The Hunger Games

District 13 Reminds Me of Israel
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 31 2010 7:13 AM

The Hunger Games

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I spent half my first entry lauding Suzanne Collins for coming up with the masterful premise of the Hunger Games, and then our colleague Torie Bosch goes and sends me a link to this Wikipedia entry, for a Japanese novel-turned manga-turned movie called Battle Royale, in which a fascist, decaying government forces teenagers to fight to the death on an isolated island. Oh well.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Nina and Emily, I'm persuaded by your tactical explanations for why Collins had to keep the trilogy so sexless. As an adult reader though, I still don't buy it. Katniss is a sensation seeker, hyper-sensual in how she eats, what she wears, how she feels. It's not credible to me that she'd stop her boyfriends at first base, or that Gale, at least, would take the rebuffs so meekly. (Can't you just see his brawny hand reaching around to unhook that squirrel-fur lined bra …?) Emily—I love your dismissal of cake-decorating, gelded Peeta. If the Capitol ever decided to stage a Hunger Games version of Iron Chef—with the losing cook beaten to death with copper pots, then spit-roasted—Peeta would definitely win.

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The comparison to 24is compelling, but for the opposite reason than you cite, Emily. That show enthralled me for a couple of seasons with its cliffhangers and gleeful sadism but got old quickly. How many times could Jack Bauer be shackled in a crumbling warehouse? How many times could an alarmingly accented terrorist be just seconds away from unleashing a WMD? Mockingjay(and Catching Fire) have the same failing. Collins already gave us these plot twists: Do we have to sit through them again? Another pod, really? Another propaganda effort rescued when Katniss ditches the script and goes all warrior-princess? When you live by cliffhangers, you die by them. I love plot as much as the next guy—in the literary knife fight between Dickensians and, well, everyone else, I take Dickens any day—but plot has to refresh itself.

Which brings me back to your question, Nina: Are these novels of ideas? I unequivocally say, yes. Lots of ideas. Let's set aside Collins' didactic podcast answers—no author should be held responsible for what she says on book tour—and focus on the books themselves. Each of its major themes is thought-provoking: The panopticon totalitarian state may be thieved a bit from Nineteen Eighty-Four(though a lot less than Super Sad True Love Storyis), but it's still a fantastic and vivid creation. The accounts of the economics of District 12, and the parasitic relationship the nonproducing Capitol has toward those who work, are excellent.

It's also true that there are 10 too many propaganda scenes, but the book grapples with the question of authenticity in a world of pervasive media in a sophisticated way. The ambiguities of District 13—is it a plucky, Israel-like society that has made the most of necessity? Is it entirely devious and simply planning to replace one horrid Panem government with another?—gripped me. The transformation of Gale from rugged individualist into vengeful soldier-oppressor was utterly persuasive. Even the series' paean to rustic life, naïve as it may be, is still appealing. (Unlike you guys, I liked Mockingjay's downbeat conclusion, with its Candide-echo that we must all cultivate our gardens.) I certainly don't agree with the ideas of the Hunger Games—its Jeffersonian agrarian philosophy and its inherent distrust of government and media seem pretty Tea Partying to me—but it is those ideas, as much as the cliffhangers, that pulled me along through the series.

—D

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