The Hunger Games as Entertainment: Real or Not Real?

I tend not to like something if everyone is in love with it. (One of the many reasons I won’t touch Twilight.) I had heard so much about the unputdownable, unbelievable, never-before-seen Hunger Games trilogy that I wasn’t gonna be reading them any time soon. Instead, I had these books ambush me—my roommate started reading the first two chapters aloud while I was cooking or something. I listened because I had no choice. Then one day she left the room and it was sitting there on the shelf and I couldn’t hold back and I read the whole thing in one sitting with no bathroom breaks. Hi, I’m Elena, and I’m addicted to books.

But I hope you’ll read it too, if you haven’t already, and you’ll see why the trilogy The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay made a serious splash. Emphasis on serious. One review described them as “Gladiator meets Project Runway” which feels oddly appropriate. (For a more in-depth review, check out this one. Not responsible for spoilers, though.) For those of you who haven’t read them, Janie B. Cheaney gives an intense summary:

“How’s this for a scenario: In the future, the USA has been divided into 13 districts, and the strongest dominates all the others. One form of domination is the annual televised exhibition in which two teens from each district compete for the prize of being allowed to live. Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old poacher from District Twelve, volunteers to replace her younger sister who was chosen by lot to be one of the district competitors. Katniss and her fellow competitor Peeta are transported to the capital city, where they will compete to be the last teen standing in a glitzy, media-frantic, widely anticipated, hotly contested, brutal and bloody fight to the death.”

Yeesh. Not my kind of book. And yet the books were so compelling that I heartily recommend them. If reading the above paragraph doesn’t make you throw up, you’ll probably be fine. And here’s why:

Author Suzanne Collins has a clear, fast, “flat” writing voice that makes dramatic events approachable and the action march steadily onward. This means that her descriptions of teens fighting to the death feels remarkably like her descriptions of teens participating in a fashion show—both are steady, intense, and pretty low on the emotional scale. Even more importantly, the books’ violence serves to tell a story and not to indulge in gratuitous brutality. Collins does a good job of showing some pretty awful events without making them either glamorous or trivialized.

Instead, our main character Katniss narrates some pretty brutal things in her flat, unemotional voice. Which leads to my second point: Katniss doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of moral backbone. You’re just watching people die? I was thinking in the first book. You’re going to kill them yourself? As the books went on, I saw some moral consciousness surfacing, but nothing very strong or universal. And yet—this is how I justify it to myself—and yet, I think Collins also tells this part very, very well: these kids have grown up with this sick system. It’s expected that if the lottery picks them, they will kill or be killed. They all know it, and it’s a brutal part of their brutal lives. It reminds me of ancient Rome and other civilizations who became so desensitized to their own cruelty that they gathered to watch lions tear people apart. The children of the Hunger Games are psychologically consistent with their world. It’s just a sad, sick world to begin with.

Which brings me to my third point: violence should not be glamorized, but neither should it be passed over. Stephen King, in his review of the first novel, said “Reading The Hunger Games is as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex; you know it’s not real, but you keep plugging in quarters anyway.”

Hmmm. That’s funny, because in the middle of one of the arena scenes (in which Katniss and other players try to kill each other while avoiding tricks that the “Gamemakers” have planted throughout the arena), I thought, “I feel like I’m in a video game.” And then I did a little search. Sure enough, the internet is full of people clamoring for the video game to come out. Where (I presume) players will use their character to fight and kill other characters after the model of, oh, almost every video game out there. And now the model of the Hunger Games.

[Okay, so these kids are younger, but this is how I felt while reading. Click on photos for credit.]

 

What am I supposed to make of this? Everyone will acknowledge the depravity of a game that forces children to kill each other while their country watches it on a screen. In these books children are being manipulated by a controlling audience’s insatiable thirst for violence. Ok, so the idea of the Hunger Games is twisted. But what about the games we play where children use their own controllable character to kill other characters on-screen? How are the books different from the video games we ourselves play, where violence is a staple commodity?

I really don’t know. And what troubles me even more? Both books and video games are designed for our “entertainment.”

What is the difference between reading about a “game” (disturbed!) and playing the game ourselves (sweet!)? How can we condemn one brutal, intense, graphic world and yet participate in a similar world where we ourselves are the controllers? Well, you might say, it’s not real. True. Neither video games nor Young Adult novels are “real”. But the thing we often love about literature (and, you could say, about video games) is that it shows us reality in a different skin. So if none of it’s real, why on earth are we wasting our time? And if it is real, who am I to say one is harmful, when I’ll happily join in the other one?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share.

So Yesterday: the book of COOL.

