Lord of the Games

Painting of a red forestPardon my diversion into trivia, while I bring the world up to date. Since I mentioned here in the blog that I had applied for a job editing a small newspaper, I want to report that the job went to someone who actually deserved it instead. If the world is going to reward people based on merit, how will I get anywhere? But it doesn’t do any good to milk the melancholia; best to look on the bright side and consider the enormous amount of badly paid work I won’t do there. In any case, an hour after I read the negative email, I decided that some therapeutic dancing was in order. So I got out a Psychedelic Furs CD, turned up the volume a bit, and danced around the dining room table.

Now we turn our attention to the Serious Business of Blogging. In this particular well-written, pithy, and fascinating entry, I’m going to trot along behind pop culture waving my hand in the air saying, “ Wait, wait, me too!” and talk about the book The Hunger Games. If you’ve managed to miss the current cultural wave, which could happen, The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy, it has been made into an extremely successful movie, and with all that money, you don’t gotta be Einstein to figure out that the other two books are rushing toward movie screens as well. The books are also marketed in a category known as Young Adult. I wonder what weird lapse of logic invoked the word “adult” among people who market books, since the “adults” in question tend to be around 12 to 17 years old.

The gist of this book is that every year there is a game in which two children (or young adults, if you will) from each of twelve districts are brought together to fight one another to the death, and the one person left alive wins. This horrible premise is told in an extremely entertaining way, but the basic plot is that children kill each other in very gruesome ways. What disturbs me about the book as a social phenomenon is that with such a plot, the book and movie are veeeery popular among kids the same age as the characters.

No doubt I’m just an old guy who’s out of touch and doesn’t appreciate how much fun all this is. I can hear people saying to me, “It’s just a book, it’s not real.” Uh huh. And that’s why you let your children read pornography, because it’s just a book? Then again, I’m not saying kids should not be reading the novel, but I would never entertain such a stupid argument as “it’s just a book”. No book is just a book.

If the novel had made some point beyond the killing and dystopian bleakness, I would consider the freakish premise redeemed, but in the end, The Hunger Games is only about kids killing kids. There is nothing positive and by the end of the book nothing has really changed. Nevertheless, one of the reasons young adults (and not so young adults, like me) read and enjoy this book is because it is so well written and so entertaining in many ways. So let me make a different point here—I was enthralled by this book. I literally didn’t want to put it down to do anything else.

Suzanne Collins did an admirable job in writing The Hunger Games, taking several obvious influences and making something very new and imaginative out of them. Some of the influences aren’t hard to see: the novel The Lord of the Flies (children in the forest killing one another), the short story “The Lottery” (someone in the village is randomly chosen to die), pretty much any dystopian novel or movie about the horrible future, just for the idea of a dystopia (1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Mad Max). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Collins was also thinking of the myth of the minotaur, in which the Athenians were regularly forced to select some of their young people to be killed by the monster. As one of the most powerful influences on this book, Collins was clearly looking back to the Romans, a people who were a freakish combination of high civilization and bloody savages. What is only a story in The Hunger Games—killing people for entertainment—was of course real for the Romans, and Collins clearly acknowledges their influence. In the capital city in the novel, the powerful city that forces other people to participate in the games, every character has an obvious Roman name, such as Caesar, Claudius, Octavia. Collins even calls the forest where the killing occurs the “arena”.

Collins’s skill as a writer shines through in the book, with her ability to develop characters in ways that make them richer than she had to. The protagonist, Katniss, for instance, has a troubled relationship with her mother. That relationship is actually a small detail, as the mother is not in most of the book, but the ability to add such things to the characters makes them more real. There is also a wonderful use of detail, necessary to make an alternative world come alive. It is partly through such use of details that we are brought into the forest where the killings occur, as well as into the exotic wonder of the advanced capital city.

This is a gruesome book, illustrated by this encounter between two young people: “Thresh brings the rock down hard against Clove’s temple. It’s not bleeding, but I can see the dent in her skull and I know that she’s a goner. There’s still life in her now though, in the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the low moan escaping her lips.” In the end, The Hunger Games is a dark dystopia, a skillfully written book that intensely holds the imagination, and then, if you’re willing to think about what you’ve been reading, raises questions about why people enjoy the idea of killing other people. Or maybe it isn’t worth thinking about. It’s just a book.

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