What happens when our own need for entertainment outstrips our ability to make good decisions? In a larger sense, when does conflict, whether it be reality television, athletic contests, or even warfare, reach a point where the execution of the conflict forever changes the participants (and the spectators)?
The Hunger Games (Scholastic 2008) addresses this malleability in our fragile psyches. The novel, written by Susan Collins for the young adult demographic, tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, an athletically gifted young woman from humble origins. Through the operation of an oppressive societal tradition, Katniss is forced to participate in a Survivor-style national entertainment show, but with a deadly twist: the competition is to the death, and only the winner survives.
Katniss has a rare combination of good looks, charisma, and athletic ability, but her talents are raw and unfocused. To address this weakness, she is tutored by Haymitch, an irascible past champion well on in years. Haymitch bullies, cajoles, threatens, ridicules, and embarrasses Katniss, all in the hope of turning her into a champion herself. While the novel is filled with exciting contests, victories, and tragedies throughout, it is this relationship between coach and student that underscores Collins’s thesis best: In training Katniss in such a domineering and humiliating public manner, Haymitch damages Katniss in a way that cannot be reversed.
By the novel’s end, the charismatic hero is reduced to a paranoid, conflicted shell of her former self. Her former outgoing personality is reduced to an embittered and sullenly damaged ego. The coach may have bent his pupil to his will, but in doing so, he destroyed the very essence that made the player outstanding.
Regardless of your age, read The Hunger Games and learn from this cautionary tale of potential, promise, ambition, competition, and moral hazard.
Or just watch a South Carolina football game, and see the exact same thing.