Posted in Literature

A Stoning in the Town Square

Comparing Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

Context: This feature article explores the themes of community endorsed violence in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. The two stories have remarkably similar (and disquieting) scenes where the local community gathers together to send one (or, in the case of the former story, two) members to their ensured and brutal deaths.

War and other forms of violence and brutality seem to be firmly rooted in the culture of the world, as if it were wired into every man’s DNA. Violence has long been a popular topic in literature, but it has rarely been examined and analyzed the way it is in today’s society, which is just as obsessed with violence as it ever was. The themes of violence, war, and brutality have become even more prevalent in today’s media, such as through the news, film, television, and literature. Violence can sometimes be linked to human behavior, situations, culture, and even tradition in the media. Two beloved authors have explored this last topic especially in their most famous works of literature: Shirley Jackson in her classic short story about tradition gone horribly askew in The Lottery, and Suzanne Collins in the bestselling series that started with The Hunger Games, a popular piece of dystopian literature for young adults. Both stories explore particularly heinous acts of violence due to traditions in two very different communities. The violence that comes with each community’s annual traditions is brutal and shocking, stealing the innocence of the children involved and taking the lives of one unlucky person each year, yet the reasons for these traditions, the community’s reactions to it, and the actions of each story’s heroines are not the same.

The unnamed village in The Lottery gathers every citizen in the town square and by the luck of the draw pick one chosen individual to be publically stoned to death. The country of Panem, featured in The Hunger Games, hosts an event each year called the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children and teenagers fight to bring honor and glory to their district. Before analyzing the violent traditions each community takes part in, one must examine the communities themselves. Both of these communities feature miners and can be thought of as poorer areas of their country. The characters in both pieces of literature feel real and are identifiable, even behind the veneer of the wholesome small-town attitude the village in The Lottery holds, or the strange appearance of the grotesque people that populate Panem. Underneath these important, yet shallow, similarities, lies a few very fundamental differences. The village in The Lottery is meant to feel like a typical, contemporary, all-American community filled with characters everyone can recognize, which is done to make the ending scene featuring the stoning of an innocent woman all the more shocking. The Hunger Games takes a very different approach. The novel begins in District 12, the poorest district in all of the country of Panem, a place where starvation is rather common. Panem is thought to be the country of America many years in the future; hence the reason this novel is typically placed under the sub-genre of dystopian literature. District 12 is a place many readers would not typically recognize nor identify with. Setting the book many years into the future makes the moral of the story come across as a warning of what could happen, as opposed to showing the reader what might as well be happening to them now, which is the purpose behind The Lottery.

Each community holds tradition very dearly to their hearts and minds, with these annual rituals occurring for well over a good part of the century. The love of tradition is most evident in Jackson’s The Lottery, plainly stated through the line: “but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represent by the black box” that symbolizes the lottery itself (Jackson 1). Even though no one knows for sure why the villages mentioned in The Lottery hold a public stoning each year, just it has always been done for as long as they can remember, the act is still done each year without fail. While The Annual Hunger Games have been held for nearly a hundred years, about as long as the Lottery has been held, but the purpose of the games is well known. After the country of Panem’s government, called The Capitol, squashed a nation-wide rebellion, each district that participated in the rebellion “must provide one girl and boy, called tributes, to participate” in the Hunger Games (Collins 18). “Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins” (Collins 18). Katniss realizes that by holding the Hunger Games, the annual slaughter of children and teens, each year is “the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy” (Collins 18), believing that the Capitol is sending a message loud and clear: “ ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you’” (Collins 19). While several people in both communities disagree with these brutal, sadistic traditions, no one raises their voice to speak out against it, except for the heroines.

