Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Hunger Games

So here's something interesting that someone might gather from reading this blog. I tend to shy away from reading books that were published recently or are outrageously popular. The Hunger Games would fall into both categories; the book is so widely appreciated by the general public that you can already see trailers for the movie. Spontaneously I decided to try and shake off my contrarian nature. I resolved that I would see what it is that everyone is talking about.

Mockingbirds and Dystopias

Perhaps the most important thing to know about The Hunger Games is that it is a young adult novel (YA). This book was not intended for me. Thus, what follows here may justifiably be regarded as unfair of me. But you have to keep in mind that just because I no longer read YA novels anymore doesn't mean that I never did. The book that The Hunger Games has most in common with is Ender's Game, and I will be going back to that comparison throughout this review.

The premise of The Hunger Games is simple. After some sort of climactic and apocalyptic event, the United States is separated into 12 Districts and the Capitol. Each year, the Districts are forced to send a teenage boy and girl to the Capitol for a giant free-for-all deathmatch, with the lone winner earning special treatment, food, and resources for his District. Given that the majority of Districts scrape by, this provides incentive for the Districts to get into the competition while, at the same time, having to give up teens for the nasty endurance match keeps the Districts in fear and in line, subservient to the Capitol's power.

Spoilers this point onward.

Holes in the Premise

First off, I found the premise to be inherently flawed. Can you imagine giving up your child without fuss to some emotionless bureaucracy that forces said child to fight for his or her life and probably die brutally to an audience of millions (as every District is required to watch)? I refuse to believe that there weren't revolts on the spot! We've all heard stories of how mothers can lift cars to save their children; humans can be irrationally defensive of their kids. Yet the premise fails to reflect that. Never once do we see or hear of mothers or fathers stepping forth to fight for their children, even if the effort is futile. And I found this rather unbelievable.

Also, the book never explains how such a system came to be and how it is accepted even by those who live in the Capitol. The Capitol folk are portrayed as slightly ignorant but not without heart, and it seems unlikely that these people would be totally cool with a system that viciously exploits 12 regions all in the name of more luxuries. And one can't claim that they are being kept in the dark as they get to see kids murder each other on an annual basis. You'd expect at least SOME empathy and outrage over the injustice of the system but, eerily, you never see it.

Questionable Depths

One of the things that Ender's Game and The Hunger Games have in common is the fact that both feature kids being forced into situations where they have to fight for their lives, adapt quickly, or face the consequences. The difference is in the seriousness. In Ender's Game, we witness the cruel treatment and isolation of Ender, who is forged into a weapon of war to save humanity from utter destruction. All the while, we are led to question whether the ends justify the means, the psychology of soldiers, whether morality comes before survival, and more.

By contrast, The Hunger Games seems to promise a similarly intense tale, but then spends the entire book coddling the protagonist. Katniss is cast as a hardened survivor of a girl, yet virtually gets handed the victory on a platter. She is made to look like the best of them all, she constantly receives gifts from her sponsors (and even gifts from other Districts). She is protected by the boy who transparently moons after her, her skills outstrip and are more useful than those of anyone else in the competition. Whenever she seems to get into actual trouble, she is saved by other sympathetic combatants who conveniently manage to get killed before she has to do them in; gray morality is conveniently and perpetually avoided. The setting, flawed as it is, permits interesting ethical, psychological, and philosophical questions and situations that are all avoided through total absence or convenient cop-outs.


However, all of this is not to suggest that The Hunger Games is bad. I just went into it with high expectations given its popularity, compared it to other YA adults that I had enjoyed, and walked away slightly disappointed. But it was definitely readable, the writing flowed well (though the author like to avoid describing setting for some reason), and the action kept me rolling along. The characters, while sometimes predictable, grew on me. And there were a number of poignant moments scattered throughout that I very much look forward to seeing in the movie.

I enjoyed The Hunger Games and have hope for its sequels, but I don't think I quite understand why it is as popular as it is. All in all, it felt... skeletal. The premise, if fully fleshed out more, could have been spectacular. If more time were spent putting the main characters through some meaningful trials, it would've felt more genuine. I guess I'm just saddened by what could have been. Hopefully the sequels will overcome/answer my criticisms and give me that which I yearn for.

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