Hunger Games, Number Games

By Wai Chee DimockDecember 26, 2013

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING at a blackbird, Wallace Stevens says. Why 13? Why not some other number that would have been just as semantically charged — nine, for instance? And what exactly is a quantifier doing in that poem? Is it there primarily to count, to deliver a value that is greater than 12 and smaller than 14? Or is it there to deliver something a little different?

I’ve never thought to ask these questions, but seeing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, especially its number-powered closing scene, brings Stevens back in a big way. The film’s heroine Katniss Everdeen wakes up not knowing where she is. She sees another body next to her own — not one of her two love interests, Gale Hawthorne or Peeta Mellark, but Beetee, her recent ally in the games, still unconscious from the injuries they both sustained during the destruction of the arena. She hears voices in the next compartment and finds herself face to face with an unlikely threesome: Haymitch Abernathy, her mentor; Plutarch Heavensbee, the head gamemaker; and Finnick Odair, another recent ally. It’s a trio never seen before and not likely to be seen again. All three are rebels, it turns out, on their way to their stronghold, District 13, the district supposedly destroyed in the first rebellion, but now revealed to be still intact.

Catching Fire’s number 13 is of course nothing like Stevens’s. But the revolving doors quality of the closing scene, and of the trilogy as a whole, suggests that Suzanne Collins might have more than a little in common with Stevens after all. Both are interested in the geometrization of numbers: the way spatial enactments and embodiments show two contradictory aspects of the numerical order. On the one hand, numbers are (at least in the popular understanding) clean, singular, and point-like. They come from a rule-bound world, and are themselves rule generating and rule observing. On the other, numbers can acquire a heft, a volume, and a geometry that we don’t ordinarily imagine them having. And they allow for deviations that seem to defy the very nature of numbers themselves:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

So writes Stevens, a perverse way of counting that suggests that numbers are more of a computational chimera than we might think. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” this is of course a good thing: it allows us to be “of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.” But is this kind of elasticity always good? Suzanne Collins turns it into a fable about the power and limits of numbers: the way these numbers can be stretched to become the declaimed building blocks for a variety of fantasy worlds, from ones with deadly outcomes to ones that, while not deadly, are probably doomed to be more declamatory than actual.

Nothing could be simpler, more straightforward, more unambiguously stated than the rules governing the Hunger Games: two tributes, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 districts; one winner each year; repeated annually. These rules have the elemental and self-evident nature of census taking, a census that makes every child between the ages of 12 and 18 stand up and be counted. They are a way of resetting the computing baseline, fixing a bookkeeping problem that has plagued the nation of Panem from inception.

Panem gets its name from panem et circenses, or bread and circuses. Juvenal had thought of this as the precondition for tyranny in Rome, the decline of civic life under the lulling effect of food and entertainment. Since food is actually scarce in all districts of Panem except for the Capitol, this nation is less than its name even in its derogatory form. It makes up for it though, by making sure that entertainment is always in plentiful supply. And the entertainment comes, in no small part, from the geometrization of numbers — the transposing of the simple equation “2 x 12” into a high-stakes spatial drama, a series of complex field maneuvers derived from a dizzying and ever-changing set of alliances, as the 24 tributes sort themselves into friends and foes. Since it is the Third Quarter Quell in Catching Fire, the 75th anniversary of the Games’ inception, the Game is made up entirely of previous victors, which makes their geometrized numbers — who can be counted on and who cannot be — all the more intriguing. When Katniss meets Finnick for the first time he isn’t her friend yet. He proves to be her friend for the length of the movie, but what are the odds of his remaining one always? And what about Johanna Mason, the badass tribute from District 7, who lacks a winner’s grace? Her relation to Katniss will always be edgy, beginning with the elevator strip-down that inaugurates their friendship. In this Quarter Quell, simple numerical equations here give way to a probabilistic field, a game of chance.

