When I think of YA [young adult] books I think of Harry Potter, or a clutch of giggly teenage girls exploring the trials and tribulations of growing up while being dressed in the latest fashions and wearing just the right kind of makeup. Or sometimes I think of grittier novels that explore sexual abuse and other horrors in the name of telling it ‘as it is’. As a general rule I do not think of YA books as being complex, layered fiction with thought provoking themes and strong characterisation. So on that basis I am reclaiming The Hunger Games for us adults.
Before seeing the movie and now reading the book [yes I did it the wrong way around] I had some pretty strong preconceptions about the Hunger Games and none of them were good. Copycat was my first thought on seeing the movie trailers. After all the theme of death as spectacle has been done before, firstly by Richard Bachman [aka Steven King] in the Long Walk and then more recently by the Japanese movie Battle Royale, so the Hunger Games just seemed like the same idea with a bow and a pigtail. And then there were the reviews that either gushed about how wonderful the book was or deplored it for being unbelievable and not making sense, or having gaping holes in the plot, or being shallow. When I encountered the same polarization amongst people I knew personally I could not help dismissing the whole media hype as just that – advertising spin.
And then no. 1-and-only daughter and I found ourselves with nothing to do one Sunday.
“Let’s go to the movies!”
“But there’s nothing much on except the Hunger Games…”
“Bugger it! Let’s go anyway, it can’t be too awful… can it?”
So we went. I’ll be honest. All the way there I kept telling myself that if nothing else the restaurant we were going to before the movie would be good so the evening wouldn’t be a complete waste. And besides, once I’d seen the movie I could do a blog on how bad it had been. Famous last words. By the time we’d seen Katniss and Peeta selected by the ‘reaping’ neither one of us was thinking about shallow storylines or derivative themes. We were hooked, well and truly. After the movie was over we talked about it all the way home. We both agreed that Battle Royale had been grittier and more shocking but… the Hunger Games had surprised us with how compelling it had been. It was a good movie dammit 😦
For days afterwards I tried to tell myself that the movie had been put together by adults who were good at what they did, so of course it was bound to be better than the book….
Fast forward to two days ago and the moment when I realised that I could not do a post about ‘death as spectacle’ without reading the book itself. So I bought it and started reading… and discovered that I’d been wrong – the book was better than the movie, filling in all the gaps that the visual medium had been unable to cover. Worse, there were parts of the book that actually made me choke up. [For those who have read the book it was not the final scene with Rue, it was the scene with the bread from District 11].
I am not saying that the Hunger Games was the best book I have ever read or that it compares to Dune or Cyteen or The Left Hand of Darkness but I am saying that it went quite a bit beyond a simple story of survival. It had layers, both political and psychological that surprised the hell out of me. One of the things that emerges from the book in a way it does not do in the movie is the sociological concept of oppression. This oppression is fundamental to the plot and has been criticized as being ‘unbelievable’.
Those of us lucky enough to live in the Western world have little idea how easy it is for totalitarian states to brow beat their populations into submission. The secret lies in taking everything away and then giving something back. People who have nothing are ripe for rebellion. After all, what do they have to lose? But the moment those same people have just enough to get by and some hope for the future they will accept terrible things for the sake of not losing what little they have regained.
I saw this first-hand when I visited relatives in Hungary back in the 1970’s. The country was still very much under the thumb of the then USSR. I don’t want to digress into a history lesson but the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was brought about by people who felt they had nothing to lose. After the revolution was put down the regime relented and allowed them to have some small hope of a better life. It was not much but the secret police and human greed did the rest. There would be no second revolution. Look at any totalitarian state and you will see the same thing so the concept behind the Hunger Games is neither unique nor all that unbelievable.
Something else that surprised me in the book was the character arc of the main character, Katniss Everdeen. Character arc is just a fancy was of talking about the way the character changes during the course of the novel. Katniss begins as a feisty young girl whose sole focus is on survival – for herself and for her younger sister Prim. She is not interested in politics or abstract ideals, she just wants her family to survive. As the story progresses she begins to learn that there are worse things than starving to death. She learns about politics and integrity and human dignity. Dangerous concepts to be thinking about when your next breath could be your last. Yet she does think about them and is changed in the process.
Hunger Games is book one of a long story that does not end until book three, ‘Mockingjay’. Much to my own surprise I will be reading book two as soon as I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle. I hate being one of the crowd but in this instance I have to accept that the hype was true and just get on with eating my humble pie. If, like me, you thought the Hunger Games was a book for children think again. 4/5