Cutting Out the Distr'actions': Distant-Reading The Hunger Games Trilogy

Voyant Tools is a text-mining program that provides many different widgets to help “distant-read” a text. Although it may seem like just an interesting tool to play around with (which it is) it actually helps cut through the distractions to get to what a corpus is really about. In order to show this, I am examining the three books in The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. To do this, I found a copy of each book online and copy-and-pasted it onto a Word document. Then, I uploaded each of those into Voyant Tools. After uploading each book separately and realizing that I could glean more information from Voyant if I could compare all of the books side by side, I decided to upload them all at once so that I could see all three books on one page. I applied the stop words list, but I also had to add words like ‘I’m, I’ve, I’ll, just, we’re, etc.’ because it didn’t filter those out. (See Figure 1) At first, I contemplated adding the character’s names to the stop words list, but after I found some really interesting trends within that realm, I decided to leave the characters’ names in the corpus.   

            The Hunger Games trilogy is a dystopian young adult novel that is set in future-America that is now split into twelve districts and the Capitol. The ‘country,’ called Panem, is run by President Snow. It is never stated exactly how he got in ‘office,’ whether it was by election or succession, but it is revealed in Mockingjay that he did come to power through treacherous means; poison. Finnick reveals that he poisoned his adversaries, even drinking from the same cup in order to avoid suspicion. In order to remind the districts that they lost the war against the Capitol, the Hunger Games are held every year; a televised contest that requires a boy and girl tribute from each district to fight to the death. The last person standing, the ‘victor’ will achieve glory and riches. In the first installment, Katniss’s sister, Prim, is chosen as the tribute during the reaping, but Katniss volunteers to fight in her place. Peeta Mellark is chosen as the boy tribute and it is revealed that he has loved Katniss since they were young kids. Katniss must say goodbye to her mother, sister, and hunting partner, Gale. In the arena, Katniss pairs up with Rue, a young tribute from District 11 who is eventually killed during their plot to take out the Career tributes. During the Games, the Gamemakers announce that two tributes may win as long as they are from the same district, meaning that Peeta and Katniss can both win. Katniss and Peeta convince the audience that they are in love. After outlasting the other tributes, the Gamemakers revoke the change they made earlier and say that either Peeta or Katniss must kill the other because there can only be one victor. In a fit of rebellion, Katniss and Peeta both attempt to commit double suicide by eating poisonous berries, Nightlock. The Gamemakers are quick to stop them and announce that Katniss and Peeta are both victors. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta go back to District 12, but not without a warning from President Snow to watch their step because their stunt with the berries has fueled unrest in the Districts.

            In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta go on their victory tour through all of the districts, where they see the beginnings of rebellion. When they return, it is revealed that the 75th annual Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell, meaning there is a special ‘twist’ to the games. This twist is that the tributes will be drawn from the existing pool of victors, meaning Katniss and Peeta will have to go back into the arena, this time to fight other victors. In the arena Katniss meets Beetee, a genius from District 3, Finnick Odair, a much-loved victor from District 4, and Johanna Mason, a very angry victor from District 7. Beetee comes up with a plan to electrocute the other tributes, but the plan is foiled by the Careers. Katniss, in an effort to remember who the real enemies are (the Capitol, not the other victors) fires an arrow at the force field around the arena and brings it down. A hovercraft picks her up as she blacks out and she wakes up inside of it. At the end of the novel, we learn that there was a much bigger plan at work the entire time she was inside the arena. The new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, is part of the rebellion and has helped orchestrate a plan to get Katniss out and to District 13, the headquarters of the rebellion, which was thought to be destroyed in the first war against the Capitol. They managed to get Finnick and Beetee out as well, but Peeta was recovered by the Capitol before the rebels could get to him. Gale is also on the hovercraft and when Katniss asks to go back to District 12, he tells her that there is no District 12 anymore.

            In Mockingjay, we find out that after the arena came down, the Capitol bombed District 12 and Gale led the survivors to the meadow outside the District. Unexpectedly, hovercrafts arrived to take them to District 13, where they were welcomed by President Coin, the leader of the resistance. Everyone from District 12 was put to work as part of the rebellion and Gale becomes an instrumental military strategist. After the Capitol shows a video of an interview with Peeta, Katniss becomes hysterical and demands that they bring Peeta home before she will be their mockingjay, the emblem of the rebellion. Gale is the first to volunteer for the extraction team to bring Peeta back and they are successful; they also recover Johanna Mason and Finnick’s fiancée, Annie Cresta, who went crazy after she won the Hunger Games. Peeta has been tortured using a method called “hi-jacking,” which is a type of fear conditioning, in this case injecting the subject with tracker jacker venom, which causes hallucinations, and causing the line between nightmare and reality to blur. Because of this, Peeta is now conditioned to think that he hates Katniss and he tries to kill her when they are reunited for the first time. While they work on ‘fixing’ Peeta, Katniss begins training to go into the field to fight and shoot propos, their term for short propaganda videos to gain support for the rebels’ cause. At this point, other districts are rebelling too and the Capitol is having to expend a lot of manpower to keep these districts down. The war between the Capitol and the Districts begin with District 13 leading the way. After suffering great casualties including Finnick and Katniss’s sister, Prim, they capture President Snow and plan to execute him, with Katniss acting as the executioner. When she is supposed to shoot Snow, she instead kills President Coin and chaos erupts. She is eventually pardoned as “mentally unstable” and returns to District 12. In the epilogue, Gale goes to District 2 and Katniss’s mother goes to start a hospital in District 4. Katniss falls in love with Peeta again and the final thoughts we are left with is Katniss worrying about how to teach her children about this tragedy without scaring them to death and how she and Peeta still must overcome the painful memories of the war that caused so much devastation.