The Lottery and The Hunger Games feature similar enough characters and center on two outspoken heroines who refuse to stay silent about the injustices their community faces. Tessie from The Lottery and The Hunger Game’s iconic heroine Katniss share another similarity: they are both, in one way or another, outsiders. Tessie arrives to the annual Lottery late, showing how she does not fully care for the rules, even at a subconscious level. She runs her mouth enough that her husband tells her to “shut up” because she is embarrassing him by not conforming, despite the fact that she has spoken up as a way of saving his life from the possibility of public execution (Jackson 4). Instead of accepting her fate quietly, Tessie fights back and screams for mercy at the prospect of her approaching death. Katniss is also a rebel, though instead of simply speaking out against injustice, which she knows could get her and her family killed, she chooses other, subtle ways to rebel against her community. She crosses over her district’s boundaries and learns how to hunt, an act which is unthinkable for most citizens of District 12, but her ability to hunt by using a bow and arrow ends up saving Katniss’s life when she enters the Hunger Games. When her younger sister, Primrose, is chosen to be a tribute, Katniss steps up and volunteers to enter the games in her sister’s place, something few people in her district have ever done. Even though she believes by saving her sister’s life, she has just sacrificed her own, Katniss is able to survive the brutal Hunger Games and come out as the year’s victor. Despite her forward nature, Tessie is stoned to death, while Katniss survives, eventually becoming a symbol of rebellion, whereas Tessie is merely a victim of a tradition that has gone very wrong.

The arcatypal heroine fighting injustice is not the only type of character both stories share. Jackson’s grumbly Old Man Werner is similar to the cruel President Snow that rules Panem. Both of these characters are elderly men in their respective communities who are directly affected by change and do their best to reinforce tradition. President Snow is the most powerful leader in the country, while Old Man Werner is simply just another citizen of the village. Werner is like many people from an older generation who complains about the changes in society and how things are not “the way they used to be” (Jackson 5), though his words are heard by many and repeated throughout the story, he as a person is harmless while tradition is the real villain of the story. The polar opposite of this is President Snow: Snow is the true villain, he continues with the tradition of the Hunger Games and never challenges it, knowing full well the cost of the games. He is extremely powerful and no one dares to fully challenge him until Katniss unwittingly sparks a rebellion against him.

Then there are the characters of Mr. Summers, who runs the lottery, and Effie Trinket, a woman who overseas the choosing of tributes for the Hunger Games. Both appear to go along with each society’s violent traditions, full of smiles and laughter. Mr. Summers goes along with the village’s practices without question, he runs the show, never caring about anyone but himself it seems. At first glance Effie appears to be the same way, merely a puppet of the government, coming across as shallow and uncaring, but her façade of compliance seems to crack as the series progresses, making Effie’s alliance to the government anything but solid.

Each story has a typically innocent and pure young girl involved in the events of the plot. Nancy and Primrose are both twelve years old and are examples of femininity compared to the more outspoken heroines, garrulous Tessie and the rebellious, nearly masculine, Katniss. In the reaping (the act of choosing tributes) and lottery scenes, both of these girls are depicted as wearing skirts, while most of the other characters’ attires are not mentioned, along with their ages. The fact that they are both twelve years old show that they are caught between their childhood and the conformity that the adults in their communities exemplify. Nancy is a footnote in The Lottery, being mentioned briefly as Tessie’s daughter. The reader does not see or hear of her reaction to the death of her own mother. Primrose, however, is a much more important character in The Hunger Games because she is Katniss’s little sister, the sister she loves so much she practically sacrifices her own life to save Prim’s. Prim cries as Katniss is taken away to what might be her death. Primrose is caring and loving, while possessing the gentle feminine attributes her sister Katniss lacks. Prim represents innocence, an innocence that is chipped away throughout the series.

Innocence plays a part in both of these works of literature. In both stories, children are innocent victims of vicious traditions such as murder, yet they are also complicit in the murder of others. Little Davey, Tessie’s youngest son, is given a few pebbles to throw at his own mother once she’s been chosen for the ritualistic stoning the community takes part in each year. Similarly, children from the ages of twelve to eighteen are pitted against each other to survive in the Hunger Games. Even at the young age of twelve, these tributes must quickly learn to kill to survive unless they wish to be brutally murdered themselves.