Book of the…(week? month? depends on the next great book, I guess) is So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld. It’s about Hunter, a seventeen-year-old who’s paid to find the latest, greatest trends for mass-marketing, and Jen, an “Innovator”–one of the kids inventing the latest, greatest before anyone else . Because, of course, once everyone is wearing it, it’s just not cool anymore. Initially I thought this story was about whether an innovator (someone who invents crazy new styles) and a trendsetter (someone who steals those inventions and sells them on the retail market) can be friends. Instead it quickly blows up into something bigger: there’s a pecking order here, from global companies to mindless consumers to late adopters to the I-would-rather-die-than-adjust-to-something-new. Everyone I know fits in somewhere. And it’s a dangerous, brand-maniacal world out there.

In my opinion, what Scott Westerfeld does really, really well is take one aspect of culture and magnify it, twisting it to see what happens when it goes just a nudge farther. In his trilogy Uglies, Pretties, and Specials, it was the idea of beauty. What would happen–these books ask–if we invented the perfect formula for beautiful people? And then did surgery on everyone? It’s a fascinating series, one that asks questions about human dignity, the growing-up process, and the role of science as authority. And they’re ridiculously engrossing sci-fi novels. Maybe more on them later.

Well, in So Yesterday, he’s done it again. This time, it’s the idea of cool. Here, in almost the same New York City we have today, cool is absolutely king. Mass marketing is moving at breakneck speed, and what was IN last week is so pathetically OLD today you shouldn’t bury your grandmother in it. The main character, Hunter, is paid by companies to advertise and collect data, but he’s not paid to talk about them them–so he doesn’t. He refuses to name any name brands whatsoever in the book, referring to them obliquely instead (phones made by “a certain company in Finland”, a quote from a certain “dysfunctional father” in a television show), because otherwise it would be advertising. He makes an exception for the ubiquitous Google. (Hmmm.)

This book only increased my desire to rail loudly at the mass-media advertising constantly streaming toward my skull. I can’t even walk into a grocery store anymore without being overwhelmed by seventeen brands of peanut butter and four hundred varieties of the snack-I-didn’t-know-I-needed-but-now-I-will-clearly-die-without. It makes me physically ill. Seriously, people! …But I digress.

It was refreshing to read a book about consumer culture with brand names so conspicuously absent. I also appreciated Westerfeld’s balanced look at the ways “cool” culture develops a life of its own. I became sadly reconciled to the fact that I will never, never be an early adopter. I can’t even figure out how to work the microwave properly. (Apparently you’re supposed to take it out before the smoke starts pouring around the edges. Who knew?)

Elena's Brownie Cupcake Disaster

If this is what I can do to brownie cupcakes, don't let me anywhere near your coolness.

It’s a great book; I’d recommend it. Check it out, and the trilogy, by clicking on the pictures. (There are no links to burned brownies, sorry. But I can recommend some tips if you want to make it yourself.)

Anna to the Infinite Power: 5 Reasons to Read This Book(Or Not)

Anna Zimmerman Hart is a little different. She’s brilliant at science; she can do math faster than computers; she’s also a pathological thief and liar. Her brother Rowan, a musician, cannot understand her; he sees her as self-absorbed and detached. Anna and Rowan have grown up in a dystopian world where food is scarce, families usually have one child, and they have to check in with a special computer everywhere they go.

But one day the siblings don’t check in. By chance, they meet another girl who looks identical to Anna, and whose first two names are also Anna Zimmerman. When Rowan asks his mother about it, she spills the big secret: Anna is actually a clone of a great scientist who died. And so is this other girl. And there’s a big experiment going on here, but Rowan and Anna had better not tell anyone.

While Anna deals with confusion (who is she, anyway?), she is also getting sicker. Is it from cancer? Or something else?

Anna to the Infinite Power builds to a climax which I shall not ruin. But I’ll give you five reasons to pick it up.

  1. Super great title. I heard this title and it kept coming back until I finally got the book—it’s just so intriguing!
  2. Dystopia! Nothing like a little immersion into a twisted world to make you appreciate how good your life really is.
  3. Technology Humor. I enjoyed the passages that explained the computer in great detail. The book was written in 1981, long before Internet, and I had to smile at the painstaking description of the “information-gathering machine.” It’s something we take for granted today (i.e., a computer and a Google search), but it’s fun to see how people thought before they had that technology.
  4. Identity Themes. I was actually a little surprised by this one. Mildred Ames takes the opportunity to explore how it would feel to discover you’re a clone. (It feels not good.) I was impressed by this book’s depth in this area, for a young adult book, and this alone makes it worth the read, I think.
  5. Intensity. I was thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. That’s always a good sign.

Or Not: My critique of Anna to the Infinite Power is that its writing style is a little inconsistent in places, and some parts of the story never feel entirely explained. I didn’t think it was highly significant, though, and I liked the book in spite of this.

It was actually also made into a movie, which I have not seen, but from the clips on YouTube, it looks like a bizarre children’s horror movie. I can’t decide whether to avoid the movie or laugh at it. Haha.

Have you read this book? Will you consider it now? The book (well, eight copies of it) can be found on Amazon here, but it’s out of print now, so you could also check the library…