            These three books are filled with political and social messages. Mostly, they are anti-war messages and statements like, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.” (Mockingjay 217) Throughout all three of these novels, there is a sense of injustice that children are fighting in and paying for a war that is not theirs. It is easy to draw a lot of parallels to the United States and how teenagers are drafted into the army to fight for a war that they did not begin. There is also a big focus on the after-effects of war, like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, as evidenced by all of the victor’s flashbacks, and most extremely by Annie, who actually went crazy from the effects of the war. We also see Katniss lose her sense of purpose after the war, which she didn’t know how to deal with, which is present in militants’ struggles to return to civilian life after being on the front lines. We are shown the futility of fighting each other when the government is the one controlling them. In addition to the military and ramifications of the war, we see social critiques as well. The Capitol is run by the wealthy, people with so much money that they make themselves sick just so they can stuff their faces some more while people in their own country, over in the outlying districts, are starving. In Panem, and ever increasingly in America as well, at least it seems, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That is clearly shown in The Hunger Games trilogy with the distinction between the Capitol and the Districts. Most of all, these novels are about politics and corrupt government. Beginning with President Snow’s nefarious rise to power and continuing until Coin’s death, we are reminded over and over again of the danger of placing so much power in one person’s hands. These are all things that we can see when we read the novels, but how accurate is Voyant Tools at ‘seeing through our text?’ And can it help people familiar with the texts uncover new things they would not necessarily have noticed otherwise? It may just seem like an interesting program to play around with, but the answer is yes, it can do both of those things, you just have to dig a little to find its usefulness.

Looking at the word cloud widget in Voyant Tools, it shows that the most frequent verbs are actually passive; words such as say, know, think, etc., a fact that surprised me very much since the series is so full of action and fighting. (See Figure 2) Presented with this conflict between what I saw and what I was expecting, I did some thinking that should have been obvious given what I’ve listed above as what’s really going on in the books. The Hunger Games trilogy is not really about the action and the war that is happening; it’s about the politics behind it and the characters’ relationships with each other. Voyant Tools, by putting this front and center so plainly, helps cut through the distractions to get to what the books are really about. This is actually an interesting parallel to the books themselves as the Capitol uses the Hunger Games to distract the Districts from seeing what is really happening behind the scenes; instead of rebelling against the Capitol for oppressing them, they were preoccupied with worrying about the Games that the Capitol kept fresh in their minds all year long.

As I stated in the introduction, I discovered a very interesting trend in the word trend graph when I input the names Peeta, Haymitch, Gale, Cinna, and Effie. (See Figure 3) I left Katniss out of this graph for two reasons; the first, because you can only put five terms at once onto the word trend graph, and the second, because the book is told from her point of view, the data would be skewed and we can’t attribute every use of the word ‘I’ to her, so it was more practical to simply leave her off of this graph. This graph was interesting to me because Peeta, Haymitch, Cinna, and Effie all follow the same general trend, they all peak in Catching Fire and then in Mockingjay, return almost back to where they began in The Hunger Games, but Gale doesn’t follow this pattern. Instead, he reaches his peak in Mockingjay, something I found surprising because when I was reading the book, it didn’t seem like he was playing a bigger role, but upon further investigation, I realized that it is not the size of his role that gets his name mentioned much more frequently, but the type of his role. In the last installment of the series, Gale becomes the protector of Katniss’s family; he’s always looking out for her mother and sister before he thinks of his own safety, as evidenced when he saves them first from the bombing of District 12 and when he goes to save Prim when the Capitol is attacking District 13. The fact that Gale takes on a role that is so important to Katniss further solidifies the idea that these books are about the relationships between the characters more than the action that is distracting from the real issues. This is something that I would not have noticed without Voyant Tools pointing it out.

Another interesting word trend graph was one that included the words life, death, live, and die. (See Figure 4) When we look at these as pairs, life and death, and live and die, live and life both win out in the end, another trend I was surprised by since there was so much death in the war. While those deaths were necessary, this trend shows that they’re not reflecting on the deaths that occurred during the war, they’re focusing on getting on with life and learning how to live again. We can see this through the end of Katniss’s story; how she gets married and has children. Although she does reflect on the dead through the memory book that Peeta and Haymitch help her create, she is still moving forward with her life instead of being dead inside how she was immediately after the war. I wouldn’t have realized this just by reading the books because I was so distracted by all the death to realize that the focus was actually on life after the tragedy.

Although Voyant Tools is extremely useful, as I have demonstrated, it does have its limitations. When you put in words that the books are really about, words like war, politics, trauma, etc. you’re not going to get an accurate result because Voyant can’t summarize what you’re reading or tell you the connotations of words to tell if there are more positive than negative words. One thing that is really present from the first to the third book is the sense that Panem, and the characters, have come full-circle. The Hunger Games begins with the reaping of the tributes and Mockingjay ends with the “reaping of the dead.” (Mockingjay 221) Although the war takes Katniss all over Panem, her journey begins and ends in District 12. The trilogy begins with the Games and ends with the phrase, “But there are much worse games to play.” (Mockingjay 224) Parallels like this and the deeper meanings of these books are things that you can’t see through Voyant Tools and you won’t know what trends to look for without first reading the novels. That being said, Voyant Tools can show you things that you would not necessarily see without it. It is a brilliant program that lets you cut through the distractions and get to the base level of the text, which can be very helpful when you’re analyzing literature; Voyant Tools is not just a ‘cool’ program to play around with as I thought before, it actually has literary value and can take distant reading to the next level.  

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