October 19, 2011 § 6 Comments
So apparently this incredibly popular book about games or fire or the like has been making the rounds, resulting in two sequels and a film, due to be released in March of 2012. Well that sounds nice, I used to think, but I’m in grad school. I read Chekhov.
Finally, here I am in New York, under-employed, with lots of reading time on my hands. And to be honest, the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, didn’t take up too much of that time. The Hunger Games goes by in a flash–one and a half train rides from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central, in fact–which made me wonder why I didn’t just pick it up of a weekend back in school. I spent more time feeling guilty about watching Project Runway while I should have been grading Freshman Comp papers.
But regardless, I waited, and I’m glad I did, because for this reader, the truly delicious part of reading The Hunger Games is with the knowledge that the film is close at hand. Had I tried reading Collins’ work before I knew that Lionsgate Films would be taking advantage of her incredibly cinematic style, I might not have made it all the way through. Well, alright, it’s such a quick read that I probably could have spared that last hour.
The Hunger Games, for those of you who are waiting even longer than I did to see what all the fuss is about, takes place in a world in which the North American population is decimated by natural disaster and revolution, and the small districts that survive are ruled by a cold-hearted government in a capitol city. Every year representatives from the Capitol choose two young people from each of the twelve districts to take part in the Hunger Games, which are broadcast on television and on giant screens in every district. I’ll let Collins, via the protagonist Katniss, explain:
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill each other while we watch–this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.
It’s an engrossing concept, absolutely, and one that gives Collins room to explore all kinds of hypothetical class inequality. The atmosphere of poverty, desperation, and fear that pervades Katniss’s home district, and which makes her so determined to win the Games (to which she inevitably goes, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book), is incredibly thought-provoking in the time of recession and government-directed anger that has given birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement (though I wonder if the book couldn’t also be twisted into an anti-“big government” statement as well as one describing the 99% vs 1% mentality–after all, we do have here a sort of “death panel” under a government who is very involved in the ill-being of its constituents. Thus the beauty of Speculative Fiction, I guess, that it can be interpreted several ways; I do wonder, though, what way Collins might have intended.) And once we move from District Twelve to the Capitol and eventually to the Hunger Games Arena, Collins weaving of plot and action together with concept is masterful.
Although there are a great many things working in The Hunger Games favor, not the least of which is a bone-chilling concept, where it faltered for me was mostly on the sentence level. I have, of course, considered the fact that this is a middle grade book, meant for young adult readers who want a great story, and not Nabokov-esque prose. But I think what characterizes the young adult books that have stayed on shelves for generations, constantly in print, is that their authors are having as much fun with language as they are with their characters. C.S. Lewis knew that young readers can read lyric descriptions and interpret subtle (and not-so-subtle) symbolism as well as adult readers, as did Madeline L’Engle.
But Suzanne Collins hardly left herself any room for lyricism or sharpness of language when she chose perhaps the most awkward point of view possible for a full-length novel: first person present. This means that we experience everything in the book from the protagonist’s view, in her words, as it happens. This means that if Katniss can’t think of a good way to describe something, neither can Suzanne Collins. There’s a trade-off here: as readers, we feel intimately bound to Katniss, which is good, but I wonder if we couldn’t have felt just as close to the action in a good old close third person, past tense (“When she woke up, the other side of the bed was cold”), and then had the added bonus of not being subjected to lines like this:
There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tesserae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands.
The weakest moments of the book are when Katniss, who is chained to us by the shock of the present tense and her own limited point of view, internalizes emotional moments. Collins doesn’t have as firm a grasp on Katniss’s inner monologue in moments of reflection as she does in times of action, when description must be crisp and to the point, and the results are often agonizing. I rolled my eyes several times, to the brief amusement of the older gentleman across the aisle on the train.
These emotional moments hit their peaks when Collins introduces the possibility of romance–something no YA book should be without! After the incredible success of the Twilight series, YA publishers know that young romance sells, just as the conniving organizers of the Hunger Games themselves do when they pair Katniss with her fellow District Twelve tribute Peeta, and urge them to play up the love angle to get ahead.
What made the Twilight books appeal to all those teenaged minds, though, is that Bella is never in doubt of her own longing for Edward (if you winced, don’t worry, I did too just typing it), and it’s her struggle to be with him that carries to book to its strange and yet predictable conclusions. Katniss, who is, again, our only filter for tension or emotional resonance, is a little blase about the whole thing. So how are we supposed to be anything but the same?
And yet, I have faith that it will make a spectacular movie. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that the producers and director chose to keep the best of Collins’s novel: the cringe-worthy “rules” of the game and the extreme poverty and class warfare that have deep roots in the atmosphere of the books, and the thrilling tension of the Games themselves. One gets the feeling that the world that Suzanne Collins has created was written for the big screen from the get-go. But tone down the tacked-on romance, please, and for the love of all that is holy don’t let a Katniss voice-over anywhere near it. I can see it now:
…and then we get, “Gale’s not my boyfriend, but would he be, if I opened that door? …I wonder what he makes of all this kissing.” Please no.
HERE’S THE PART WITH THE SORT-OF GIVEAWAY. I borrowed this book from my lovely cousin. When I told her I should get it back to her, she said, no, pass it along to someone else. But I’m pretty sure that the few folks I know here in NY have all already read it. So, whether you’re a friend from NY or Columbus and you’d like to read Book One of The Hunger Games trilogy, let me know in the comments and send me your address. When you’re done, pass it along to someone else. I’ll include my address with it, so that if it’s ever in danger of not being read by someone who truly wants to read it there and then, it can get sent back to me and returned to my cousin, who I’m sure knows more folks around here in need of something to read on the train.