The Book That Came Under Fire

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I’m pretty sure that penguin is preparing to kill me. He wins the Hunger Games.

Hey everyone! So, in honor of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I’m reviewing The Hunger Games because irony. This review will not be of the whole series, as the Scary Stories and Goosebumps reviews were, but solely of the first book. A separate review of the movie will follow.

THE DEFENDANT: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

THE VERDICT: The story of The Girl Who Was On Fire has certainly come under its share of fire, placing itself on the ALA’s Top 10 Frequently Challenged Books list for two consecutive years.

The Hunger Games came in at #5 in 2010 and The Hunger Games Trilogy came in at #3 in 2011. Given the continued popularity of the books and movies, it will likely remain high on the list in 2012.

THE CHARGES: According to the ALA, reasons for banning the trilogy include “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence” and the first book was banned for being/having “sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence.”

THE REVIEW: The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic America where wealth disparity and reality television abound. The remaining humans live in Districts and are not allowed past the fences surrounding their Districts. The Capitol is very affluent and, after a bloody and failed revolution, rules over the Districts with an iron fist, imposing harsh laws, crippling economic policies, and a Pax Romana-esque tax.

Once a year, each District must offer up a boy and a girl in Tribute to compete in the Hunger Games, a Survivor-style gladiator fight to the death. Katniss lives in the Dickensianly impoverished District 12 and struggles every day to keep her family fed. When her sister’s name is drawn in Tribute, Katniss volunteers to go in her stead. She is then shipped off to the Capitol and forced to train (and schmooze) for her life before being sent into the arena for a televised, sponsored version of The Most Dangerous Game. Love triangles and social commentary ensue.

Say what you will about The Hunger Games, it is nothing if not a page-turner. After seeing the movie trailer and having several friends recommend it, I finally gave in and purchased The Hunger Games for a book club. Thus, I found myself one night in the Enfield House Office of Hampshire College. My friends were clustered around the television as results from last year’s presidential primary began to come in. Some were talking, one person was anxiously crunching the numbers, and I cracked the spine of that little paper volume. Ironically, both were a cut-throat, overly-televised fight to the death where whoever has the richest sponsors wins.

Maybe it was a need to escape all of the stress in my life at the time, maybe my post-graduate bleakness made me identify with Katniss’s suffocating worldview, maybe Collins is a better writer than I give her credit for. Whatever the reason, I devoured that thing. I spent the next day in bed with a high fever, feverishly reading. Any book capable of being read in one sitting, whatever its literary merits, is a success on some level, and this book most certainly succeeds there. The fast-paced narrative, gripping struggle, frequent section breaks, and first person narration all make this book a very quick, addictive read that is hard to put down.

However, for all its addicting qualities, The Hunger Games fell a bit flat for me. It’s like literary potato chips: you can’t put it down, but it’s lacking substance and ends up leaving you unsatisfied. This is a book all about being forced to do terrible things and, save for the vague, non-personified entity of The Capitol, no one does terrible things.

All of the Tributes the main characters kill are one-dimensional, evil brutes, with the exception of Foxface, who is killed by accident. Katniss and Peeta hold no emotional responsibility for her death and it wouldn’t even merit manslaughter. Everyone remotely human gets killed by someone else. Even the one-dimensional brutes are killed by distancing means to keep the blood off Katniss’s hands. Yes, it was Katniss’s doing, but the tracker jackers killed them. It’s like all those tricks used in war (long-range weapons, guns with blanks, etc) to diffuse personal accountability.

As tear-jerking as Rue’s death is, Katniss should be thanking whoever killed her, otherwise she would have had to. Most frustrating of all, not even Cato, the most one-dimensional and least fleshed out baddie can be murdered. His death winds up being a mercy killing, once again removing any blame or guilt from Katniss. I thought this lack of violence in a book that kept promising soul-crushing violence would be remedied with the twist at the end of the games, but no. They just Romeoed that shit up.

This was incredibly disappointing, as the descriptions and struggles of this world of rampant and unnecessary poverty are superbly done. They resonate. But when it comes down to it, this book, which could have been an excellent albeit derivative commentary on wealth and power, winds up neutering its own message by pussyfooting around the issues it wants to force the reader to confront but can’t seem to itself.

