My brother and I have Nooks, and he digitally lent me his download of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games a few weeks ago. I’ve read few books of popular contemporary fiction – my embarrassed dip into the first of the Twilight series was years after the height of the hype, and I have yet to even sniff a Harry Potter book.
Generally I try to read books that tradition says an educated adult should have read (Middlemarch, Frankenstein, Gulliver’s Travels) and, oddly enough, tradition seems to get it right. Most are remarkably worth the effort, although maybe I came to Candide too late, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too soon.
I also return to classics that I loved the first time (Silas Marner, Jane Eyre, The Hound of the Baskervilles). One loves different books for different reasons but I love books that assume faith in God—or lack thereof—as foundational to an individual’s view of the world; that deal with themes of life on earth that remain relevant through the centuries; that give a window into the language and lifestyles of earlier eras; that present intellectual challenges; and that connect people who have read them to one another.
The Hunger Games falls into that last category. Lots of people have read it and it has thereby started a conversation that anyone can join. It has built a common culture, bridging generational gaps (although primarily directed to a young audience) and creating shared vocabulary, shared imagery, and—though this sounds overwrought—shared hopes, shared obsessions. Teenagers and others waited in line for hours to see the movie when it was released this weekend. In my social world—friends, family, acquaintances— I couldn’t escape it. Three couples I know in their twenties and thirties each read the book together and were going to see the movie.
The Hunger Games was my second Nookbook, following close on the velvet slippers of Jane Eyre (which has an excellent corresponding movie). Jane came with ample footnotes so that I could pause and savor sentences that might have deflected my attention:
as Job’s leviathan broke the spear, the dart, and the habergeon, hindrances which others count as iron and brass, I will esteem but straw and rotten wood.
From this to Hunger Games heroine Katniss feeding her cat is a downward jolt:
Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.
Spears and darts are real problems, not metaphors, in The Hunger Games, which paints a fear-filled dystopian future United States ravaged by conquest and tyranny by the wealthy. As I began to understand the premise – that twenty-four 12-18-year-olds would be forced to kill one another in a massive “arena,” televised for a national audience – my powers of prediction began to kick in. Surely, I thought, the book won’t actually go there. The kids will talk to one another, become friends, form an alliance, and rise up against the authorities shuttling them into this sick game. It will be like The Man Who Was Thursday, and those thought to be enemies will all eventually turn out to be on the same side. Not knowing whether they can really trust each other will shape most of the plot, I thought. But I was wrong. Children murdering one another were in fact the centerpiece of the story. This is co-ed Lord of the Flies with a higher body count.
I understand why so many people are obsessed with The Hunger Games. It’s addicting. And easy. And voyeuristic. It’s entertainment. Like most people who have read it, I couldn’t put it down. I found myself sneaking peeks during long traffic lights on my commute (which I don’t advise). But when I finished, I felt rather hollow, like I feel after watching The Bachelor. I didn’t improve my mind by reading it, or gain new insight into the human condition. It didn’t make me long to know the characters in person.
Two things chiefly troubled me about The Hunger Games.
First, the purposeless violence between teenagers is disturbing. The word “games” evokes thoughts of paintball, laser tag, even Halo – competitions where people are running around with guns, targeting one another, and trying to win, but it’s all harmless. The word is used in the book to show how the Capitol (the wealthy city of people in power) can use vocabulary to control its colonies, 1984-esque. Ironically, the word also fools Hunger Games fans. Like Twilight, The Hunger Games avoids sex and profanity, and is thus pitched to a young audience. But there’s a dizzy imbalance between youthful and mature themes. Katniss has never been in love and doesn’t know what to do when Peeta reveals he has a crush on her. Then a boy sends a spear through a 12-year-old girl’s body.
But the grossness of the violence is less disturbing than the moral depravity projected onto children. The Lord of the Rings series has plenty of battle scenes and ork arrows. But The Hunger Games’ killing of kids, by kids, and for kids (to read and to watch), as the characters lie in wait for each other, is deeply troubling. Why do we have an appetite for this? The movie was the third-highest grossing film on its first weekend.
I am reminded of a film with a similar name, Funny Games, another movie I haven’t seen. I saw the trailer though, and read articles about it. It’s about two nice-looking young guys who enter a family’s vacation home on the pretext of borrowing a couple of eggs and proceed to terrorize them with sadistic, violent “games,” simply for their own “entertainment.” The director, Michael Haneke, said, “It’s a film about the portrayal of violence in the media, in movies.” Again, the irony is that The Hunger Games seems to be trying to teach us a lesson about Americans’ taste for violence on screen, but it fosters the vice it reproaches.
It also reminds me of the colorful, Disney-esque TV series Glee, which contains lewd sexual content, including shots of a guy’s “orgasm face” and a scene with two high school aged girls lying in bed kissing. There’s simply something sour in the combination of gratuitously explicit content marketed to the young.
Second, the two main characters are a masculine girl and a feminine boy. Katniss, at age 16, has to provide food for her family and so takes on head-of-the-house responsibilities which launch her into adulthood while making her more masculine. She faces with disillusionment the realities of poverty, is angry at her mother for being weak, and regards her hunting partner Gale as a colleague. She doesn’t know how to be a girl, because her survival and that of her family has depended on her being a hunter, a barterer, and a provider.
Peeta, on the other hand, has grown up in a baker’s shop in relative comfort and doesn’t have Katniss’s mental toughness. In the arena he is passive, needy. When he and Katniss become a team, she is the one protecting and caring for him, as well as strategizing her next move. While Peeta’s doglike devotion to her is sweet, he is weak and, in a word, unmanly.
This reversal of gender roles, a subtle nod to postmodern theories of gender being socially constructed, brings in another bit of vinegar. Suzanne Collins’ depiction of the fractured post-war United States (Panem) shows a place where the wealthy are the enemy and the heroes conform to feminist ideals. That’s, of course, business as usual for contemporary authors and filmmakers, who think they are being transgressive when they are slavishly conforming to politically correct clichés.
The Hunger Games dampened my appetite for the further adventures of Katniss. I don’t think I’ll read the other two books in the trilogy. If I see the movie, it will be to keep up with the conversation.
At twenty-five, I’m still in the midst of discovering my tastes and some of my sensibilities. I feel perfectly open to the appeals of mass entertainment and the pleasures of implausible plots and incredible characters. But I’m finding more and more that what I want from books and movies is something that has the power to pull me towards what’s higher in us. The Hunger Games in that sense marks a turning point for me. It has made me realize that I want more than mere sensation. I want that too, but it isn’t bad if comes in the context of a book that has something to say beyond “ouch.”