March 28, 2012

"The Hunger Games" v. Heinlein's "Tunnel in the Sky"

The Hunger Games can be compared to scores of predecessors in terms of plot and setting, but one likely inspiration that is widely overlooked is Robert A. Heinlein's 1955 young adult sci-fi novel Tunnel in the Sky, in which several dozen boys and girls must survive in the wilds for about a week on an unknown planet to pass their Advanced Survival course. 

A major problem with at least the movie version of The Hunger Games is the almost complete lack of discussion of tactics. Supposedly, this fight to the death competition has been broadcast to universal audiences on TV for 74 years, but almost nobody seems to have developed any strategies for playing despite all their watching. All the sympathetic characters are just depressed by it, which is natural, but, jeez, we get it, you are feeling sad about this. And the unsympathetic characters have little of interest to say, either. Finally, 15 seconds before the competition starts, the heroine's coach (Woody Harrelson) gives her some advice -- don't rush in to grab a weapon right away and go for high ground. So, while half the kids die in the first minute trying to grab weapons from the big pile, Katniss runs off deep into the woods and climbs a tree to hide to wait things out until the odds are more in her favor.

Now, that's fairly interesting, and it likely is lifted directly from Tunnel in the Sky, which begins with a long talk between the hero Rod Walker (who eventually appears to be black, by the way) and his older sister, a Captain in the Space Amazons, who passed the test a decade before. She advises against taking high tech weaponry that will just make him feel arrogant. He decides to hole up in a tree and wait it out.

But, in Heinlein's book, a technical glitch ends up marooning them for several years. Tunnel in the Sky is sometimes assumed to be Heinlein's rejoinder to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which the young people descend to savagery, although Golding's book didn't become well-known until several years later, when it became a favorite of teachers to show their classes what they'd be like without any adult discipline.

In contrast to Lord of the Flies, Tunnel in the Sky starts out with some Hobbesian violence, but the book is devoted to how young people, thrust into this classic conception of a "state of nature" where the individual life expectancy is solitary, poor, brutish, and short could come together to form a society that works in terms of physical security, technology, politics, and economics. Heinlein was a huge fan of the American frontier experience, so much of his sci-fi is devoted to finding outer space situations to recreate the challenges faced by settlers. The ratio of interesting ideas to pages is extraordinarily high. Heinlein thinks through all sorts of problems, such as how do you find other people to team up with (set green branches on fire, like in The Hunger Games) while you hide at an overlook to see whether they are too dangerous for you.

By the end of Tunnel in the Sky several years later, the kids have settled in a riverfront cave defensible against wild animals, have found clay deposits and are working on a pottery kiln, and are taking the first steps toward agriculture and irrigation. They are enjoying a deserved baby boom. Everybody agrees that they'll never go back. Of course, when they're rescued, almost everybody except a recalcitrant Rod quickly decides to go home to Earth. A lady newscaster much like Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games has her make-up man paint war stripes on Rod's face for her interstellar broadcast about how the teens immediately reverted to savagery. 

In contrast, the kill or be killed rules of The Hunger Games are simply too Hobbesian to sustain interest over the course of a television season. A reality series like Survivor, which Collins was obviously influenced by, has much better thought out rules that inspire both cooperation and backstabbing.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the book, there's a lot more written about actual strategies in the Games. The well-fed, well-trained Tributes from the rich districts band together to slaughter the weaker kids first before eventually turning on each other, the smart ones keep their heads down and hide out for as long as possible, etc.

There's also a lot of stuff about the Game Makers changing the rules and shaking things up to keep the action brisk when things slow down.

Anonymous said...

In my youth I read everything by Arthur C. Clark, probably because I was so turned on by the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Oddessey, which my dad took me to see when I was six. I regret not having read any Heinlein until grad school. However, I'm not letting my daughter make this mistake. Her 3rd grade class has an open weekly reading assignment and choosing the book often falls to me. (Now that's real parental authority!) This week I'm giving her The Star Beast.

Marlowe said...

Surely The Hunger Games owes more to Jean Jacques Rousseau than Hobbes? Civilization is the root of evil and not its absence.

James Kabala said...

