Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Peanut Gallery: The Hunger Games

http://media.npr.org
I've only been meaning to write this post for about three months, so it's probably about time I get around to it. Last semester, Robin (the professor with whom I worked on my Sherlock fandom directed study) taught The Hunger Games in his Intro to Cultural Studies class. I, being the geek that I am sat in for these class meetings. After realizing that I could probably write a dissertation on these books, I settled upon something I already knew after rereading the first novel - I really, really, really liked Suzanne Collins' trilogy. I liked the movie. But the franchise around it gave me weird feelings.

More about that later. First off, my personal experience with The Hunger Games. There was a girl in one of my classes last spring that loved the books a lot and my friend Sarah's sister also loved them. Thinking that Susanne Collins name sounded awfully familiar to me (and then realizing she wrote Gregor the Overlander which I'd enjoyed as a kid) and because they were super popular and I wanted to know what the heck was going on, I bought the first one. I was disappointed after reading it. I was expecting more somehow, especially given all the interest in it and I just didn't really care about the characters. So I put it aside, a bit let down, and moved on. Last summer, I saw the movie when it came out on DVD and really enjoyed it and thought to myself, "Okay, wait, no, that book needs another read." So I reread it. And was hooked. This was the completely opposite reaction I'd had with Twilight and it has a lot to do with the language and rhetoric.

The first time I read The Hunger Games, the language threw me off. Sure, it's a kid's novel, but I was expecting something less stark and simplistic. I had a hard time imagining what the country of Panem looked like (considering my mention of fantasy novels having maps in the previous post, The Hunger Games has no map of Panem. It's entirely up to you to decide where the districts are through the hints given along the way). On the second reading though, I realized that's entirely what makes this book - the simplistic language. It isn't only about providing an entertaining storyline; it's about giving a representation of what a certain kind of dystopia would be like. In Katniss' case, she'd have no reason to use extravagant, flowery language. She spends every day hunting to survive and doesn't see a lot in the world around her to give her hope. She's blunt and straightforward and brief; she's not going to give us long winding sentences about the outdoors in an utterly Romantic, Wordsworth kind of way - she doesn't see nature that way (though a reverence for nature still remains). It's a place of safety from the eyes of the Capitol (at least until she ends up in the arena) and full of hidden dangerous, not a space for recreation and leisure. Those acts don't exist for people outside the Capitol or the wealthier districts.

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I'm getting a bit ahead of myself; despite the popularity of The Hunger Games, I can't assume that its storyline is known. This novel, told from the viewpoint of Katniss Everdeen (entirely in present tense, interestingly enough) takes place in some future of the United States, where the government has changed and the states are essentially split up into thirteen districts, with a Capitol (the government city) presiding over it. District Thirteen rebelled against this rule, was shot down by the Capitol and presumably destroyed. Out of punishment for this uprising, every year the remaining twelve districts must choose (through a lottery, for most districts) one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen to represent their district and participate in the Hunger Games, a gladiator-style event of a fight to the death where only one person can win and survive. And all of this is aired live on television.

It's dark. Really dark. And that's just the first book - hell, that's not even the book. That's the background presented at the very beginning of the book. Of course people are concerned about whether are not kids should be reading such violent material, which is kind of strange question considering all the violence they're subjected to from television news. I haven't heard much about the politics of this book (I think The Hunger Games does very well, allowing it to either be read from a right slant or a left slant, though I believe there's a certain side it leans towards more) which is interesting. Collins is very, very clever - you don't have to see a specific political message if you don't want to. It's there, and obviously can't be overlooked - it's about rebellion and overthrowing tyranny, for crying out loud. People have tried to frame this book as being a new romance focusing on a "love triangle" but I don't think that's really worked out (greatly due to the fact that that's more of a subplot, whereas in Twilight, that basically was the plot). But the political message can be taken in different ways, depending how you frame it. One reason I think it's so popular with young adults is that it is in many ways an allegorical representation of high school. It really speaks to an audience that may feel trapped in school, unsafe, unpopular with "Careers" (the kids in the book from wealthy districts who spend their entire lives training for the Games) (aka the popular students) making their days dangerous. It even speaks to the "Careers" who perhaps spend their days forever performing, attached to a core of their identity that has been thrust upon them that they are lost without but one that will also lead them nowhere (unpopular opinion for those who have read the book: I feel bad for Cato). As a high school student, I would have dug this book. I spent most of my years trying to figure out if I could usurp the school board and whether I could get by with TPing the superintendent's house if I had justifiable cause (long story). There was a bit of a revolutionary in me and this book really would have spoken to that.

The Hunger Games can also be read as an escapist fantasy, for better or for worse, or a narrative that deals with issues in our culture in an slightly abstract way. I always liked The Lord of the Rings because of the narrative of fighting, roughing it in the wilderness, survival, and the triumph of good. I longed to join Aragorn's troupe and having some foe to push back against when I felt like I was always fighting in my own life, but against what, I wasn't sure. Katniss is a bit like Aragorn to me, speaking to ills in our society and fighting back in ways that perhaps I feel like I can't. Albeit the issues in Panem are far more grave than in our society but there are a great deal of parallels when it comes to poverty, tyranny, and change.

I think the real reason I love The Hunger Games is that it questions what we can do to change our world and what sort of forms revolution takes. In the end, Katniss has to play the Capitol's game in order take them down and uses the same tactics they employ. Questions that come up for me while reading the trilogy center around whether it's possible to have a non-violent revolution, whether violent ones do any good or if they just reinforce the very thing you are trying to destroy.

This question becomes more nuanced when you incorporate the fandom and the franchise aspects. Now with the merchandise you can buy surrounding the film and books, it would seem that The Hunger Games has become the very thing it's supposedly posed against - consumerism, celebrating violence, ignoring the criticism of media at the heart of the books. It's awkward and difficult to deal with, especially when things like this game I saw at Barnes and Noble exist:


"A Game Of Strategy" it reads at the bottom of the box. If by strategy, you mean not getting killed and killing everyone else so that you can survive, then I guess?. The merchandising feels rather inappropriate to me and makes it really hard to identify with being a fan. There's the issue of "Who would ever want to live in Panem?" that really makes interacting with The Hunger Games different than other fandoms for me. While Middle Earth may be war-torn and dangerous, it's still pretty awesome. Panem sucks no matter what. 

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The ending of the final book in the series, Mockingjay, is as mixed and unsettled as my feelings towards the franchise and what the long term effects of this book will be. I'd like to think it's creating a more media literate, politically conscious generation or at least leading readers to think critically about the world around them. But it's also introducing a really, really important question itself: what kind of effect can a book have on the world? Can art change culture? Or does it just reinforce the culture its in?

My hometown of Lakeville wanted to ban this book from its library (which would have been a terrible idea; do you know how many people would just go to different libraries to get the book instead?). This isn't the first time they've wanted to ban a book like this; they did the same thing with Harry Potter. Considering Harry Potter had lead to the Harry Potter Alliance and a certain degree of activism from its fans, I'd love to see the same for The Hunger Games. Now that the books are being adapted into films, they have an even more influential power. Given how the next two films are shot (and I'm very excited and simultaneously terrified to see what Catching Fire is like), they could be really revolutionary. But if they were really revolutionary, would the be popular? Would people want to watch them or would they seem too avant garde? All I know is that after I read the series and saw the film, I wanted to fight back, to change my world. I wonder how many others out there felt the same and I hope that the further films will have the same affect.

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