Thursday, March 17, 2011

May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor

I didn't sleep much this week. Sure, I've been worrying about my director job, and forgetting lines (though I killed my scene on Thursday) but there was another reason. I stayed up too late reading.

I've done that a lot recently, because I've been devouring the three books of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. For the uninitiated, this trilogy has a bit of cult status in the manner of the Twilight books, with a distinct difference: these books don't suck. They're well-written. And they don't shy away from anything difficult, horrible or messy. Like Twilight, they have a teenage protagonist involved in a love triangle. But the similarities end there.

These books, beginning with the first (and arguably best) have everything I've always thought I hated in literature. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Suspense. Unimaginable horror. Mayhem, gore and grisly death. People who know me know that my book of choice tends to include a lot of philosophical discussion, some last-minute epiphanies, a ramble upon the heath, and perhaps a layered torte or two. So the fact that I was totally riveted from the get-go was the first surprise.

And I stayed that way, through all three books. Now, I will admit I liked the first one, The Hunger Games, the best. But while I whipped through it in a couple of days, I read Catching Fire slower, and by Mockingjay I was really dragging my feet--and not because I was bored. I just didn't want it all to end. The books' narrator, Katniss Everdeen, sixteen when the first one starts, is the bravest, most capable, determined, clever 16-year-old you can imagine. Her journey is triggered when her 12-year-old sister, Primrose, is picked in the annual lottery for the Games, and without hesitation, Katniss steps up to take her place.

What are the Hunger Games, you ask? Well, I'm glad you did. In the dystopian land of Panem, a rebellion has led to a virtual police state of 12 districts each responsible for providing resources to the wealthy Capitol. But the districts provide another resource, too--entertainment--in the form of an annual Games in which a teenage boy and girl from each district are "reaped" as "tributes" to represent their district in an arena battle which will have only one winner. And why will it have one winner? Because the others will all be killed, by each other or by hazards in the arena. And all of this will be televised, in graphic detail, to the rest of the country, so that viewers can root for their favorites to stay alive, and be viscerally reminded of the Capitol's power.

Could anything be more horrible? I wouldn't have thought so, but what takes it to the next level of can't-look-away incredulity is the dispassionate narration of our heroine and the people in her life. They have never known a world without the Hunger Games, never known a world without "Peacemakers" who execute the non-compliant without hesitation, never known a world where everyone isn't perpetually hungry unless they illegally shoot their meals in the woods. Katniss and the other tribute from District 12, Peeta the baker's son, head stoically to their fates as if going off to war, but without the kind of anguish one might feel knowing it's a war they definitely won't survive.

Throughout the fascinating details of Book 1, one senses that the Games are simply a microcosm of this entire society, and that the larger conflict is going to have to be addressed--and hopefully resolved--before the trilogy ends. I don't want to spoil any plot developments for you, but it's all wonderfully satisfying, and throughout Katniss is such an awesome heroine to hang a series on, because she never feels sorry for herself, and in fact, rarely considers her feelings at all. This is quite refreshing after Twilight, where everyone is totally about their feelings every second of every day and night, to the exclusion of any sense whatsoever. Katniss is so busy nimbly surviving and scheming for the survival of her family, that she misses the love triangle blooming right under her nose until the entire country knows about it. Which is a big part of the fun, because both her suitors are totally worthy of her, and she really has no clue why she can't choose.

I've heard the books described as "young adult fiction," and I guess that's because the main character is a teenager. But that's one of the reasons the book is so enjoyable to adults, or at least to this one. I want to say Katniss is a feminist role model, but there is virtually no acknowledgment of gender in Panem, so Katniss's badass-ness is not remarkable because she's a girl, but rather just because she is so young. In fact, she often protects the men in her life, and they are grateful, too. In that sense, this post-apocalyptic world is refreshing, and makes for an unwaveringly fascinating place to set a coming-of-age tale.


Laural Out Loud said...

My next series to read is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then? I'll read this one. I need to fall in love with a story again.

M. Howalt said...

I was linked here from Untitlement/Caroline on Wordpress. It was very interesting to read your take on Hunger Games. I've never read them, but I was very curious to hear what makes the books so good. I think your description was very well-rounded. Thanks for enlightening us! :)

Anonymous said...

... Oh, and I've never read Twilight either. In fact, I've read very few books labeled "YA", not necessarily on purpose. This entry did make me curious about Hunger Games, though. :)

Unknown said...

Hi! I'm over here from Untitlement. Loved this post. I never read anything YA or sci-fi-ey (sadly, I was bugged until I read Twilight...I've regretted it ever since). But I'd heard such good things about these books that I picked them up.

I was absolutely blown away. Not just by the story (which is great) but the way Suzanne Collins tells it. First person, present tense gives it such a sense of urgency and all the characters are just so real and well-rounded. Katniss is such a great character. I love that she never feels sorry for herself.

I'm excited/nervous about the movie...

Hannah said...

:) I am in love with the Hunger Games. I read them about a year ago, and I always find myself back at the library to reread them over and over and over and over again! I can't get enough of it! I read the first one in a day, the second in a day, and the third one took me a couple weeks because I was in denial- I just didn't want it to end! Thanks so much for this- it's a great review.