, to victory, gain a scholarship to study at the Capitol's university, and embark on a career in politics that will culminate in his presidency.
Collins isn't interested in making Snow a character to root for, however. Snow's calculation and coldness make him a tricky protagonist. We see his progression into villainy, but rather than a drastic turnaround in which a once good-hearted human being turns into a jaded monster, it happens in subtle and gradual ways. Snow struggles with his beliefs and actions over the course of the book, but continually finds a way to justify himself. The text, however—as separate from its narrator—does not.
A recent trend in popular entertainment is to try to explain why villains are the way they are, be it in film, television, or literature. I understand that purpose, and I think that at times, it can raise important questions and produce incredible art. However, more often than not, such stories tend to go too far to justify an evil character by shifting the blame and showing how they have earned the right to be bad because of their past experiences. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes dispels any such presumption.
Unlike with Katniss, whose life in Panem we experience along with her, from her point of view, we witness Snow's early life through a distanced third person narrator. We watch the 10th Hunger Games via camera, as does Snow himself, desensitised as voyeurs to the suffering of the tributes. This narrative shift serves to bring us closer to understanding a complicated protagonist who is self-serving, snooty and ambitious to a fault. And this helps us witness the moments in which Snow begins to give in to his cunning and self-serving impulses at the cost of others, the terrifying product of which we have already witnessed in The Hunger Games trilogy.
Decades later, at the 74th Hunger Games held during Snow's presidency, Katniss will marvel at the high-speed train that brings her to the Capitol, the shower that dries and styles her hair, and the medicine that will save her life in the arena. Yet eventually, these inventions will harden her heart against the rich who live large and hoard their life saving technologies while district residents die of starvation. No doubt the leaders during Katniss' time are reluctant to enable district workers to live easier lives, which might give them the time to contemplate their dissatisfaction with Capitol rule. During Snow's reign in present-day Panem, the government's surveillance of the districts is infinitely more extensive than when he starts out in Ballad: it taps their phones, installs secret cameras in their houses, and the Hunger Games are filmed by a TV crew at all times. As part of his ruling strategy, Snow uses technology as a means to flaunt his power and taunt the oppressed.
To witness this transition—from Snow and Panem's simpler sinister days to their rule of complete and utter destructive control—is to understand just how much Collins' fiction is true to our times.
Across the books, Collins confronts us with our uncomfortable similarities to the people of the Capitol, who profit from exploiting the poor and allow media-induced short attention spans to distract them from the consequences of their lifestyle. Her frequent use of reality TV imagery and tabloid-style media coverage in The Hunger Games provoke aversion in us, but we keep on reading, as we observe their cheapening of human life both inside and outside the arena.
This consumption of exploitation is a valid criticism of our entertainment industry which monetises trauma—the tragedy and pain of young people, especially those oppressed by the privileged. While wars are driven by the profits of arms dealers, documentaries about the suffering of their victims make it to global film festivals. We get a kick out of watching twisted tales on reality television, where participants are made to enter swift, four-week engagements (The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise) or take on a dramatic, distilled persona that leaves them hated in the real world (think Aparna of Netflix's Indian Matchmaking). Although we haven't quite reached the point of televising death games, contemporary media gladly puts ratings and sensationalism over honest accountability, increasingly blurring the lines between the shocking and the entertaining.
This clash of values over technology extends to all areas of public and private life, as the biggest threats to our freedom and prosperity reside in our cell phones and governments. We use Google and Facebook daily, even though they infamously collect our personal information and sell them to advertisers. For authoritarian and democratic governments alike, the potential for abuse presented by advanced online surveillance is staggering. Activists and journalists who might otherwise hold rulers to account are forced to self-censor, while dissidents and members of marginalised communities think twice before discussing their struggles or political opinions on social media to avoid arrests or travel restrictions. As government officials justify their actions by citing national security concerns, valid questions remain about the consequences of these surveillance efforts on free expression and personal privacy.
As we live and breathe through such times, willingly following the surveillance status quo, Collins' dystopian world does not seem too far-fetched. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reinforces what Collins set out to do with her series, which is to raise questions about the horrors that we are willing to accept and justify to ourselves, and remind us that many nations are still suffering at the boot heels of governments like that of President Snow's.
Shababa Iqbal is a trainee sub editor, Star Youth and Arts & Entertainment, The Daily Star.