The Hunger Games

The Mesmerizing Plots Are Enough To Carry the Entire Series
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 30 2010 4:17 PM

The Hunger Games

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Nina, the fur underwear was so lost on me. I skipped over all the frocks and furbelows and the endless prep scenes, which reminded me of the silliness of Dorothy's arrival in the Emerald City. (Remember her new look, and especially the Cowardly Lion's beribboned locks?) The single outfit I coveted was Katniss' hunting gear. This goes to Collins' canny approach to building a broad audience: She appeals to the fur underwear girls and the would-be survivalists, of both sexes.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Which brings me to your question, David, about why Collins devoted all her imaginative energy to dreaming up murder positions—her appetite for detail is Hannibal Lecter-like—and none to sexual ones. Collins isn't just writing for the teenage girls who swoon over Twilight. She's got the Harry Potter boys in her grasp, too. I read Mockingjay by stealing my almost-12-year-old nephew's copy. He said he loves the books because they're recognizable, with elements from the ever-reliable Greek myths, but also different from every other fictional series he reads, because of the singular Hunger Games premise.

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If Katniss went past kissing with Peeta or Gale, it would take the book in a direction that my nephew and a lot of boys his age would lose patience with. And for some girls, even moving up the target audience age range, the chastity fantasy is a cozier one than vampire or human sex. Peeta is such a study in patient devotion that he's practically a eunuch. He risks a beating to feed Katniss burned bread in childhood and sleeps with her to calm her nightmares without ever asking for more than a cuddle. Oh, and his special talents are for baking bread and frosting cakes. I agree, Nina, that the love triangle ends limply, in part because its resolution isn't really the point. If Katniss is a Mama Grizzly, she's also a stonily virginal Artemis—happier hunting squirrels than men. And better off for it.

Another benefit of Collins' choice of violence over sex: The movies of her books will earn PG-13 as opposed to R ratings, because the MPAA standards are prudish about breasts but not about blood. David, I can't believe that you're not looking forward to the upcoming films. Of course they're already in production—the books' greatest strength and weakness is that they're readymade screenplays. Plot is the huge muscle pumping through Katniss' mad-dash victories in the arena and the revolution. Sure, No. 2 and No. 3 don't have the same jolt and thrill as No. 1. Inevitably, Collins starts to run out of tricks. But all three of the Hunger Games installments are book crack for adults the way 24 is TV crack: Collins is a master of the end-of-chapter cliff hanger and the unexpected twist.

I didn't predict that Katniss would be forced back into tribute service in No. 2, did you? And since I didn't see it coming, I didn't mind the recycling. Collins should have quit while she was ahead instead of bringing back the arena yet again in Mockingjay, where it's a pale and unconvincing version of its former self. But really, she makes few such missteps. It's the relentless drive of the plot that propels us past the dreadful dialogue, which wrecks key scenes. (Peeta's parting remark to his beloved Katniss in Mockingjay, in their first conversation after she has inadvertently abandoned him and he has been reprogrammed by the evil Capitol: "You're a piece of work." Thud.) And it's the force of the action that zips us by lifeless characters like Katniss' younger sister, Prim, whose few lines come coated in sickly sweet wisdom. (Even Haymitch the alcoholic mentor and Gale the angry anarchist are never much more than props.) I'm annoyingly purist about film and TV versions of my favorite Y.A. literature. I've boycotted every Harry Potter film and The Golden Compass. But I can't wait to see The Hunger Games on the screen because it has no layers of depth and character to lose.

Nina, you asked whether The Hunger Games succeeds as a novel of ideas. Collins wants it to. Asked about this on the podcast for the New York Times Book Review, she said of her teenage readers: "I hope they question elements like the global warming and the mistreatment of the environment. But also questions like, 'How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted and so many other people are starving in the world?' " Maybe she realizes that the enviro/social justice themes don't actually shine through clearly, because Collins also threw in, "What do you think about the choices your leaders are making?" and "What's your relationship to reality television versus the news?" This struck me as truer to the books, though didactic for a writer who excels in spinning teenage rage into allegorical gold.

In the end, when I reduce the books to a lesson plan, I'm not sure what they have to say that Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four didn't say long ago. Down with fascism! Especially when the leader of the regime has an entirely symbolic one-syllable name like Coin or Snow. Nina, Collins would like your great question about Katniss' role as symbolic media messenger. But what does the author really do with this other than revert to the dated notion that television is powerful because everyone is watching the same broadcast? Give me the clever Web 3.0 of Feed any day.

And David, do you really think this book belongs in the same category as The Road? McCarthy burrowed deep into my fears. Collins tickles the surface. Her biggest contribution, ideas-wise, is that her apocalyptic future is scrupulously gender neutral. She's not content with one strong girl protagonist and a few fabulous witches. She evenly divides between male and female in every category: evil and heroic tributes, rebel soldiers, and fascist masterminds. It's the Noah's ark of dystopian literature.

What do you guys think—what other than exhilarating escapist fun would you want kids to get out of these books? David, were you as glad as I was not to have to read them through the prism of parenthood, since there are no mothers or fathers (at least none with speaking parts) to muck things up? And to go back to Nina's question about the ending: What was up with the nosedive into pastoral domesticity and the sappy song?

—Emily

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