The Hunger Games Trilogy

1. i am getting old

I’m only 20 years old. That makes me 3 years out of high school, 7 years out of middle school. Although it feels like ages ago…it really wasn’t. And yet I found out about the Hunger Games phenomenon from the A.V. Talk podcast, which is only one or two steps away from finding out about teen culture trends from Newsweek or The New York Times. Their opinion of the book (they were discussing the third in the trilogy, Mockingjay) was that it was grimmer than any other YA series that they had encountered before. I was intrigued, so I picked up the first book.
Aside: I’m really not in a position to know how popular these books are in the middle/high school set, but there must be someone interested, because the Wikipedia page on The Hunger Games universe is absurdly detailed.

2. plot & reading experience

Wikipedia has a perfectly adequate summary of the trilogy’s plot.
What it doesn’t tell you is that the book is super fast paced, even though it doesn’t always avoid the YA sins of simultaneous over- and under-explanation, characters that grasp the situation they are in far later than the reader does, and character interactions that read like stalling for time (Don’t worry. It’s no Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). It reads like crack. I waited a couple of days after buying the book to start reading it, but from the time that I opened the cover of the first book, I didn’t stop reading until the end of the third book. I don’t live close to a bookstore, so I ended up buying a Kindle edition of the second book rather than waiting a day to get a physical copy or go to the library. Thankfully, my sister owned the third book.

3. the truly unique

Probably the strongest feature of the novel, as well as its most original element, is the character of the protagonist, Katniss. Her character incorporates features common in female (“mother” to younger sibling, knowledge of healing plants, in the position of choosing between two males, deep sense of responsibility and affinity with community) and male (physically dominant, ideologically pure, angered by injustice) YA protagonists, but something about the mixture of them within this character feels…fresh. Katniss’ cynicism (which I’ll talk about later) that develops throughout the trilogy works within a tone that usually falls outside YA literature–I can’t think of another book that has anything like it.
Everything else kind of falls into the category of “things I’ve encountered elsewhere.” The elements certainly haven’t been assembled together like this before, but each one taken separately is like a paraphrase of another work. The prose is workmanlike and otherwise undistinguished. Moments of cynicism feel earned, moments of grief are unconvincing.

4. a brief detour through nerd city

One feature of the book that never ceased being ridiculous is its worldbuilding. Yes, I do understand that it sounds like the most cliché complaint ever (demographics of magic families in Harry Potter? thermodynamics of The Matrix?) but seriously, the worldbuilding in this series is wack. I don’t even need to nitpick; some features of this world are so patently stupid and dysfunctional that I was almost convinced that the book was meant to be allegorical. Some easy examples: Demographics: The book explicitly states that it takes place in the land of the former United States of America, that has been divided into a Capitol state and thirteen Districts (Get it?! How about now?!). District 12, where our protagonist is from, is supposed to be in the former Virginias, yet the entire population of the area fits in a single town square (I think the figure 8,000 for the district is thrown out, yet I can’t be sure) and lives close enough by to get there easily for a district meeting. Other districts are mentioned as being bigger, however even if you allowed for districts many orders of magnitude bigger than District 12, that would put a population the size of Connecticut throughout the entirety of North America. Politics: The government within the world is so lazily sketched out that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but it seems to be at different times dictatorship, constitutional democracy, and China-style central committee controlled. It doesn’t make sense in any plane of reality close to ours. Economics: the entirety of the Virginias only produce food for their district and coal. All of California produces food for their district, fish and seafood. It’s stupid.
But surely this doesn’t matter, right? I’ve already said that the writing was like crack, and none of these details affect the main plotline. Well, yes, except that the central character motivation that drives the plot is that this is a completely evil system that must be destroyed. And it’s hard to take that motivation seriously when it’s obvious that the system would destroy itself in about two weeks.

5. but what does it mean?

One thing that I found myself asking as I read these books was what does it mean that such a dark, cynical dystopia appeals to such a mass audience of teens. Some teen tropes–like the love triangle that this series has in common with the Twilight series–are fairly easy to understand. But if this series is escapism, I’m not clear on what its readers are escaping from, or to.
I can understand the desire for your life and decisions to have greater meaning. I think that’s probably why I enjoyed so many books where children are put into life and death situations when I was younger, from Gary Paulson’s Hatchet to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. And that element is certainly present in the Hunger Games book; Katniss is fighting not only for her sister, not only for her community, but for the whole of the society.  I don’t know what it means that the society that Katniss lives in is cartoonishly evil (at one point it’s established that the evil President Snow’s breath smells like blood). There are some superficial attempts at contemporary social satire, from its character’s beliefs about class dynamics to it’s presentation of an obsessive media culture.
Are young readers resonating with the depiction of rebellion against the social order? Do they believe that our society is that diseased, that unbalanced? Is it simply a desire for a simpler, more good-and-evil world to live in, to escape the unsatisfactory choices that most of us make in a world where almost everything is at least partly evil and partly good?
Of course, it could be that young readers just like a good yarn, but it seems like there is a pretty passionate fanbase, and fans usually don’t become passionate for a work that only has a good plot.

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