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.)

Book of the Week: Ida B (and her plans for the world)

When I’m sorting through library books I’ve never heard of, and may or may not want to read, I usually make decisions based on one of three things:

1) Cover, front and back. (I’ll be as judgy as I want, thank you very much.)

2) Thickness of book. (And if the book is thick, will I feel smart by checking it out, or –deep down– will I know I’m just an incompetent phony?)

3) First four pages of book. (That’s all you get. I have a short library-previewing attention span.)

My latest greatest book passed all three tests, and it’s called Ida B. …and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World. Who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? From the back of the book:

This is what I have for lunch every single day: peanut butter on one slice of bread, milk, and an apple, preferably a McIntosh because they’re tangy with a thin skin, which Daddy says resembles me at times.

“Don’t you want to try something different, Ida B?” Daddy will say.

Well, by lunchtime I’m wide awake and I’ve already been busy doing my chores and learning and having some fun. I’ve got a list of things that I can’t wait to do in the afternoon, my head is filled to the rim with interesting ideas and plans, and that’s exactly how I want it to stay.

“There are too many things to think about in this world besides what I’m going to have for lunch, Daddy,” I say, and he looks at me like I am a true mystery.

Ida B Applewood swoops her readers into her world, where everything is exciting and interesting and half the fun of doing things is making plans for them first. She’s imaginative, insightful, and very serious about having fun. She makes stick rafts and sends them down her creek with notes asking people to write back and answer the important questions–“If this raft reaches the ocean, will you please let us know? Thank you very much.” And includes her address. She gets tired of washing her face so she tries leaving the soap on permanently. Every one of the apple trees in her orchard has a name and a personality.

I like this girl.

But then, things happen in Ida B’s life that she could not have planned for. Her family starts going through some hard times, and Ida has to go to public school, which she hates. Her parents make decisions about her life that feel an awful lot like betrayal. These problems are waaay too big for Ida to plan for. Ida B’s only solution is to make her heart small, and hard, and black. And getting back to having fun and saving the world is going to be tough to do.

I loved this book (by Katherine Hannigan) because Ida B is so real, so good at telling us about problems from a kid’s point of view. It’s so easy for me to say, But Ida B, it’s gonna be okay–but when I was Ida B’s size, her problems would  have looked absolutely huge to me. Who knows if it’s really gonna be okay?

You’ll just have to read 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…

The Princess Bride (Wait, is this a kissing book?)

"S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure"

Today we’re continuing with a review of a book better known by its movie counterpart–but it’s a book first and forever.  If you’ve seen the movie, “The Princess Bride” you’ll still want to read this book.  For those of you who haven’t seen it or read it (do these people even exist?), here’s a little teaser:

Buttercup, who has risen to the title of most beautiful woman in the history of the world, waits for her true love, Westley, only to hear he has been lost at sea.  She vows to never love again, and keeps her vow, but agrees to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck (evil, but ridiculously smart and wants her for low-handed political reasons).  But when the Prince’s plans go slightly awry, and the Dread Pirate Roberts comes on the scene, it’s only the beginning of scores of adventures and interesting characters.  The prologue says it best:

[Young William Goldman] “Has it got any sports in it?”

[Father] “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison.  True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

[Young William Goldman] “Sounds okay,” I said, and I kind of closed my eyes. “I’ll do my best to stay awake…but I’m awful sleepy, Daddy…”

Do you ever find an author that makes you want to keep reading, and you’re fifteen or twenty pages in before you realize the author has said nothing of significance?  And you don’t care?  The Princess Bride does that for me.  And it happens while I’m reading the preface, for pity’s sake.  (Side note: I’ve done this with other books too–once I read a whole 432-page kid’s thriller novel like the outcome of World Peace, and possibly the World Cup, depended on my finishing it in under half an hour.  (And it took me longer than that–now we know why the world is the way it is.  Sorry, folks.)  Anyway, I read the last page, shut the book, gasping like a marathon runner, and thought to myself, “That was dumb.”  Ah, the power of thriller novels.  I was powerless to do anything until it was read cover to cover, and then I realized I didn’t even like the book. And then I read the second one! (It was very persuasive.)  And this wasn’t even a full blown ax-murderer story!  It was about some genetically altered kids with wings.  I don’t know if I should link to it, since this wasn’t an entirely positive description, but if you’re interested, you can find it here.  Just cancel your life beforehand.)    Warning warning warning we are now returning to our previous altitude in the above-parentheses stratosphere.  Thank you.