The village in The Lottery murders one of their own by ganging up on the chosen person as a group and stoning the said person together as a vicious example of mob mentality. The tributes in Panem’s Hunger Games must learn to survive typically by themselves. Sure some alliances are formed amongst the tributes, but they all know that sooner or later they will have to kill each other until only one survives. In the slaughterhouse known as the Arena, each tribute is deprived of their dignity and honor, stripped to the most basic of instincts: survival. There is no mob mentality here, only the will to survive to see another day. This makes each tribute’s plight from children with morals to vicious killers all the more tragic. The absence of peer pressure and passion makes their actions barbaric and animalistic by comparison. The participants have not only had their innocence stolen from them, they have seen it torn from them by choice and necessity because the Arena is no place for the innocent.

Suzanne Collins has stated that The Hunger Games was based off of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Roman Gladiator games, and today’s violence obsessed media. Shirley Jackson would later state in the School Library Journal that The Lottery was written “to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Despite these long running bloody traditions, the loss of innocent lives, both stories hold out hope for the future, a future without these unmerciful killings. Despite the popularity of the annual lottery that takes innocent Tessie’s life, one citizen of Jackson’s nameless village mentions that several villages nearby have decided to give up holding the lottery, while Collin’s Panem is last seen in The Hunger Games beginning to plan a revolt on the Capitol, and believing they will defeat the country’s tyrannical government because this time they have a symbol of hope and justice for their rebellion: Katniss. Both works of literature were written as a reflection of past and present societies that are filled with violence while being a glance into a future that might exist if people do not take a stand against violent rituals similar to the lottery and the hunger games that take the lives of innocent people all for the sake of tradition and conformity.

Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Corporation, 2008.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker, 1948.

Margolis, Rick. A Killer Story: An Interview with Suzanne Collins, Author of ‘The Hunger Games’ | Under Cover. School Library Journal, 2008.

Posted in History, Literature

Feasts and Tigers: Titus Andronicus On Film and Stage

Context: William Shakespeare’s scorned and much maligned play Titus Andronicus contains enough violence that would even make seasoned modern viewers cringe. Yet in 1999, one fearless director, Julie Taymor, decided to adapt the little seen play in to a feature film. In this feature article I have compared the original text to its film adaptation. This article functions as both a review and an in-depth examination of both film and play. A word of caution: neither film nor play were meant for the squeamish. This article is not afraid to tackle the difficult and violent subject matter.

Spoilers and descriptions of graphic content to follow.

There’s a famous saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. One Roman general would disagree. Titus Andronicus believes that revenge is a dish best served with the meat of your enemies carefully spread across the plate.

Some critics have dubbed William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s worst play, others call it his most violent and cruel play, but to fans, the play about revenge is a hidden gem that has been ignored for centuries. I tend to agree with the latter.

After reading the play many have asked why Shakespeare would write such a play, a play that features scenes and themes of rape, murder, war, and cannibalism portrayed on and off stage. At the time Shakespeare wrote Titus, the revenge tragedy was a popular form of entertainment, which was usually filled with excess bloodshed and cruelty done in the sake of a character’s revenge. One can imagine Shakespeare hearing about the popularity of these plays and thinking to himself: “you want bloodshed, cruelty, and revenge? I’ll give it to you!” From these revenge plays, Titus Andronicus was born.

The Plot

Titus Andronicus takes the idea of a revenge tragedy to the next level. It is part exploitation, part revenge tragedy, part historical drama based in mythology, and part…well, Shakespeare. The play starts off with Roman soldiers returning home with victory to Rome after years of fighting the Goths, a Germanic people, right as the old emperor dies. The General of the Roman army is Titus Andronicus, a cold-hearted man who has spent most of his life on the battlefield it seems. He brings home with him several prisoners of war: the Goth Queen Tamora, her three sons, and a Moor named Aaron. While the two princes, Saturninus and Bassianus, fight over the throne, Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son as part of a fake sacrifice and also out of revenge for the many sons he has lost in the war. Tamora swears revenge on Titus, willing to do it by whatever means necessary.

