The Hunger Games

I Never Noticed the Lack of Sex
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 30 2010 2:51 PM

The Hunger Games

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I hate to be the one to break it to you, David, but a Hunger Games movie is already in the works, and the requisite who-will-play-Katniss parlor games are in full swing. I'm not sold on any of the current contenders, but my fantasy-fantasy casting would be Zhang Ziyi, circa 2000 or so.

I loved your line about the Hunger Games being the "Kama Sutra" of violence—in my notes, I jotted down that the arenas and the Capitol are like Rube Goldberg machines designed by Hieronymous Bosch. I agree that Games No. 2 and No. 3 can't compare with No. 1, but I think they all pack a wallop. And it's not just because the violence is so lovingly crafted (though that certainly helps) but because when they're really cracking, they have a narrative and emotional immediacy that's hard to resist. The stakes are so high! The conditions so unjust! The feelings so big!

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It's the kind of excitement grown-up readers don't get a lot of in their normal course of decorous, ma-toor literary fiction. It might be a little too easy to say that Katniss' time in the arena is a grand metaphor for the universal hardships of being 17, but TheHunger Games do a great job of reminding adults what it felt like to exist at such a consistently high throttle. (Dana Stevens noted a similarly flushed quality in the Twilight films.) Plus, as Lev Grossman pointed out in the New York Times, Y.A. novels like The Hunger Games—and the other successful kid-adult crossovers you list—don't "distrust" plot: They celebrate it. Good Y.A. novels hit the same pleasure centers as good episodic television—another art form enjoying a kind of heyday.

Finally, you have to acknowledge the sanitizing power of the cultural zeitgeist: You can read these books on the subway, David, in large part because you've been preapproved to do so by other adults.

OK, so with all those hormones flying around, how come Katniss never drags Gale into one of those District 13 supply closets for a few teenage kicks? Honestly, I never noticed the lack of sex. Despite all the Team Peeta/Team Gale chatter, the romantic story line always felt incidental to me. (Given the limp way Collins resolved the triangle, I'm inclined to guess that it felt incidental to her, too.) If Twilight's Bella Swan represents one kind of young woman—the kind who's just waiting for the opportunity to be swept off her feet—Katniss represents another: the girl who isn't sure yet what role she wants to play when it comes to men, or where to place sex and romance in her hierarchy of needs. She certainly has strong feelings for both Peeta and Gale, but it's not quite lust or romantic love. She's … protective of them. Katniss is a Mama Grizzly!

Here's my question for the club: Does the Hunger Games trilogy succeed as a novel of ideas? I think a big part of the appeal for adults is that you can say, "Oh, it's not just a book about a bunch of teenagers killing one another. It's also about, you know, war and the power of media and corrupt governments and stuff."  I'm most interested in that media subplot. Maybe it's because I just read Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story—another new bit of dystopia, which envisions the scarily plausible future of social networking—but broadcast television feels like an awfully stale threat at this point in the game. Does it work for you? Or, as Laura Miller argues in TheNew Yorker, does reading The Hunger Games as social criticism completely miss the point of the books? And what are we supposed to make of the fact that, as the trilogy progresses, Katniss is more powerful as a propaganda star than as a warrior? I'm still trying to decide whether the book is incredibly cynical or incredibly naive about the Panopticon it's engineered, and our heroine's role in it.

Finally, in honor of Frank Kermode, I want to ask you about that ending. Did it feel as Pyrrhic and sad to you two as it did to me? I half respected Collins' choice to end on such a bleak note of deflation, and half thought it was a narrative copout.

But let's get serious, Emily. How many pairs of fur underwear will you be picking up for this fall?

—Nina

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