 

If you flip the movie case around, it says the same thing upside-down.

They say that readers have to like the narrator to like the story–and the narrator of The Princess Bride is both charming and snarky.  I know it’s hard to imagine both of those together, so I’ve mined some examples for you skeptics:

The land of Florin was set between where Sweden and Germany would eventually settle.  (This was before Europe).  In theory, it was ruled by King Lotharon and his second wife, the Queen.  But in fact, the King was barely hanging on, could only rarely tell day from night, and basically spent his time in muttering.  He was very old, every organ in his body had long since betrayed him, and most of his important decisions regarding Florin had a certain arbitrary quality that bothered many of the leading citizens.  (Chp. 1)

In what must be an attempt to ground the story in history, the narrator tells us whether things have been invented or not.  After mentioning stew, he says,

This was after stew, but so is everything.  When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew.

and then has a small fight between the parents:

“What exactly is it dumpling?” Buttercup’s mother wanted to know.

“You look; you know how” was all he replied. (This was their thirty-third spat of the day–this was long after spats–and he was behind, thirteen to twenty, but he had made up a lot of distance since lunch, when it was seventeen to two against him.)

Charming, right?

Tell us what you think! Have you ever read this book? Why, after all this time, has nobody been able to locate the original, unabridged S. Morgenstern version?

Next week’s book: Alice in Wonderland…

Ella Enchanted: An Exercise in Free Will

“It is helpful to know the proper way to behave, so one can decide whether or not to be proper.” (Ella Enchanted)

Ella of Frell loses her mother at a young age and grows up under the thumb of her stepmother and two stepsisters.  Her one great difficulty in life is not getting to the ball–it’s getting her way.  She’s been “blessed” with obedience by a meddling fairy: If someone commands her to tie her shoe, bake a cake, fail an exam, even cut off her own head, she must do it.  She cannot stop herself.  In the midst of trying to break this curse and save her friendships, she begins a correspondence friendship with the prince of her country.  But she can’t possibly be involved in a kingdom–her curse would make her a weapon in enemy hands.  Ella has to fight against a curse nobody can fight for her–or the results will be even worse than she imagined.

This treasure by Gail Carson Levine is such a clever retelling that I was three quarters of the way through it before I realized it was the story of Cinderella.  No more figurehead beautiful princess here–Ella is smart, thoughtful, resourceful and insightful.  She’s not a perfect person because she wants to be–it’s because she has no choice.  She must eat her peas and make tiny stitches, because she’s been told to; if she had her choice, she’d slurp and yell and play in the mud a lot more often. She’s not a snappy feminist rebel, (which, if you’ve seen the movie retelling, is Anne Hathaway’s character–more on that in a second) but she sure would rather make her own choices. Ella is gentle with her friends and determined against her enemies, and an inspiration to us all.  *sniff* Pass the Kleenex…

And now we come to the problems everyone has when a story is told in multiple media:  If you saw the movie, you either thought Oh, okay, fine, and maybe went out and read the book–or else declared it a sacrilegious outrage and spent the entire movie calling down ancient curses upon it–which, loosely translated, go, “What?  WHAT??? Noooo… That’s not how it–What?!?”–because you’d already read the book.   (If you’ve never done this to a movie experience, you know you’ve had to sit through someone else doing it. Joy.)  It was because the book was your favorite ever, and your hopes have been dashed upon the rocks of Hollywood, and your disappointment has ruined the weekend and possibly your entire life…

Snap out of it!  (Haha, sorry that’s unkind.  I feel your pain… okay, that’s enough.  Snap out of it!)  Even author Levine said, “To fans of the book, I’d suggest regarding the movie as a separate creative act. You might want to think about the choices the screenwriters made and why they may have gone in the direction they did. But I hope you have the breadth and sense of humor to encompass both movie and book.”

What impressed you most about this book?   Did you hold a DVD-burning ceremony?  If you’ve seen both, are there any strong points the movie has that the book did not?