Saturninus, a hotheaded fellow, is crowned emperor and decides to free the Goth prisoners and takes Tamora as his wife. Aaron is revealed to be Tamora’s lover and he too is in on this plot of revenge. He turns Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, from two young men in love with Lavinia, Bassionus’s wife and Titus’s only and beloved daughter, into cold-blooded rapists and killers. In a blood-curling scene, the brothers kill Bassianus as Lavinia is forced to watch, she is then dragged off deep into the woods where she is raped and mutilated. The boys cut out her tongue and cut off her hands she can’t reveal the names of her attackers. Feeling squeamish yet? Two of Titus’s remaining sons are arrested for the death of Bassianus and Titus lets Aaron cut his own hand off because he, not thinking anything through at the moment, believes that this will get his sons back. So in this version of Rome the saying goes as “a hand for a life” instead of “an eye for an eye”? Titus’s sons are killed anyways and Aaron leaves laughing with glee at his villainy.

Lavinia is able to write the name of her attackers in the ground by holding a stick in her mouth. Titus realizes what has happened and he too swears revenge, except he will go further than Tamora ever planned: he will commit one of the ultimate sins. Titus tracks Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia’s rapists, down and kills them.

Then in the play’s most notorious scene: he has Saturninus and Tamora eat her own sons unknowingly after Titus baked them into a pie. Some say revenge is dish best served cold, but here it served piping hot and it must be oh so tasty. Yes, if you thought that rape and mutilation were the most disturbing scenes this play could come up with, you have misjudged the depravity of Shakespeare’s mind. The play ends with Titus killing Lavinia, out of “mercy” (like an honor killing), then Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Titus’s eldest son Lucius kills Saturninus as Lucius’s son (Young Lucius) watches. Can you guess what this play is a commentary about? Violence.

Shakespeare might have written Titus Andronicus as a way of mocking other playwrites at the time who wrote gruesome revenge tragedies, but the play ends up becoming the very same revenge tragedy it might have started out mocking. Titus is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated and conflicted tragic heroes, or one of his worst villains depending on how one views him. This is a man who starts off at the top of his power and by the end of the play has been banished from his country, stripped of titles, has had most of his children killed with his favorite child raped and mutilated, and reverts to insanity as a way to cope with his personal tragedies. His insanity sets the stage for Hamlet who would enter Shakespeare’s mind a few years later when the Bard was at the top of his game.

Titus on Film

In 1999, Julie Taymor decided to adapt Titus Andronicus into a film, which she merely titles “Titus”. It would be Titus Andronicus’s first time on the big screen after a few made for television adaptations by the BBC in the past. Here the $25 million budget shows and is put to good use because Taymor’s adaption is Shakespeare like most have never seen before. Shakespeare’s writing is filled with anachronisms. Taymor takes this to the extreme. Her film takes on “2,000 years of violence,” as Taymor is fond of saying.

In a film very visually based, the most outstanding visual is also the most tragic: her uncle approaches Lavinia in a swamp right after she has been raped. He asks her to speak, but as she opens her mouth no word comes out, only a ribbon of blood. This visual is scored by the film’s most heartbreaking part of the score. The film is very surreal and is geared towards Shakespeare fans and art-house viewers alike, not the rowdy masses.

Play vs. Film: Changes

The most noteworthy change from text to film is Taymor’s use of Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson. Young Lucius is almost the film’s visual narrator, despite the fact that he rarely speaks. He shuttles the film from one scene to the next and is present for the film’s climax, a statement on how violence is witnessed by children. The film’s ending shot is a major change from the play. Young Lucius decides to stop another generation of violence from occurring, so he takes Aaron’s newborn son and approaches the rising sun, symbolic of the film’s message: violence ends lives, but violence can end, maybe through the lives of our children. It is a beautiful and poetic image that will last with the viewer for days, giving them hope of a new tomorrow after a two and a half hour bloodbath.