"although Golding's book didn't become well-known until several years later, when it became a favorite of teachers to show their classes what they'd be like without any adult discipline."

Golding's book was itself an answer novel to/parody of a much earlier Victorian book, The Coral Island.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coral_Island

This is the first I ever heard of your claim as to Lord of the Flies became popular - I was under the impression that it was first embraced by the avant-garde. Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

All of this reminds me of The Running Man (movie and book). It's as if the author took Stephen King's work and turned it into a book/series for kids. Also derivative of another book/movie combo (The Most Dangerous Game/Surviving the Game). Nothing new under the sun....

The casting for the Running Man was inspired - Schwarzenegger and Dawson!

Anonymous said...

"the hero Rod Walker (who eventually appears to be black, by the way)"

I know that Heinlein write sci-fi, but still: in real life no one ever EVENTUALLY appears black. The black people appear black right away, from the first sentence, even in a text-based medium like IRC. Even their sign language is distinctly black.

morleysafer said...

That is a funny point about Lord of the Flies. Like Great Gatsby it's got a manageable length but the reading level is within reach for more of the junior high audience. But is the moral any less ambiguous? Regardless, it's no problem getting a quorum of teachers to decide, "This one ought to be impressed upon the little bastards"

Syrian lesbian said...

I want to start a social media account that feeds a Nick Denton glamour-girl blog "controversial" takes on The Hungry Hippos Game or whatever it's called. Alan Sokal had to write some really abstruse stuff in order to hoax the literary then-establishment but I suspect it's gotten easier. "The following are screen caps of Twitter users who didn't care for the non-white actors in Pirates of the Caribbean Part 9: Conquest of the Bohai Sea Lanes"

Anonymous said...

"In contrast to Lord of the Flies, Tunnel in the Sky starts out with some Hobbesian violence, but the book is devoted to how young people, thrust into this classic conception of a "state of nature" where the individual life expectancy is solitary, poor, brutish, and short could come together to form a society that works in terms of physical security, technology, politics, and economics."

Lord of Flies: the world according to Liberals
Tunnel in the Sky: the world according to conservatives.

I remember once reading a crappy knockoff of the Lord of the Flies called the Butterfly Revolution which worked in the racism theme to boot: the one black kid at the otherwise white kids camp gets lynched.

Anonymous said...

funny how our memories of books works. i loved tunnel in the sky as a cjild, but remembered him married with a child, and the only difficulty in returning was getting their parents and other adults around them to cope with the couple years' of maturity they had experienced in the week they'd been away. i didn;t remember him not wanting to come back. i remember too that he and his closest few broke off from the main society near the end of their stay.

Buckaroo said...

The genre of young people surviving (more or less gracefully) in the wild surely goes back well before Heinlein or Golding. For example, Jules Verne who might be recognized in the English-speaking world even today wrote an 1888 novel "Two Years' Vacation". It recounts the adventures of a group of boys but, stand well back, no girls, facing down the odds and creating civilization after being shipwrecked on a South Pacific island.

Here is a quote from Wikipedia: "Verne explains that his goals were to create a Robinson Crusoe-like environment for children, and to show the world what the intelligence and bravery of a child was capable of when put to the test." It's been a while since I read it but this sounds accurate. I remember greatly enjoying the book as a kid. The boys were certainly not shown as flawless and dealing with interpersonal conflict and questions of authority were major themes. But there was never any possibility of them descending into savagery.

Couple of bonuses: most of the boys are English but there are a couple of Frenchmen and at least one American. If memory serves, Verne makes good use of national character (I mean, heinous stereotypes) to explain the motivations and behavior of individual castaways. Also, the only important female character that eventually appears makes her mark by sticking to the traditional women's strengths of caring and empathy and represses any butt-kicking impulses that she might harbor.

Big Bill said...

Golding was repulsed by English preening themselves for defeating the Nazis. He wrote "The Lord of the Flies" as the first Straussian Holocaust novel.

He wrote it to chastize the English for thinking they were superior to the Nazis and to show them how the English (indeed all goyim) were all Nazis under the skin, even their little "innocent" children.

And Golding succeeded. "The Lord of the Flies" became a part of the core HS English canon by 1965. In recent years, or course, it has been supplemented by mandatory Holocaust reeducation classes in many states.

