Because it is so close to a Japanese movie I’d already seen in college and hated, I never expected to like anything about the Hunger Games (or, as my husband likes to call it, Spartacus for Little Girls). I didn’t even watch the movie until the second one was already out, and even then, it was only out of lack of other things to watch. However, not long after that, I started a new job with a very long commute, and after a few days of slogging through never-ending traffic jams and falling blankets of snow in what’s fast becoming “The Worst Winter Ever,” listening to the same two CDs over and over and trying not to die, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps it might help to buy a Bluetooth speaker and download some audiobooks. Audiobooks have to be pretty popular to have torrents available, so naturally, the first ones I found were none other than Suzanne Collins’s dystopian YA trilogy. I whizzed through them in a matter of days, driving through icy, Chicago roads, riddled with so many potholes I’m not sure “road” is even an accurate description, and barely registered the time it took (around two hours each way), until I’d get home and look at the clock and it would already be time to go to bed.
In the everlasting battle between book vs. movie, in this case, I would actually side with movie, since some of the writing, in my opinion, could have used a good bit of cutting. But overall, I ended up really connecting to the alternate reality Collins created. And not just because at least sixty percent of my dreams since adulthood for some reason involve some kind of post-apocalyptic future in which everyone must fight for survival, and therefore the world is very familiar to me, but because there is actually quite a lot of metaphorical resonance in the books. Often, this world, our world, feels to me like a longer, drawn-out Hunger Games; death fights to claim you, either through extreme weather or accident or illness or, like in the arena: murder. It rings true in the working world as well: on the very first train to the Games, Katniss asks her mentor, Haymitch, “How do you survive in there?” Immediately he responds: “You get people to like you.” Not to mention, people have more realistic jobs than most popular movies, wherein everyone either works as a baker, lawyer, or architect.
Maybe because my first few weeks in the world of cubicles and water coolers coincided with listening to the Hunger Games every day, or maybe it would have occurred to me regardless, but the two things will forever be intertwined for me. Those words kept ringing in my head every day: you get people to like you. Coming from someone who spent all of high school eating lunch in the art room, this is not really the easiest thing to do, even in an industry full of people who also ate lunches in their respective art rooms. It almost sounds like a science experiment: put a bunch of introverts, ninety percent of them young and female, together in a building every single day, and see what happens.
What happens is this: nothing. Not at first glance anyway. The office is a place where more goes on in the silence than in what’s being said. People tend to only speak openly outside of the building or by exchanging texts or quick glances. It’s like there’s this whole world beneath the world you see, but you’ll almost never get to see it.
What became clear to me almost immediately is that most people never leave high school behind. I’m not referring to the widespread notion that the office social structure mimics the kind of miniature society a high school creates, even though in a way it does, but, rather, I refer to the space created in its absence. Wanting to be the opposite now of who you were then. Or, conversely, if it worked originally, replicating your old social behavior. These are just examples; there are myriad ways the past affects current behavior. People carry their high school experiences with them like ghosts. Often, cliques and alliances seem to form more out of solidarity from past damages than from actually having things in common. The only difference is that here, in the real world, the hierarchy is also charted out, by title and salaries, not just unspoken in the minds of all involved. You can’t afford to be a wallflower—not if you want to get anywhere. And yet, you can’t really afford to be much of a risk-taker or go-getter, not when you’re all the way at the bottom. It puts you in quite a precarious position, where it seems like the best option is nearly always silence. And then silence begets more silence.
In the reality of Suzanne Collins’ arena, obstacles are created out of thin air, just to see how the players will overcome them. Alliances form either strategically or emotionally, rarely both, and people only talk to one another when absolutely necessary. The most important thing is just to make it out alive. Sound familiar? Obviously, the stakes are not nearly as high in this world, nor will they ever be. Getting fired is nothing like getting murdered by a twelve-year-old. But there is something about it all that rings more true to life than most movies these days…and perhaps that’s the real reason behind its popularity.