Well as I suspected, Too Big to Fail was, appropriately, too big. Even after several days of dedicated reading, I’m still barely past page 200 and although I find myself riveted by the story–riveting financial news, who knew–today I made an executive decision and I’ve spent the better part of the last eight hours reading The Hunger Games, the first in Suzanne Collins’ much-acclaimed young-adult trilogy.
For those who don’t follow the incredibly important happenings in teen fiction, The Hunger Games is something like a modern-day 1984: The story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, now known as Panem, where a Capitol city rules over 12 distinct districts. So as to remind the districts of their impotence, every year one boy and one girl from each is chosen at random (though, without going into too much detail, poverty plays a role in one’s chances of being picked) to participate in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death broadcast on live television throughout the country. Yeah, it’s pretty grim reading for the weekend before Christmas.
I’ll say off the bat that the book is incredible, even considering it’s geared at young adults. I haven’t devoured 350 pages in a sitting since the last Harry Potter, which I distinctly remember reading in full on a similarly lazy Sunday, sustaining myself on takeout Chinese since I couldn’t be bothered to leave the apartment. The comparison to 1984 is fair, and the writing itself is suspenseful and accessible without feeling dumbed-down. Unlike the Twilight saga, which I never quite liked reading on the train, no adult would or should feel silly for reading this book (and I assume the rest in the trilogy).
Indeed, part of my motivation to read The Hunger Games this weekend—outside of swapping a real account of financial corruption for a hypothetical account of moral corruption—was an article I read last week in The American Spectator, where author Nicole Russell rails against popular young-adult books for being too stupid, too adult or too morally bankrupt for teens. Now I’ll be the first to admit that Twilight, though hugely entertaining, isn’t bringing much to the table in terms of intellectualism or encouragement of critical thinking. To that I simply say that books are books, and I’d rather have 14-year-olds curled up with 2,000 pages of Edward and Jacob than spend those hours playing video games or watching Jersey Shore.
But I do take issue with Russell’s charge that The Hunger Games is too adult or graphic to be valuable for younger readers. It’s ironic that further in her essay, she suggests parents encourage their teenagers to pick up Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm instead, when these are the exact books I would reference to suggest The Hunger Games is not alone in refusing to sugarcoat issues of corruption and authority. Sure, Suzanne Collins spares little detail when describing death, but for a generation familiar with violence-laden movies and video games, a book that draws real attention to the implications of killing—as entertainment, no less—is to my mind exceedingly relevant.
Nor do I consider young-adult classics any less intense; Russell’s diatribe against The Hunger Games makes me wonder whether she’s even read Lord of the Flies, where a child is killed by his peers with a boulder; or 1984, where traitors are tortured for their thoughts; or Of Mice and Men, where a mercy kill is the closest we come to a happy ending. In fact, the only thing that really differentiates a book like The Hunger Games from the aforementioned is its newness, and if being written in the last decade means a book can’t be valuable, then literature has fallen a lot farther than I feared.
In a post-Potter post-Twilight world, it is hard to separate one’s perception The Hunger Games from the hype surrounding it. It’s also hard not to draw parallels between The Hunger Games and other stories of authority-gone-wrong: Lord of the Flies and 1984, yes, but also the movie Gladiator, Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, even Gregory Maguire’s book-turned-musical Wicked.
But perhaps it’s the book’s likeness to other stories that makes it even stronger. Because at no point does The Hunger Games feel redundant; at no point was I certain how things would turn out. Moreover, the novel’s most unique aspect—that of the games being broadcast on live television—is an interesting (and perhaps much-needed) critique of reality television in general and our desensitization to violence and death in particular. And finally yes, after self-absorbed Harry Potter, whiney and useless Bella Swan and altogether annoying Sookie Stackhouse, it is nice to have a strong and admirable feminine heroine. Even if she is only 14.
So in conclusion, Nicole Russell can suck it.
TITLE: The Hunger Games
AUTHOR: Suzanne Collins
PAGES: 374 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Catching Fire and Mockingjay
SORTA LIKE: Lord of the Flies meets 1984
FIRST LINE: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”