In a few hours, I’ll be out the door and on my way to a four-month sabbatical leave. Before I go, I’m pleased to report that I managed to knock off another title from my New Year’s resolution reading list. As Likely Stories and REaD ALERT readers know, earlier this year I decided to get out of my reading rut and asked people to recommend good books that aren’t the kind of thing I usually read. The majority of the titles were YA—a little surprising, perhaps, but fine with me. YA is a growing and popular field that I don’t know enough about.
So: The Hunger Games. I knew it was a phenomenon and I knew the premise but that was it. Despite the incredible excitement surrounding this book and its sequels, I was still able to read it with the fresh, unbiased perspective of a man who’s just crawled out of a cave. The short take is that it’s not really for me but I still liked it pretty well. I stayed home last Friday night and read the final third in a headlong rush, and I’m certainly curious about what happens in the sequels. But even though the story pulled me right along I found myself most interested in thinking about it as a work of popular YA fiction. Why is it so astonishingly popular?
In the unlikely event that you have recently crawled out of a cave, The Hunger Games is a work of dystopian fiction set in the United States. There aren’t any states anymore, however; they’ve been replaced by districts. The country’s rulers seem to live in Colorado or thereabouts and exact a heavy tribute from the poorer districts, like District 12, which must have been Appalachia and is where our heroine Katniss lives. To remind everyone who’s boss, every year the rich and frivolous people in the capitol stage the Hunger Games, a reality show in which two teenagers from every district fight to the death in an outdoor setting.
There are precedents for this concept, of course, ranging from Lord of the Flies to The Running Man (one of Stephen King’s Bachman books and also a Schwarzenegger movie) to Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (the film of which is has a cult following that includes Quentin Tarantino). But Collins’ book seems to be perfectly of its time, combining fears of societal breakdown with a forthright commentary on our seemingly insatiable appetite for reality TV. If at the heart of “reality” shows (and our use of that word demands more scrutiny) is the thrill of schadenfreude, then watching other people die doesn’t seem like such a stretch. The Hunger Games gets pretty Roman, which of course reminds us of far earlier antecedents than Lord of the Flies.
But what makes this such a hit for young adults in particular? Well, given that I recently read Ender’s Game, I thought it was pretty interesting to see both male (Orson Scott Card’s) and female (Collins’) takes on the “game” of growing up in a dangerous world. Precocious youngster Ender Wiggin resents having the weight of the world thrust upon his shoulders—and it is literally the whole world he’s charged with saving. Katniss doesn’t have to save the world, she has to save her family. And while Ender’s world, battle school, is like a particularly brutal boarding school, Katniss’ world is both more and less specific. Physically, it’s limited to the very large, mostly forested game area. But psychologically it is the world of many young women. As in school, survival depends on choosing the right friends. (Peeta seems like a good guy, but can she trust him?) And the fact that her every move is or can be broadcast to the world strongly suggests the self-consciousness that accompanies impending adulthood. People are watching! Katniss always tries to put on a tough brave face, but inside she’s an emotional creature who sometimes just needs to cry in her room.
Like Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games is a book that can be enjoyed by both genders—but there’s a special allure for young women. Katniss is a tough tomboy who can shoot an arrow through a rabbit’s eye but when she’s thrust upon the big stage she gets to wear futuristic clothes and makeup that today’s young women can only hope are being developed in top-secret fashion laboratories. The polishing and the presentation of the contestants is both Collins’ commentary on reality-show culture and a lure to the young women who have been raised within that culture.
Fascinating stuff and, as I said, I enjoyed it. I may read more. But over the next four months I’ll be working on my own books for young people—middle graders, not young adults. And mine are about dreams and monsters and eccentric families, not the decline of western civilization. I get quite enough of that from the newspapers. I’ll be back to Booklist in January 2012. See you then!
Oh, hey…I just crawled out from a cave. This is going to be a movie?