The Hunger Games Reviewed

One wish. Right now. What would it be? Mom asked me and my sister on our drive home from school when I was 10.

To get those new knee-high black leather boots, my sister answered quickly. Which I know you won't let me. And she left an opening for mom's response but got none.

What about you, Dolly. What would you wish for, mom asked me, checking me out in the rear view mirror.

World peace. It was the answer I always gave when anyone asked what I'd wish for. I wanted it more than anything else. Feeling the wrath of my father's short temper, or looking for my brother among the soldiers on the day's clips from Vietnam, I abhorred violence.

What a stupid answer, my sister proclaimed. Never happen. Why don't you ever wish for something you could actually get?

I slumped, but crossed my arms over my chest and countered, It's possible. Anything is possible.

Not world peace, she assured me. She was parroting our father.

Nothing ever changes, was Dad's canonical refrain. Humans are aggressive, territorial, warring beings. We will always be aggressive/violent—a product of our foundation, forever encoded in our DNA.

Not true, I'd argue through the years. We've advanced from apes, developed complex language, laws to protect and care for each other. We've risen from hunter/gatherers to farmers that now feed millions, created technology that allows us communicate globally—

And we've invented better ways of killing each other, was always Papa's rejoinder.

But we can learn how not to, I'd add with less vigor, as we'd invented a way of killing every living thing on our planet just two decades before I was born.
Fast forward 23 years—a generation drop. Went to see Dances With Wolves in Piedmont with some friends. An epic film, made for the big screen, about an Army Lieutenant's experience with last Native Americans in the Dakota/Wyoming territories before the White invasion that annihilated them. Opening scene: U.S. civil war—blood, gore and all. Two scenes in, Army Captain blows his brains out. Couple scenes later, wagon driver pierced threw the chest with an arrow. Scene after scene showed violence. Whites killing Whites; Whites killing Indians; Indians killing Whites; Indians killing Indians with warring tribes. Ten minutes before the film ended I'd had enough. I literally ran from the theater, outside to the curb and threw up in the gutter.

My father is right. My father is right, was screaming in my head. We were engaged in the Gulf War back then, yet another stupid skirmish over territory, like dogs peeing to mark their spot. We're better than this, a part of me pleaded. No. We're not, I heard my dad say.

A car full of black guys drove by slow, watching me. The driver stuck his tongue out and waggled it at me. Fear replaced blackness right then. Piedmont is a wealthy suburb of Oakland, but between the theater and the slums was only a drive by away. The too low to the ground BMW passed slowly but without further incident.

My father is right. Nothing ever changes. We're still killing each other over nothing everywhere. My father is right.
Fast forward 22 years—another generation drop. Just finished The Hunger Games with my 13 year old son. I never see movies or read books anymore that involve kids getting hurt, mentally or physically. As a parent, I can't handle touching that terror. But my son insisted Suzanne Collins was the best writer he's ever read, a high endorsement for a kid who reads three or more books a week, and requested we read it together for our traditional nightly read. And as a fiction writer, I had to see why my son loved this novel so much more than any before it.

The Hunger Games was brilliant, at first read. Engaging. Fast. Edgy, but a smooth, entertaining read. Knowing there were two more books in the series made it credible the main character, Katness, went along with the games with only the vaguest of questions about the morality behind them. The novel focused on the games themselves, and although exploitative and ugly, I figured it necessary to invoke change in the complacent characters of Collins' feudalistic society that would unfold in the rest of the series.

The Hunger Games was sad, dark, deeply disturbing from opening line to closing sentence, a grotesque statement on our character—Ms. Collins's self-proclaimed interpretation on the popular reality show Survivor. My son promised me the series provided a happy ending, and reading the other books would eventually reveal in detail how this society became so distorted to justify the violence in, and acceptance of killing children for spectacle.

We finished Mockingjay last week, the last book in The Hunger Games series. The novel was disjointed, too many quick cuts with no real depth scene after scene. Beyond exploitative, reading it was like watching CNN—a barrage of video clips of what's happening, and only the briefest explanation (and generally singular POV) why. And though Katness, and her band of tortured cronies eventually win the day, Ms. Collins makes it very clear the new order is the same as the old one, equally ugly, most having learned nothing from their past persecution and perilous fight.

My father is right, according to Ms. Collins.

Nothing ever really changes is not a happy ending. And in retrospect, after finishing Mockingjay, the first novel I liked so much, The Hunger Games, is more for effect than content, on par with reality TV the YA author was ostensibly mocking. Been feeling somewhat ripped off for wasting my time with the series, and the message Ms. Collins is clearly selling our kids.

My husband and I are raising our kids with the belief that people are malleable. We can, will, and do change. We are evolving beings. We encourage the notion we can reach our amazing potential for invention, compassion, with enough collective intelligence to build a flourishing society. We promote these concepts to empower our children with the mindset they are changeable, bad habits are breakable; war, famine, disease are all eventually resolvable if we strive to communicate, compromise, and allow our creativity a safe harbor to thrive.

Idealist, my father, and seemingly Suzanne Collins mock. Better an idealist then the cynic resigned to impending doom, or the Young Adult author who exploits our frailties from voyeurism to sadism for book sales, and then lays our character flaws in stone to our children. We first must believe fundamental change in our nature and character is possible to begin to achieve it.  


Leah said...

You nailed it. The Hunger Games is about how we never really change. Sad, isn't it? Still, I enjoyed the series.

Anonymous said...

A cynic is an optimist who hasn't failed.

I can't help but think that this sort of negative message is emotionally destabilizing for children. The author made money on this books, and kids may walk away with some sense this is a happy ending, but what does it tell them about the future? Why would people seek to improve anything if they thought it didn't make any difference? It seems to me the end result of this sort of logic is to focus on one's self, with the subtext of "and screw everyone else" ...