Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In the post-Harry Potter world, it seems we may be condemned to an endless cycle of Next Big Things from the Young Adult world. Twilight was there to console us when we realized there were no more Potter books coming, and The Hunger Games has followed in that book's wake into the public consciousness. The film is already in production, of course. The loser in this new world order is probably Dan Brown, who will probably have to write a book for teenagers if he's ever going to be popular again.

I am a fan of Harry Potter but I have refused to read Twilight, which seems unbearable. One of my students asked me to read The Hunger Games, which is better written and more imaginative than Twilight, but a poor substitute for Harry Potter. Firstly, it cribs shamelessly from a Japanese novel/manga called Battle Royale: both are about teenagers being selected by a despotic government to compete in a brutal competition where the last survivor wins. In both books, this is depicted as a means of controlling the population through fear; in The Hunger Games it is also a punishment for a long-ago populist insurrection.

The protagonist of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (ugh), volunteers to go in place of her little sister, who has been chosen by lottery. As each "district" must send two competitors, she is joined by Peeta Mellark (ugh), a local baker's son, and assisted by a former winner from her district whose alcoholism renders him less than helpful. For a competition in which the competitors are chosen at random, the representatives from the other eleven district seem to be have unusually advanced combat skills.

The Hunger Games is characterized by its inconsistency, but occasionally exhibits imaginative flair. It flirts with social commentary by turning the Games into a kind of televised spectacle. The audience can contribute money to "sponsor" competitors, who receive helpful gifts by parachute; competitors from the wealthier districts naturally have an advantage. Katniss, Peeta, and their mentor Haymitch operate according to a peculiar game plan: If they pretend that Peeta and Katniss are in love, then the popularity of their televised romance will provide them with sponsors. And maybe, just maybe--spoiler alert--the "Gamemakers" will change the rules of the game so that two competitors from the same district can win.

I have two issues with this. The first is that it is stupid. Not only does it lead to an awful lot of teenage makeouts on the killing field, assuming that your romance would provide the leverage to force the hand of the all-powerful regime in the Capitol is a horrible plan. Unsurprisingly, it works.

The second problem is more significant: It thematically undermines the book. The Capitol controls the population through propaganda, of which the Games are a central part, and we are meant to be appalled by how willing people are to tune in to teenagers being murdered on their TV. But the love scheme (to the extent that it is a scheme and not the precursor of a real romance) turns Peeta and Katniss into propagandists. This dystopia is characterized by an obsession with appearances and media, why then are Peeta and Katniss' "stylists" depicted as guardian angels, who sympathize with their plight and help them win? Katniss wants to rebel against the brutality of the system, but her success in the Games looks conspicuously like a validation of that system's efficacy.

I fear that these problems are impossible to fix because the book is by nature contradictory. Yes, the system is brutal and the population bloodthirsty and shallow, but the pleasure we get out of reading about teenagers speared or burned or bludgeoned to death is uncomfortably like the pleasure the Capitol provides its audiences. If Collins were a better writer, this might be tempered by some grave reflection on death--not unheard of in children's fiction--but what minor guilt Katniss shows is fleeting and thin. Death in The Hunger Games is popcorn stuff, and will probably look spectacular on the big screen, but looking spectacular may be all it can manage.

Other reviews:



Brent Waggoner said...

Good review. I completely agree with it in spite of enjoying the book more than you did.

Christopher said...

You know what? I do get emotional, laughter at the same time.

billy said...

because this book has been reviewed four times already, i figure i'll just add my thoughts to your post. first, it was like popcorn for me: light, tasty, not a whole lot of substance. it was quick and entertaining, and i'll probably read the second and third, but only because they'll probably only take another half an hour or so. second, do you really think the games are propaganda, at least in a sense comparable to katniss and peeta's star cross'd lovers ruse? it just never seemed subtle enough to me to count as deceptive, the threat not very veiled. also, do you think the power disparity plays any role in comparing the two? the capital's propaganda forces a seemingly near helpless populace further into submission, while kat and pete (i, too, hate the names in this book) deceive (maybe? seems like it's not all pretend) in order to survive the ordeal that they are subjected to by a crushing oppressor. i don't know if that makes any difference, i'm just pointing out a distinction (yeah law school). also, i agree with jim that it was nice to read a young adult book with a worthy heroine