Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Team Haymitch: My Review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset (The Hunger Games, #1-3)The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I finally did it. Having resisted this latest youth culture icon for a couple of years, I saw the preview for the movie The Hunger Games and decided it looked pretty awesome, actually. So I dragged my wife, who uncharacteristically loved it, couldn't get enough of it. We left the theater with Hunger Games fever, and since you feed a fever (you starve a cold; I think that's how it works), we hurried ourselves over to Barnes & Noble and bought ourselves the first volume in the trilogy, adding books two and three in rapid succession. And now, five months after seeing the movie, I've finished all three books. And my fever has faded.

The Hunger Games is a clever book; anyone who can pull off a dystopian trilogy for kids and write in the first-person for a thousand pages and not lose me should be congratulated. Suzanne Collins creates some truly compelling characters, from Katniss the lead to the two boys vying silently and longingly for her affection, and the supporting cast from Cinna Kravitz to Elizabeth Trinket, Collins mad me care about a full canvas of characters, to mourn the deaths of some and wish for the deaths of others. At a time when the 99 percent and the 1 percent are already portrayed in stark contrast, Collins effectively exaggerates the divide while demonstrating effectively how people can be unknowingly complicit in horrific treatment of other human beings. Panem is the most stylized dystopia I've ever pictured in my head.

My wife is not as well read in dystopian fiction as I am; she was in it for the love triangle: Katniss and Peeta and Gale. I won't spoil anyone's fun by revealing the identity of the boy who gets the girl, but I will say that Collins handles the triangle well and resolves it in a satisfying way--by which I mainly mean that she put her with my preferred him, but also that she makes Katniss's choice not only sensible but wise and tender. That being said, I think that by writing to the lovers of love (like my wife) and to the lovers of societal decay (like me), Collins attempts too much. I suspect she wrote with the movies in mind, and in so doing failed to do justice to the books.

Love, internecine conflict and adolescence can occasionally work: Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and all that. And it works in The Hunger Games to a point. But the big picture is too important, in Collins's telling, for a proper love story; I'm reminded of (spoiler alert) Rick's farewell to Ilsa in Casablanca: "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The further into the trilogy I got, the less a triangle made sense. Even as I sorted through Katniss's feelings from the vantage point of her inner dialogue in the dramatic present, I found it hard to believe she was really aching for Gale or falling for Peeta. She was too busy, in my mind, trying not to get killed.

And yet, all that lovey-dovey stuff distracted Collins, I think, from fully forming the universe she presents to us. I found myself wondering almost immediately, Where's Russia? I can hardly recall a civil war, let alone seventy-five years of the worst kinds of human rights abuses, that every other country in the world left alone. And yet Collins very deliberately sets The Hunger Games in the near-future of our very own world, with no intervention, no mention of even bordering countries like Canada and Mexico. She could have put Panem on its own planet, in its own universe, and still powerfully communicated her commentary on the plight of the poor in a world that is slanted toward the rich. But our world doesn't operate like this--rampant human rights abuses in every corner of it notwithstanding. Our world thinks that killing kids for sport is wrong, that no government or rebel force should be ignored. I kept waiting for news from beyond District 13, to learn that Panem was the tip of a tyrannical iceberg waiting to thaw, that there were persecuted peoples throughout the earth waiting to catch fire. I kept waiting, but Collins never delivered.

Here's what I think I would like, something for Collins to consider: a trilogy for a younger (or at least more lovelorn) audience that downplayed the games and the revolution and the death; and a trilogy for a grown-up (or at least more jaded) audience that puts Haymitch at the center of Panem's universe.

Haymitch, after all, is the most enigmatic and yet most fully-conceived character: We know that he's suffered, we know that he's stared the absurdity of existence in the face, we know that he still has the capacity to love but can't quite bring himself to do it. We know that Haymitch is capable of ferocity and heroism and wisdom. We know that Haymitch wouldn't be satisfied with one district or even one country having the right to self-determination while the rest of the world suffers tyranny or neglect. At least I know it: I'm Team Haymitch, all the way.

It's probably expecting too much from a book to ask for a different protagonist, or a different universe. And I like Katniss and liked an awful lot about this trio of books. But the author is expecting a lot from me: she wants me to drop good money on three books and four movies. She probably wouldn't mind if I bought an action figure or two. In exchange, I only ask for some focus: you can write a love story, or you can write a war story, but think long and hard before you write both at once.

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