Monday, March 5, 2012

The Hunger Games, part 1

Based on popular request, Looking for Overland:YE Speak is beginning book reviews of young adult fiction. A poll on our Facebook fan page showed that The Hunger Games was by far the book receiving the most interest. Book one is reviewed here and the second two are reviewed together in a subsequent post.

Author Suzanne Collins has stated that she was prompted to write The Hunger Games, in part, after channel surfing one evening and finding footage of military conflict and reality TV on two neighboring channels. The resulting story, consistent with that juxtaposition, is torn between entertainment and horror; it serves as a sobering commentary on our current culture.

But Collins’ inspiration runs deeper. She was also inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus. According to legend, King Minos punished Athens by taking seven youths and seven maidens every seven years to be fed to the Minotaur. One year Theseus, whose sister was among those chosen, volunteered. He successfully navigates the labyrinth, kills the Minotaur, and rescues his sister.

Collins takes this basic plot and sets it in Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America divided into thirteen districts governed by a central decadent capital city. But this is no Percy Jackson retelling; it is much more grim. The story begins sometime after district thirteen rebelled and was destroyed. Ever since the rebellion the capital reasserts its authority by taking two children each year, one boy and one girl between 12 and 18, to compete in the Hunger Games - a nationally-televised fight to the death in a multi-acre deadly obstacle course. The competitors battle each other, the elements, and the arena itself, until only one remains alive. Should the games get to boring over their multi-day span, the game designers can always create a flood or rain down fire to get the excitement going again.

The story is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the games in place of her younger sister. She then must navigate the celebrity culture that comes with being a contestant, parading before people impatient to watch her kill or be killed. She is a commodity—a piece of entertainment to them. Once the games begin, the book transforms into a survival story. It is so well told that the reader can even forget that the entire arena is contrived. That is, until the game designers make changes—jarringly reminding the reader of the cruel reality. Katniss must constantly determine how far she will go with the games, and how even through her forced compliance she can expose them for the evil they are. Ultimately, in a final act of defiance, she is able to win the crowd and make even the game designers relax their last rule.

The storytelling itself is a gripping first-person narrative which readers have difficulty putting down. I think I read it in virtually one sitting, and I know I’m not the only one to do so. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and thrilling. Readers can’t help but sympathize with the children and hate those who force them to fight. But at the same time, Collins also develops a sympathy for the citizens of the capital, who cannot see what they are doing. While not classic literature, The Hunger Games weaves these various themes together into a compelling story.

But it is also haunting and disturbing, which makes it complicated to analyze. On the one hand, it’s a story of a young heroine overcoming great odds and defying an oppressive system. There is much to be commended in both Katniss’ selfless devotion to her sister and her unwillingness to play by the contrived rules. On the other, it’s child gladiatorial combat with its fair share of gruesome details.

I’ve determined that it’s best read as a satire of our culture: it appeals to both our search for heroism and our willingness to be entertained by others’ suffering. The Hunger Games exposes and bridges that gap. That, I think is the book’s greatest strength. Through Katniss’ eyes Collins makes the reader experience the horrific consequences of seeking entertainment above all else. And by drawing readers into the thrill of the games, rather than letting them remain passive observers, Collins is able to show rather than merely tell, the thrill of the games. The readers themselves participate in both the rebellion of Katniss and the guilty pleasure of the audience.

But this is also the greatest cause for concern because I fear that not all readers realize how drawn in to the story they become. They won’t realize that it is satire. Instead, much of the fan base seems to have been caught up in the games, just as the citizens of Panem were. Because of this, I would not recommend the book to pre-teens or young teens, however older more discerning teens may still benefit from reading it so long as they were able to see how it reflects our culture. As a rule of thumb for parents, if you would let your child read Lord of the Flies, they could handle The Hunger Games.

* * *

In less than a month, the movie rendition of the the first book is being released. Across North America, millions of people will gather together before a screen watching children fight and kill each other in gladiatorial combat on a contrived set. The lighting will be perfect. Their makeup will be pristine. The effects will be inspiring. We will vicariously participate in Katniss' protest while at the same time demanding that the show go on.

We are Panem.

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