why I’m not playing hunger games
[Note: The blogalectic is on holiday while Jenna’s on holiday, so you get this instead.]
The world’s gone mad for Mockingjay, the final installment of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. From the people who brought you Harry Potter (no, really—New York: Scholastic, 2010) comes yet another wildly popular bestseller, leaving pundits happily hazarding bets that dystopic dictators are the new tormented vampires—everybody wants to date one!
OK, so I made that last part up.
The seriousness that surrounds the reception of Collins’s books, however, and the devotion of her fans parallels the wild enthusiasm of Team Rowling and Team Meyer. That’s so well known it’s almost glib. It seems natural that, as someone who follows fascinating questions of market trend and literary inheritance, I’d want to read what critics are praising as gripping, spiritual, and emotionally wrenching tales.
What’s that? You read my subtitle? Aw, shucks—you didn’t hafta do that—I wouldn’t wish that on—while you’re at it, will you proofread this draft of an introduction for me?
(Don’t worry—I read introductions too…)
OK, skip the surprise. I’m not reading Mockingjay, unlike most of the rest of the reading public. I didn’t read Catching Fire (2009) or The Hunger Games (2008) either. Not, mind you, because of any carefully crafted reason. I honestly didn’t hear about them until the the buzz around Mockingjay finally echoed through my ivory walls.
In case, like me, you’ve been living with your head under a rock and haven’t heard of The Hunger Games trilogy, and began your interaction with this post by looking up Mockingjay in your Peterson Guide, let me give some *entirely unauthorized*explanation. The trilogy tells the story of Katniss, a teenaged girl living in an evil empire, controlled from The Capitol. This particular evil empire controls its subjects through voyeurism in the form of televised gladiatorial games—the Hunger Games—with children as the ‘gladiators.’ Twenty-four contestants, the winner is the one left alive.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a bestseller if Katniss wasn’t chosen to fight in the Title Games. There wouldn’t be a bestselling sequel if Katniss died in the first book. If you’re going to have a trilogy about an Evil Empire, you need a rebellion in book three. And hey, this is YA, Katniss is a teenaged girl, so what’s odds but there’s a cute boy in it somewhere? None of this, in my *entirely unauthorized* view, counts as a spoiler.
I’m not attempting to review Mockingjay, or any of the trilogy. There’s something unethical about reviewing books you haven’t read. If you want thorough-going review, I urge you to consult with The Hogwarts Professor, or to read Jenna St. Hilaire’s painfully honest review at The Hog’s Head. Professor Granger’s thoughts are—as ever—fascinating for those not squeamish of spoilers, and Jenna’s sensitive, thoughtful reading nearly made me decide to read the trilogy.
But the operative word in that sentence is ‘nearly.’ What follows is an attempt to explain why.
The reviewers, good and bad, are unanimous that the books are violent. True to form of what Brave Sir Robin was not in the least bit scared to do, the characters get killed in nasty ways. And get made into what’s reported as a horrifyingly terrifying sort of zombie—Mutts.
As a writer and teller of tales, I have an imagination like a steel trap. I remember images—I continue and exaggerate them. They seethe and expand and settle. I’m not claiming Great Mind points for this—this is just how my imagination works. I also have an uncultivated tendency toward lucid dreaming.
For three days after I saw Sixth Sense, I jumped every time I turned around, even if nothing was there. Especially if nothing was there.
Reading detailed scenes of children killing other children in nasty ways doesn’t sound helpful.
But, I argue with myself, it’s not just mindless violence—like the sex in Too Late the Phalarope isn’t just gratuitous, maybe. Jenna has skillfully pointed out how the violence is soulful—even allegorical—the story works on deeper levels, challenging your spiritual conceptions and subverting your ideologies.
Well, true enough. Violence, even harsh violence, can and does serve a place in literature. (I’m much more skeptical about its value in film—you can’t decide what you’re imagining—but that’s another discussion.) But those sorts of encounters, that sort of confrontation with brutal reality—whether in realistic fiction or fantasy—should, I think, be done cautiously and with great deliberation. Jenna St. Hilaire’s made such a decision in reading the Hunger Games Trilogy.
But on the shelf behind me sits Wiesel’s Night trilogy. I keep telling myself to read Gaiman’s American Gods. I’ve never actually finished Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope. I read Camus’s The Stranger, and am taking about a year or two to steel myself for The Plague. There’s much more O’Connor and Dostoyevsky for me to read. And if you insist on children brutalizing children, I’ve yet to read Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Collins, in other words, is doing nothing new. I can and sometimes do decide to face violence and grotesquerie in literature. I am sometimes glad of it. But, bestseller status aside, The Hunger Games is quite simply not at the top of my list. And I suspect after Night, it’ll seem a little tame.
Lastly, I’m honestly not convinced the trilogy is ‘all that’—meaning the latest, greatest, trendsetting, iconoclastic books that will change a generation, a genre, and (most significantly) a market. Call me me a skeptic—you’d be right—but I’ve read enough Zipes to be thoroughly hostile to the marketing behind YA books.
I was just rereading (in one of Zipes’s books) part of Scholastic’s notes to reviewers for one of the Harry Potter books. Even as a fan, I found it nauseating. Sure, smugness and poor information usually go together—but this was extraordinary even for a smug collector! Really, does every single bestselling YA title have to hailed as a collaborative work between Shakespeare, Kant, and Freire?
As parents, we legitimately care about our children, our teens. We want them to be edified and challenged through what they read. So we’re more likely to buy them a book touted as thoughtful, challenging, educational, and literary (and fun to read, too!) than a book touted as the latest genre formula-piece, with some new fiddly-bits added. Even if they’re the same book. Don’t think marketing doesn’t know this.
That doesn’t mean the books are bad. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. If you’ve read them and enjoyed them, that’s brilliant. The comment box is open—challenge my ideas!
But for now—not hungry. I’ll wait for another migration to spot a Mockingjay.