Saturday, October 1, 2011

“The Hunger Games”: Rock, Paper, Scissors?

A young, brilliant friend of mine who reads a fistful of books each week urged me to read The Hunger Games, and so I did. If you’ve been living under a rock since 2008, when the book was published, I’ll tell you what my friend told me:

The Hunger Games is a new YA sensation, as publishers scramble to replace the Harry Potter franchise. It is a dystopian novel, and the start of a trilogy, set in a dismal future time when the United States has been reconfigured as “Panam,” with twelve “districts” all in thrall to a single capital city. Once a year, a drawing or “reaping” takes place in each of the districts, a lottery in which one boy and one girl, age 12–18, are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games.

Held in an expansive, architecturally designed, mostly natural environment, or “arena,” in the capital, the Games end when 23 competitors have been killed, or die from starvation or dehydration. The Hunger Games is told, present tense, from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, the female competitor from District 12, whose father taught her to hunt before he was killed in a mining accident. This has left Katniss a superb archer and, since she has fed and supported her mother and little sister since the father’s death, a survivor. Slender, 16, and tough as nails, Katniss is the narrator of this book and presumably of the two others in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. This alone—no great spoiler here—should tell you who the victor is. Though it doesn’t tell you half of everything.

About four chapters into the audiobook version, breathlessly read by Carolyn McCormick, I thought, But this is nothing more than “Survivor” for teens! You may wonder why it took me four chapters to catch on, but then I don’t watch the TV reality series and have pretty much been living under a Rock since 2008, when I was received into the Catholic Church.

About four chapters from the end of the yarn, I had another thought: But this is nothing more than Rock, Paper, Scissors for older kids! Each of the final half-dozen survivors of the Hunger Games has a martial skill. While Katniss is the archer, one massive boy hurls stones and another chucks spears. Other surviving competitors hurl knives or have sneakier proprietary skills like camouflage. If you know your history, and the effect of the longbow at Agincourt, you’ll guess that Katniss has the upper hand. You won’t be guessing wrong.

But you will be underestimating the string-pulling ability of both the game-masters and author Suzanne Collins. The game-masters create the environment in which the competitors hunt one another and also have the ability, it turns out, to change the rules of the Games at their whim. They can also unleash natural and unnatural terrors to harry the players or force them into conflict. This leads to some plot twists that made me groan, such gods from such clunky machines! Of course, the strings of the game-masters are pulled by author Collins, and theirs are not the only strings she holds.

Three times Katniss goes soft on another player. Each time, the question must arise in any thinking reader’s mind (it did in mine): What will Katniss do when she has to kill her new ally? Many characters in classic literature have faced such quandaries. Katniss never does, with one possible exception, which I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. In all but one case, Collins solves the quandary for Katniss by having someone else kill off her ally. Indeed, only once before the end of the book is our heroine forced to kill another human being, at which moment she judges that, well, it’s different than killing an animal. And her final kill proves to be a mercy kill.

The only values on display in this arena are animal survival and two forms of love: love of family (Katniss’s love for her little sister lands her in the Games, to begin with) and romantic love. It’s no surprise in a YA potboiler, I suppose, that Katniss falls for one of the male competitors, and when she finally faces the choice of killing him or dying herself, Collins pulls one more string.

In the end, it turns out that the only evil in The Hunger Games lies not in the human heart, the heart of one child forced to kill another, but in the capital, the government, the game-masters, them out there. In the final two chapters, Collins begins pulling more strings, setting us up for volumes 2 and 3, which concern a political rebellion triggered in part by Katniss’s victory in volume 1.

Now in the sequels, I imagine, the series turns truly dystopian, becoming a 1984 for adolescents: Katniss and friends against them. I imagine this, I say, because I doubt that I will read volume 2 or 3. In any event, it would be wrong to call volume 1 dystopian. How could a teenage reader today object to a world in which the fantasies of XBox and PlayStation come to life? Where life is nothing worse, or better, than a shoot-em-up video game with real stakes, in which only romance can save your soul?

It should surprise no one that The Hunger Games is “soon to be a major motion picture.”

There is one line in The Hunger Games that struck me. Katniss’s father told her, “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” This is a play on words in Panam, where katniss is the name of an edible herb. In our world, it would be another kind of statement, and good advice from a father to a daughter. But what self does Katniss Everdeen find in the course of The Hunger Games? I’m not sure she finds any self at all.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Webster! Thanks for writing about this vapid proposal which I put in the category of the vampire series that was all the rage as well. (And lest I seem holier-than-thou I should tell you I read every single one of that looonng series without stopping!!) This stuff, including Pullman (Golden Compass, etc) is really addictive and you-can't-put-it-down but I feel like teen fiction is just spinning in circles, not bringing people anywhere, perhaps b/c the adults are not going anywhere themselves; they haven't the wisdom of lived experience to offer anymore.
    And btw, did you put off reading Davita's Harp for HG?! (It's okay, test everything and all that...)

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