Saturday, April 3, 2010
The Hunger Games
There is something about young adult fiction and the way in which it is generally written that often grips me far more than anything the "adult" world offers. I don't know exactly what it is - could be that my imagination is arrested as a fifteen-year-old kid who still wishes that magic and spaceships and dystopian societies begging to be overthrown by unlikely heroes were real. I could theorize that young adult fiction simplifies things into clear choices between good and evil, but I think in the book I'll be talking about here, there's anything but that going on. So that's not it. It could also be that they're often about a character who becomes more than they were - they learn what it means to be a man or a woman and learn to make hard choices in the face of impossible odds. I think that's a large part of why I like young adult fiction. Whether it's Harry Potter or Ender's Game (not technically "young adult" in the sense that that's not its target audience, but nonetheless fits all other distinctions of the genre) or The Hunger Games, the characters are facing life-altering, impossible situations and coming through them stronger, less naive, and more aware of themselves and the complexities of their world.
So enough of that. The Hunger Games. By Suzanne Collins. Good. Book.
I read this in a manner of hours. Couldn't put it down, really. The premise is that a young girl, fifteen or sixteen if my memory serves me correctly, by the name of Katniss Everdeen, lives in the post-apocalyptic Panem, the remnants of North America, nowed ruled by the ruthless Capitol who keeps the rest of the country, divided into 12 (previously 13) districts, completely subservient. The Capitol, as penance for old "treason" committed by the districts (instigated by the now-destroyed 13th district, which was wiped out for their role in the rebellion), requires each district to send two "tributes," a boy and a girl, to the Capitol every year for the Hunger Games - which is basically a free-for-all slaughterfest broadcast on TV in which the last man standing wins. As you might guess, Katniss becomes one of these tributes, and the book focuses on her struggle to survive the Hunger Games and deal with the idea that in order to win, she has to kill or be killed.
But all the coming-of-age storyline I'd like to put aside for now, and talk about the brilliant way in which Collins draws the world she creates in the story. It's really an allegory - though the allegory is secondary to the plot and characters. Capitol represents, I think, a version of today's developed nations. It's a resource-sucking monster at the center of Panem, it citizens growing fat on the resources thay glean from the subservient districts in their sway. In Capitol, every citizen can have their every whim granted. Surgical procedures keep people looking young and healthy, food comes at the touch of a button, even hygiene is automated so that one can select fragrances and lotions added to one's shower to keep one smelling fresh and looking young.
And - they think nothing of spending the lives of those who make their way of life possible for some cheap entertainment.
I can't help but consider the correlations between Capitol and our own nation. The relatively recent ascendancy of reality television is in some ways a smaller-scale version of the Hunger Games, using the lives of ordinary people, affecting change for better or worse through the way the producers choose to depict them. Shows like the Bachelor, American Idol (which I incidentally love despite perhaps my better judgment), Survivor, etc., all take "ordinary" people and exploit them in some way. They take hours and hours of footage, then edit to shape each person into a stereotype - hero, villain, clown, seductress, country bumpkin, or whatever fits the profile in order to entertain. The people are fictionalized so that the audience assumes this is how they truly are, and this, I'm sure, affects all of them to some extent in their real lives. I suppose one could argue that these people knowingly enter into agreements with the television shows they appear upon, and do reap benefits from these appearances, but at what cost?
Secondly, the correlation between Capitol as fattening itself on the fruits of the labor of others and the destruction of the resources of the other districts also seems to point its finger at the way in which developed nations like the US, and now, developing nations like India and China, build themselves up on the backs of the labor and resources of those less economically equipped and powerful. There's something powerful about the way literature is able to draw those comparisons in a way that makes the concepts clear to us. As Collins causes us to follow Katniss from her hardscrabble life in District 12, where she must hunt daily for food or the family goes hungry, to her adventure to the Capitol, where she need only hit a button and get as much as she wants, we are able to see how our lives as rich Americans must seem to those in third world countries and conditions.
But like I mentioned, these are mere undercurrents to the can't-take-a-breath pace of the story, which followed Katniss through wrestling with having to kill, even a boy from her own hometown who one time saved her life through an unsought kindness, in order to preserve her own life. The emotional intensity of the story and the growth of the characters truly makes this a great read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and seeing what conclusion these characters reach. The book in some way reminds me of another of my favorite books, Ender's Game, in that both feature high-stakes games with life-altering consequences. This book is an example of what I hope to be able to write someday.