Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I tend to read highly popular books well after their initial appearance.  The title of this blog suggests why--it's pretty difficult to read a brand-new best seller for free without being some sort of pirate.  So it is with The Hunger Games--the movies have revived interest, but wait times are now going down.  Also the books are short, so that most anyone can finish them before they are due.

The other thing about reading such a popular item is that it's hard to add to the canon on it--popular guides, world expansions and scholarly deconstructions are all available in quantity.  But I am committed to adding my two cents' worth, so here goes...

The best highly influential works of fiction are both timeless--they state deep truths about human nature--and time-bound--giving a future reader insight into the time and society in which they are written.  Usually one or the other dominates, and the less-apparent aspect is unpacked in subsequent commentary.  I suggest that Rowling's Harry Potter series is more of a timeless work--a long retelling of the story of Jesus (a subset of  Campbell's Hero's Journey).  The Hunger Games is much more the latter.  While it's a very good action story on the surface (thus accessible as a YA novel, much like Harry Potter), it is also a very open critique of American society in the early 21st century and where Collins thinks it is going.

The story itself is as old as the Roman gladiators.  The protagonist, Katniss, is part of a group of youth (the Tributes) sacrificed for the entertainment of the Capitol, because they can.  And it's all done up with the trappings of professional sports and fashion.  Boxing was the popular modern equivalent blood sport--mixed martial arts and American football represent two contemporary directions.

What's new and interesting here, and what I think will be revealing for readers fifty years from now, is the emphasis on style and commercialism in the blood sport.  Collins presents the game arena as a future reality show--Survivor on steroids.  The mentor and former winner Haymitch spends much more time coaching his protégés on winning sponsors and story making than on fighting skills.

There's no point in avoiding spoilers at this remove.  Obviously Katniss survives to appear in the next two books in the trilogy.  I give it four stars--not five because it's so straight-on that it feels more like a news report than a novel, even though it's written in the first person.  If you are just coming to it now, try to imagine what your grandchildren will bring to it.

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