The Hunger Games, a popular book for teenagers by author Suzanne Collins, takes the concept of the reality show to an extreme that some have found shocking: Set in a grim future, 24 young people are forced by a brutal government to fight each other to the death in an annual televised ritual.
It's the first of a three-book trilogy by author Suzanne Collins, who says she drew on sources both ancient and contemporary to create her fictional world.
As a child, Collins remembers being obsessed with Greek mythology, particularly the story of Theseus, in which the Cretans forced the Athenians to send seven young men and seven maidens to be thrown into the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur each year.
"Even when I was a child I was blown away by how evil that was. Crete was sending a very clear message: If you mess with us we will do something worse than kill you; we will kill your children," says Collins.
In Collins' novel, young men and women from 12 districts in what was once North America — but is now a country called Panem — are sent to the Hunger Games every year as punishment for a war that happened 75 years ago.
Collins says her idea for the book began to form one night as she channel surfed. On one channel she saw images of kids fighting in a real war; on another young people were competing for money in a reality TV show.
"If you take elements of the two types of programming I was watching — reality television and war coverage — what you come up with is a gladiator game," she says.
Collins remembered the gladiator movies that were popular when she was young, most notably Spartacus, the story of a slave who led an unsuccessful but heroic rebellion. In one iconic scene in that film, the defeated slaves have been told they will not be punished as long as they turn in their leader. As Spartacus stands up to identify himself, the others join in one last act of defiance to protect him — each also standing and claiming to be the leader.
Collins uses a similar scene in Catching Fire, her follow-up to The Hunger Games. The heroine of the trilogy, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, won the Hunger Games, but also defied the all-powerful government with symbolic gestures and actions during the competition. In doing so, she has inspired the stirrings of rebellion across the country. Only gradually does Katniss begin to understand that she has become a symbol of the spreading rebellion.
"This is someone who has rebel status thrust upon her," Collins says of Katniss. "And [she] is not always comfortable with it, did not plan on it, but eventually is able to carry it."
Collins lures in young readers of both genders with a suspenseful plot, non-stop action and even a love triangle. But she does not hold back on the violence inherent in her story, nor does she apologize for it. Violence, she says, finds its way into young lives, whether we like it to or not.
Children's literature expert Anita Silvey agrees. She says that the violence in Collins' books is a reflection of what's happening in the culture:
"Reality TV has gone lower and lower every season. We are sending our young people to the other side of the world to kill young people. And children and teens are killing each other in schools. When you have all those elements to throw in the cauldron of story I don't think it's surprising that The Hunger Games comes out of that," says Silvey.
For her part, Collins believes her target audience — kids just entering adolescence — is just the right age to take on the challenge that underlies her story.
"They are themselves beginning to question authority. And they are themselves beginning to look at government and situations throughout the world and wonder if they are moral or not," says Collins. "You have to have that. You have to at some time in your life begin to question the environment, the political situation around you and decide whether it's right or not and if it isn't, what part you are going to play in that."
The story of the rebellion, which was ignited in the first book and spread wider in Catching Fire, will likely grow more important as the trilogy draws to a close. Collins is already hard at work on that final book, even as her young readers are just cracking open the latest chapter of the story.