In Straussian fashion the story tells two stories for two audiences. The other story is a repetition of the eternal Jewish warning that the goyim, no matter how nice, no matter how small and innocent, will ultimately band together to butcher you and your children, just as Roger and Jack butchered Piggy and crushed his conch [shofar].

Further, as a Jew, you may think there is safety in being a close advisor (Piggy) to the Enlightened Prince (Ralph) but it is a false sense of security. The Enlightened Prince is ultimately unable (or unwilling) to save you. See e.g. "The Fatal Embrace", Aaron of Lincoln, etc.

James Kabala said...

"Lord of Flies: the world according to Liberals
Tunnel in the Sky: the world according to conservatives."

No, no, this is all wrong - it is true that (as I already noted)Lord of the Flies appeals to a certain type of avant-garde nihilist, and personally I didn't think it was such a great book, but it's supposed to be conservatives, not liberals, who think mankind is naturally bad.

Anonymous said...

What with the obesity epidemic, is hunger such a bad thing?

The problem today of course isn't about hunger. Them negroes and yobs in London were rioting not over food(and certainly not books, even for Harry Potter and Hunger Games series) but for wide screen tvs and for the hell/fun of it.

Mike said...

The movie suffered from the staggering number of mistakes in it. We are trained by good movies and shows like CSI to pay attention to the details.
In this movie they kept showing that water was a huge issue. Then when the contestants get into the arena they are in a decidedly wet forest!
When the hero gets bailed in a tree she is sitting about twenty feet up with almost no cover. Her hunters, armed with a bow and arrow, find it impossible to shoot her.
The actors are apparently starving yet they all look like Abercrombie models.
The love interest says that he "isn't feeling hungry anymore" after a slight - a comment no one who has experienced hunger as a lifestyle would ever consider uttering.
When the two apparently semi-starved youngsters get on a train laden with food they barely look at it. People who were used to subsistence would eat until they vomited.
The hunters that form a pack decided to sleep in the open without anyone on watch and don't even awake when the sun is out and full.
I could go on. Overall the movie seemed to be a group of random scenes with little coherence.

kaganovitch said...

"Big Bill said...
Golding was repulsed by English preening themselves for defeating the Nazis. He wrote "The Lord of the Flies" as the first Straussian Holocaust novel.

He wrote it to chastize the English for thinking they were superior to the Nazis and to show them how the English (indeed all goyim) were all Nazis under the skin, even their little "innocent" children.

And Golding succeeded. "The Lord of the Flies" became a part of the core HS English canon by 1965. In recent years, or course, it has been supplemented by mandatory Holocaust reeducation classes in many states"

Unfortunately for this compelling analysis William Golding wasn't jewish in any shape, manner, or form but don't let that stop you.

Anonymous said...

No one claimed he was Jewish, only that he was a Sraussian neocon--the Madonna wannabes of the Jewish world.

K(yle) said...

Golding being Jewish is about as relevant as the White Guilt crowd not being black. Although I'm not sure if Golding is Jewish or not. I certainly can't find any definitive religious affiliation.

Regardless Lord of the Flies is explicitly a WWII allegory. The above poster is correct in his analysis. Piggy is meant to be a Jewish stereotype, Jack's gang the Nazis, and Ralph's gang the English.

The perpetual allegory of Golding's career was the inherent evil of "people" (exclusively Europeans). He was born to Socialist academics and was a Socialist academic himself, and his work basically reads like what you would expect it to; Kill Whitey agitprop.

jody said...

hunger games is a direct ripoff of a japanese book, and movie, called battle royale.

you don't need to look to heinlein or anywhere else. just check out battle royale. hunger games is not "kind of similar" or "sort of the same idea". it's exactly the same thing as battle royale.

this situation is about the as that 2005 bay movie, the island, which was a direct copy of a 1979 movie, the clonus horror.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing new under the sun.
The wheel turns and turns.
All that has changed is that nothing changes.
The beginning is the end.

David said...

Rod being black (in Tunnel in the Sky)...I remember several characters being black, including I think Rod's friend (Jimmy?)...where was Rob himself being black mentioned/implied?