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.