The Hunger Games, advertised as contests of strength and bravery, are in fact closer to the arbitrariness of gaming than to the supposed nonarbitrariness of gladiatorial encounters. And nowhere is this more true than in the way the tributes are selected, essentially a national lottery system. Each year, prior to the Game, a “reaping” takes place in each of the 12 districts. Two glass balls, one for boys and one for girls, are filled with paper slips bearing the names of potential tributes. Starting at age 12 and ending at age 18, each child will have his or her name entered into one of the balls, with an additional entry for each additional year.  A child of 18, in other words, would have seven entries in the ball the final year he or she is eligible. A name is then randomly picked from each of the balls, yielding a male and a female tribute from each district.

As with all lotteries, this one is elegant and addictive, a combination of complicated manmade rules and chance. It is enormously entertaining for just that reason. Even though the reapings could be held simultaneously in all the districts, they are deliberately spread out so that citizens at the Capitol can watch all of them live on TV, often using these as occasions for betting.

Which one is more fun, the reaping, or the actual game itself? Since the latter is mandatory viewing in the Districts, its entertainment value is apparently not universal. The reaping, on the other hand, offers suspense, pathos, as well as the pleasing prospect of the opening rather than the closing act, populating the field with 24 fresh tributes every year, rather than winnowing down the existing number to just one.

Why is it that each Game should allow only one winner, and no more than one? What’s the rationale for that rule? And couldn’t the number be stretched in some way, making it more elastic, more accommodating? Wallace Stevens certainly thinks so. Katniss thinks so as well. During the 74th Game, using a logic that’s more or less a replay of Stevens’s wry observation, “A man and a woman / Are one,” Katniss claims that she and Peeta are a romantic item, and threatens the Capitol with joint suicide unless both of them are declared victors. President Snow, of course, has his ready response, his way of mending the broken rule and repaying his challenger in her own coin. Insisting that the oneness of Katniss and Peeta should be not just a nice idea but a legalized form of counting, he turns it into a binding obligation, backed by a marriage ceremony, to be demonstrated again and again to the nation for the rest of their lives.

The Third Quarter Quell preempts the wedding, making it for the time being both unnecessary and unattainable. It can be argued, though, that the outcome of this Game, as well as the revolutionary plot revolving around it, together make up a counter-response of sorts to President Snow, loosening up the numerical one where he would tighten it. Since the arena is destroyed before the elimination process has run its course, there is no single victor in the Third Quarter Quell. Instead, there are multiple survivors: Beetee, Finnick, Johanna, Enobaria, Katniss, and Peeta. Peeta and Enobaria are captured by the Capitol during the partially successful raid by the rebels, but the initial number coming out of the Third Quarter Quell is six. Six survivors equal zero victor, which is apparently what the rules of the game say, but surely it is not the most self-evident equation. Who is there to vouch for it? And what is to stop someone else from coming up with a counter-equation, something like “six survivors equal one collective victor”?

Once we go down the slippery slope of accepting some degree of elasticity in our rock-solid quantifiers, there’s no telling where we might end up. Suzanne Collins is much like Wallace Stevens here. The computational feat in Catching Fire does not stop with “A man a woman / Are one” (as President Snow’s response makes clear, that equation is close to orthodoxy). It goes one step further, a bolder, less tried, less sanctioned play of numbers — not quite what Stevens says — “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one” — but something similar, something like “Gale and Katniss and Peeta / Are one.”

The elasticity of numbers must have considerable traction in the world, for no one has complained so far. Of course, everything will change when we move away from Catching Fire to Mockingjay. The course is set. Sooner or later that much louder bird will replace the blackbird, and numbers will go back to being singular once again: strictly quantifying, allowing no deviations. While that is still some ways off, though, and while we’re still here, in this temporary, temporizing, not-quite-there, not-quite-done middle work of the trilogy, that singularity is probably at its weakest. It all depends on how one counts.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York TimesHer team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.


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