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the hunger games

25 april 2012

I actually first read The Hunger Games some time ago, but have waited till now, and the exigence of preparing to "teach" the novel in a course on Young Adult literature, to write anything about it. The Hunger Games was already a popular phenomenon (as a complete trilogy) by the time I first read it, but it was not yet a major motion picture nor the obligation of every American to spend fifteen minutes a day thinking about.

Such thoughts generally orbit around the emotion of worry. "I'm worried that kids will be reading that kind of thing!" "I'm disturbed about The Hunger Games!" Much hand-wringing has been devoted to the fact that kids seem to like reading violent dystopian fiction. Meanwhile, the fact that adults seem to like reading violent dystopian fiction is less bothersome, apparently. Nobody's all that worried about Cormac McCarthy's winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Road, after all.

We employ a double standard for culture when it comes to children and adults. And of course there are times we should, as when children are just going to be traumatized by certain cultural consumptions. Don't give your kids Saw II when they're at the age for Thomas the Tank Engine. Hell, don't ever give me Saw II, for that matter. Some parts of culture are frankly worrisome, and teenagers are going to find them before too long.

Since they're going to find them, The Hunger Games isn't all that worrisome a place to start. Suzanne Collins's novel is about the vindication of plucky adolescents in a world full of corrupt adults: welcome to Young Adult Literature. Our heroine wins the Games, and she's a good person. She has trouble telling good from bad in others – much of world literature is based on heroines having that problem – but Katniss is essentially all about fair play, resourcefulness, and especially deep sympathy with others, particularly others who aren't treated to fair play and aren't as resourceful as she is.

Katniss kills other kids in the course of the gruesome no-holds-barred Hunger Games. (Killing them – or at least, not getting yourself killed – is the object of the game.) But as no doubt eleventy million commentators have noticed, she kills them indirectly (dumping a nest of mutant hornets on them), or in revenge for something heinous they've done, or as a mercy to them in extremis. She isn't aggressively homicidal, and she doesn't even actually kill in self-defense: "standing her ground" is not Katniss's style, and she prefers to retreat rather than to fight the kind of duel that the Games encourage.

Collins has won both praise and criticism for making her world "dark" and her characters ambiguous. But for all that, Katniss herself remains highly admirable throughout the trilogy. We root for her from page 1. And that's the key to successful Young Adult fiction, especially of the adventure-story kind. No matter what gruesome situations these recent dystopian heroines face, they themselves are like their readers: resourceful, diffident, principled, and selfish by turns, but always people that we identify with and want life to turn out good for.

The Hunger Games offers a keen critique of reality TV, extreme sports, and the technique of tossing opiates to the masses. Bread and circuses (Collins's future US is called "Panem," after all) are distractions, but Collins also shows us how they're ideological reinforcements of ruling-class power. Much of The Hunger Games is expository, but the exposition is woven coolly together with a crackling storyline. To me the eeriest aspect of the book is how well Katniss knows the barbaric rules of the Games. She's watched them on TV, live or re-run, constantly for her whole life, in a world that seems to have no other sports or recreations.

The second two entries in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, are lesser books: I found Catching Fire to be an "instant remake" rather than a development from the original, and Mockingjay is an overpopulated, overcomplicated mess. But when (The Empire Strikes Back always excepted) were the sequel volumes of a speculative-fiction trilogy ever as good as the first?

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. 2008. New York: Scholastic, 2009.