Monday, May 28, 2012

Weird and Wonderful Books: The Hunger Games and A Step in the Right Direction

            All right, so we’re going to start with something semi-topical, namely The Hunger Games and its two sequels by Suzanne Collins.  The series has become incredibly popular this year with the first book in the series being adapted into a blockbuster film, which made a hefty sum and garnered mostly positive reviews.  So what makes this trilogy both worthy of a film adaptation and weird and wonderful enough to be my initial topic?  Well, I believe that The Hunger Games represents a very important topic in the genre of young adult novels.

UPDATE: I've been rereading my old posts and I've realized that this post is far from my best work.  So enjoy The Hunger Games post 2.0

           So for those of you who haven’t heard here is the rundown on The Hunger Games.  The series focuses on a nation called Panem, a name derived from Panem et Circences, a Latin term concerning decadence over political thought or more specifically the tactics that keep a populace from thinking politically.  Anyway, Panem is essentially the post-apocalyptic remains of the United States and is built out of a single city-state referred to as the Capitol and 12 (formerly 13) districts that surround it.  The Capitol rules over the 12 districts with an iron grip that is strengthen annually by an event referred to as the Hunger Games.  The titular games involve each district randomly selecting two teenagers, one boy and one girl, who are sent to the Capitol.  Once there, the duos are wined, dined, made to look pretty and are presented as temporary celebrities to the population of Panem.  This all leads up to the games proper wherein the 24 teens are dumped into a massive arena where they are expected to kill each other in as bloody a manner as possible until one remains.  The whole affair is broadcasted live to the 12 districts, each of which is forced to watch.  The story follows a young woman who volunteers as her district’s tribute to save her younger sister from certain death.  The bottom line is that this series is not for children.  Or is it?
            The Hunger Games is a new kind of young adult novel or rather is a popular example of what used to be a smaller and often overlooked sub-genre.  Until now, one could expect a novel that caters to middle and early high school students like The Hunger Games to be one of two different things.  Either the story would be meant to be fun, exciting and not especially involving or the story would be meant to educate the young minds reading it.  The problem with the later is that most educational young adult novels aren’t exactly what you call fun to read.  We’ve all seen these, those incredibly boring and not classic books that we suffered through in middle school and high school until we hit the AP or college prep lit courses.  I myself developed a conditioned hatred for Lois’ Lowery’s Number the Stars but that’s a topic for another post.  Anyway, The Hunger Games is sort of the “happy” medium between the two.  It seeks to entertain the reader to a point but it also demands that they reader think about the themes and in some cases the symbolism that the piece presents.  If you read The Giver as a kid then you might have a good idea of what I’m getting at.
            So what does themes does The Hunger Games focus on as a series?  Well the series and first book in particular deal with our fascination with violence in the media.  The setup alone sounds like the next logical step for reality TV, another topic that is brutally satirize from the start.  There’s also the mythological symbolism.  Having one young man and one young woman sent to a bigger city for sacrifice is not a new trope in storytelling.  The most famous example is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur but I’m sure there are others floating around.  But those themes and symbols are just skin deep.
            To me, the series is about survival in all of its forms.  The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a hunter and as a result of a lifetime of providing for her family following her father’s death, a talented archer.  This skill is what carries her in the arena but it also sets her apart from a number of her opponents.  Many of the first book’s antagonists are more traditional warriors, having trained from birth to participate in the gruesome games in many cases.  They wield swords, lances, and other pointy implements of death with startling proficiency but their motivations are much more base then our heroine.  The movie actually does a good job of demonstrating this as the Careers, as the other characters call them, come across as a bunch of frat boys who happen to be cold-blooded killers.  Either way, they are out for glory, she’s out to live.  And all of this is different from Katniss’ male counterpart, Peeta Mallark, who is one of my favorite literary characters of this year. Peeta is all about the brains, despite his natural strength, and not in the traditional sense.  Peeta is not an engineer (as so many smart guys in young adult novels are want to be), but a shrewd young man who has incredible genre-savvy.  His method of survival is more cerebral as his skills are found in non-combat capacities with a particular talent for camouflage.
Either way, the main characters aren’t warriors, they’re survivalist and this theme of survival is only expanded throughout the series.  Soon the series is discussing the conflict between the individual and the government, the struggle against oppression and concepts of rebellion subtle or otherwise.  By the end of the series, we are even offered a glimpse into a rebellion wherein the motivation of survival has been supplanted by a need for vengeance or conquest.  So what does this have to do with the young readers?  Well, the story is about surviving in a bleak and unfriendly world, and in its own way, it is a perfect metaphor for life as a teenager.  Katniss is a strong and very self-sufficient young woman who is continuously referenced as not losing sleep over what others think of her.  The character has already been highlighted as being a great role-modal for young women but I believe that she can be used as an example for any young person.  Furthermore, the series constantly asks the reader to think about its events in a deeper manner.  The series isn’t perfect, some of its themes fall by the wayside by the third installment in the series and that same book is full of bits of character assassination but overall I recommend it.
The Hunger Games is a cut above most young adult literature and I think it should stand as benchmark for at least a few years.  Expect me to come back to this series in the future since there is a lot of good stuff in it.  Up next, we’re going to have fun in the most bizarre playground that literature has to offer: fan fiction.

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