veronica slaght debuts on the blog with a review of the first installment of the hottest new literary series …
When my housemate Molly handed me The Hunger Games, she said it would be a good read for my winter break — better than the Nobel Prize-winning piece of literature I was struggling through, something my Pop-pop would have called “easy to put down.”
The Hunger Games is anything but. I read its 374 pages in one evening — an evening that stretched from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. because I couldn’t fall asleep not knowing how it ended.
For background, this “winter break” is not a standard vacation between semesters. I am 25, and this is the gap between losing my job and going back to school. Add the holidays on top of that mess, and you can imagine my reading level. Eighth grade, at best.
So, I tossed aside the literary novel and gratefully accepted my friend’s copy of the Suzanne Collins bestseller, which has captivated a far wider audience than its intended “young adult” readership, i.e. teenagers.
That was last week.
I confess, I’ve already purchased the sequel (I heard it was hard to wrench from the hands of eager 14-year-old girls at the public library).
Set in a dystopic future, The Hunger Games tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who must fight to the death against 23 other teens in a dark yet plausible reality TV show. It’s like “Survivor: Extreme.” The last one alive wins.
The only rule: no cannibalism (that didn’t play well with audiences).
Every year, names are chosen from a lottery — one boy and one girl from each of 12 districts. The “game” is run by the central power in a future country, Panem, that has replaced the United States. The ruling district sees the Hunger Games as a way to keep outer districts fearful and subservient, preventing uprisings against its iron-fisted rule.
Some have called Collins’ trilogy the new Harry Potter. But to me, the only similarities are they’re young adult books popular among grown-ups, and they’re well-written (in contrast to a certain series about vampires that’s so bad I refused to read it).
What The Hunger Games — with its tight, smart, fast-paced writing — does have in common with the Twilight books is a tough, lone-wolf female protagonist pursued by two young men who are very attractive, and yet very different from each other, each reflecting an alternate side of the heroine.
But The Hunger Games offers something the wizard and vampire books do not: a complex vision of reality. Are we, as human beings, inherently good with the potential for evil? Or inherently evil with the potential for good? Is our society progressing toward something better, or something worse?
Collins’ novel explores those questions with subtlety, rather than distilling our complex world into clear-cut morality tales of good and evil. Because aren’t most of us guilty of watching reality television (or professional sports) for entertainment? We enjoy, to varying extents, watching other people risk humiliation and injury. So the fictional people of Panem’s capitol district enjoy watching the Hunger Games.
And about halfway through, it struck me that even enjoying the book, with its depictions of brutality, reveals a certain capacity for something we don’t like to admit about ourselves: We still have a savage side that no amount of civilization can wash out.
Look at the Romans. They had plenty of civilization. Yet their society still devolved to a place where people paid to watch others get eaten by wolves. Maybe they had too much civilization, too much progress. Maybe The Hunger Games offers a warning vision of what could happen if we follow the same path.
What it undoubtedly offers is a gripping tale that also forces us to examine the good and bad of living in human society. The story does that by mirroring the extreme reality show it depicts, where the reader takes the role of a captivated yet horrified audience. Except for us, the violence isn’t real, so we can step out of enthralled state and consider that enjoying “watching” kids kill each other, even if they are fictional, should make us aware of the unsettling parallels between us and the eager audience portrayed in the book.
The difference is this is a story, which gives us the distance to reflect on ourselves and our own behavior, which can keep anything like The Hunger Games from happening on our watch.