Set Design & Costumes

The film’s sets and costumes are a mixture of ancient and modern styles. Titus and his soldiers in the opening of the film wear Roman soldier garb: armored to the nines. Lavinia wears dresses throughout the film and her costumes in her first and last apperances are framed with veils—black for her introduction as a way to show she is morning her brothers, and white (a symbol of the virginity that was taken from her) for the day she dies, in a sick twist on the typical clothing a bride would wear. Lavinia and Tamora both wear red at the height of their revenge: Tamora’s coat is red in the scene before Lavinia’s rape when Tamora refuses to save the girl, while Lavinia wears a red dress when she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Saturninus is fashioned after fascist dictators from the thirties and everything from his car to his costumes reflect that. Chiron and Demetrius’s costumes at times are clearly influenced by the rock and grunge style at the time, but also by the costumes of the underage gang members in “A Clockwork Orange”—emulating a mix of modern and futuristic violence in their clothing. Aaron wears black and navy blue trench coats throughout the film, almost as if it’s shielding him from the blackness inside his cold soul. Titus’s armor disappears over the course of the film until the film’s climax where he wears a chef’s uniform. The Goths have tattooed bodies that in some moments, especially in some of Tamora’s scenes, almost look like snakes are crawling up her arms. Tamora’s makeup is especially reptilian at times, mirroring how she easily sheds her skin to be whatever she needs to be to get revenge and regain the power she so easily lost. The costumes in Taymor’s film are rife with meaning and symbolism.

The Performances

Taymor’s film has a lot of great actors in it and they give great performances. Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, an odd choice of casting considering the cannibalistic ties to his most famous performance in “Silence of the Lambs” where he plays a cannibal. Hopkins performance took a while for me to warm up to since he plays the part at once subtly and over the top in the same scenes, but over time I have grown to see the brilliance in his performance. He becomes the tragic figure quite nicely. Jessica Lange is Tamora, a revenge goddess with the body a sexy siren on the outside while playing a bloodthirsty mother within. Harry Lennix gives a blood curdling performance as Aaron—he becomes a devilish figure that will frighten many viewers with his intensity. When he is given a long monologue where Aaron discusses his evil deeds, Lennix’s performance will make your heart stop in those moments. This is by far the best performance of his career. Another standout is Laura Fraser as Lavinia who must transform from the picture of innocence into another vengeful woman. Alan Cumming’s portrayal of Saturninus is that of a weak man with a big temper, a dangerous person to be near when his anger is roused. The whole cast portrays their characters at the top of their game, never slipping out of character for a minute, and, like the director, not afraid to make bold choices.

The Music of Titus

Another benefit of moving the story from stage to screen is the score. Musical scores can help enhance the mood of a film and Elliot Goldenthal’s score here follows this rule. When Titus and his soldiers first enter the film the score bursts to life, filling speakers with the sound of ancient chanting in the piece entitled Victorious Titus. Another standout piece is Pickled Heads, which plays over the scene where Lavinia manages to scribble the names of her rapists in the dirt. The music becomes a frenzied rush of muffled words and instruments playing incredibly fast, almost like music one would hear at a dance, but set with the visuals the piece becomes a terrifying nightmare as we see Lavinia’s surreal portrait of the rape in her memory. Her rapists are depicted as tigers lunging towards her while the music joins forces with the battling images of reality and Lavinia’s surrealistic nightmare. The score jumps between somber and brassy, unsettling and jazzy, making the listener hanging on every note. The music ties in very well with the visuals and after viewing this film several times I can’t hear one without picturing the other.

Social Commentary

The film adaptation and the play Titus Andronicus have a social commentary at the heart of it. The film depicts the dangers of violence in general, while the play reflects the problems of excessive violence in the literature of the time. The clearest example of this is in the film when Demetrius, one of Lavinia’s rapists, is playing a violent video game while smoking a cigarette as images of a half naked women and violence flash across the screen. Both film and play are a commentary on violence and the culture surrounding violence.

Verdict: A Tough to Stomach but Necessary Viewing

I, personally, would highly recommend reading the play, seeing it preformed, or even viewing the film. Titus Andronicus is a fascinating play and has inspired a creative film and several interesting takes of the play on stage. The violence in the play and the film will upset many viewers, but that is the point of the play. The film is a very good adaptation because it transfers its message successfully to the screen while still being a highly creative and intelligent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays.