Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Teens Read book club, summer '10, session 3: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Yeah, that's right, The Hunger Games. As in the teen dystopian romance-adventure novel that everyone and their dead grandmother has read. Normally I don't like to go for the big-name, super-popular mega-hits, assuming that the kids are more likely to read those on their own and that I should be finding more interesting/obscure/awesome works for them to experience.

But this time I put it to a vote, and the Games won, so: mega-hit it was. And honestly, it wasn't a completely terrible experience.

I asked my excellent friend Lindsey, who's well-versed in young adult literature, about the book and whether she'd read it. Her reaction, slightly paraphrased, was that it's a moderately okay book in most ways but that kids who are advanced enough to be reading it should skip it entirely and go straight on to Lord of the Flies. While I'm completely in agreement with her as regards the relative quality of these two works, there are some interesting aspects to Games that I wasn't expecting.

Quick summary: in futuristic dystopian country Panem, two children, one male, one female, are chosen every year to participate in the Games, a battle-royale fight-to-the-death that's televised live all over the country. Our hero, Katniss, volunteers for the Games in place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the lottery. Katniss trains for the Games, experiences life in the high-tech Capitol, eventually participates in the Games proper alongside the other Tribute from her district, the boy Peeta, and the tributes from all the other districts as well. Violence ensues, romance (possibly, sort-of) blossoms, etc.

For starters, no, not the world's most original premise. It uses the Standard Dystopian Setting that's become so widespread in teen fiction these days, adds some ultra-violence and high-pressure situations, stirs, and bakes. Like Lindsey noted, there's a fair bit of Flies in there, though a closer comparison would also be to the Japanese novel Battle Royale. As I already implied, the writing itself isn't exactly Faulkner, and the characters aren't really magnificent wonders of creation.

But Games does a couple nifty things with its premise that I thought gave it some added resonance for Today's Teens: for starters, these fight-to-the-death Games are televised. Not just televised; the players are aware that their every move is being watched at all times by the Gamemasters, regardless of whether they're on TV at that moment. They're under constant surveillance, and they're fully conscious of it: one of my favorite aspects of the story is that Katniss is not just thinking of her next move in terms of survival (where do I hunt, can I set a trap for another player here, etc.), but also in terms of how her actions are being seen by this eternal, unseen audience. Should I act helpless in order to gain sympathy? Should I seem remorseful about trying to kill this person? And, most cynical of all, should I pretend to be in love with Peeta in order to set up a "storyline" and keep the audience interested in me?

It's an evolution of the premise: in Flies, the characters were accidentally forced into this dog-eat-dog survival situation; in Royale they were deliberately put there, but the "game" wasn't revealed to the public until after there was only one person (the "winner") left; and now, in Games, these teens are not just being deliberately forced to kill each other but are being constantly watched as they do so. It's also a pretty clear metaphor for adolescence: not only are you thrown into a life of constant conflict, you're being watched by everyone at all times, as well.

Anyway. Still not a fantastic book. But the premise works well, it speaks to the Teens of Today, and maybe in a year or two they'll read Lord of the Flies and realize where this book came from.

As for the actual book-club-discussion-thing, I had a total of exactly three teens show up, one of whom didn't appear until about fifteen-twenty minutes in, but it still ended up being a relatively lively discussion. Apart from that, I don't remember much; it was, what, three months ago? Four? Something like that.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of a great book I recently read called "Rate Me Red." It takes place in a world in which the Hot Or Not concept merges with YouTube and Facebook and society lets it dictate their every move. It's good young-adult fiction, with writing quality probably on par with The Hunger Games, but there are infinitely fewer deaths.