It’s not like this was done for the benefit of younger readers. Hatchet, Lord of the Flies (which this is totally stolen from), The Most Dangerous Game (which this is also stolen from), and The Lottery (which the entire premise of the Games is stolen from) are all required reading in middle or high schools are they have far more inhumanity, violence, and moral ambiguity. Kids can handle it and I’m certain many a kid felt similarly jilted by this book’s blunted edge. In the end, The Hunger Games played a game of moral chicken and lost.

This is what bothers me most. Yes, The Hunger Games is far from original. However, I do not subscribe to the school of thought that derivative is always bad. I studied oral/epic literature and folk culture. I long ago embraced the derivative. Once you’ve read a dozen versions of the Ramayana and still want to read more, borrowing themes, characters, and concepts is no longer the problem it once was. However, if you retell a story or borrow ideas from it, you better have something to add. Take it further. Do it differently. Do it better. Add something to the mythos, so the next person can come along and play with that. Shakespeare and Tolkien stole just about everything they ever wrote, but they did it brilliantly. They added new themes, new layers of meaning, and new depth. Collins does not.

Despite these failures, Collins does do several things right. With the exception of her sugar-coated gladiators, Collins does not condescend to her characters or readers (an all too common sin in young adult and children’s literature). She does not shy away from abject poverty, starvation, or mental illness. I was also pleasantly surprised at how the social commentary avoided a black and white approach. It wasn’t just rich bad, poor good or even Capitol bad, Districts good. Whenever characters judge someone for having privilege, it’s usually mentioned that those characters can’t do much about it and their life might not be all silk and top hats either. This helped make the evil, unnamed, oppressive Capitol set-up of the book less simplistic.

In addition, The Hunger Games succeeded where most post-apocalyptic literature fails. 1) There were minorities. 2) They weren’t evenly distributed like in Legend of the Seeker or awkwardly tacked on like the one black person in City of Ember. Where did she come from? It’s an isolated population! They’ve been cut off for 200+ years, how in Zeus’s name haven’t they all intermarried yet? There has been much debate over the ethnicity of the characters in The Hunger Games and for some reason I hallucinated that Peeta was Greek (I did have a fever when I first read this, to be fair, and his name is a horrible, horrible pun on the Greek flatbread), but when I was reading, it certainly felt like a number of the characters were interracial or at least their ethnicity made some logistical sense. That said, the reoccurring correlation between rich/entitled/upper class and blonde in District 12 was a bit overdone and got kind of Lannister-esque for me. Perhaps ‘blonde’ was an indirect way of saying white, but, good god, throw in a brunette or two.

I think the culture of District 12 and the class system of Panem were most interesting to me when Katniss is in the Capitol. Her reflections on how much work would go into making the one dish that was a luxury to her and so commonplace to others, was fascinating and fantastically stark. That section, for me, was darker and more scathing of society than most of the Games themselves. Similarly, Katniss’s reaction to being in a pretty dress intrigued me. Some of my friends found her sudden girliness out of character. I thought it was spot on.

She has never seen anything that exquisite, pretty, or expensive in her life and never, ever thought she could be glamorous (or likely even had the time to imagine being glamorous). One need not go to Panem, or even read The Prince and the Pauper, to see this sort of psychological concept in action. I grew up in a small town. I know plenty of people from rural, small town, or blue collar families that just assume they aren’t pretty because being pretty was never a priority and glamour is/was such a faraway concept that they can’t really picture themselves as glamourous (even if they are gorgeous already).

Katniss’s character was really the strength of this book. Her struggle is the most basic and universal of them all: survive. She has been fighting tooth and nail her whole life just to not starve to death, long before the Games ever begin. Being taken as tribute is a death sentence, yet her journey to the Games is the first time in her life when she ISN’T struggling just to eat. There is food (and plenty of it) everywhere, already prepared and laid out for her. Her clothing, shelter, and transportation are all provided. It’s a very strange dichotomy.

This is where the first person point of view triumphs. Although, her bleak outlook and single-minded focus and determination did make her appear as somewhat of a sociopath. Yes, she cares about Prim, but the way she thinks, the way she reacts, the way she prioritizes, and they way she processes the information around her felt very disconnected and unable to understand empathy or compassion. This makes total sense with her life and she no doubt is an incredibly damaged person even before the events of the book start. By the time it’s over, she must have PTSD (if she didn’t already). However, her apparent lack of understanding of humans and why they do the unselfish or impractical things that they do, began to get annoying when it came to the relationship drama of this book. Her complete failure to notice that people like her or are attracted to her got old and far too reminiscent of other (and more poorly written) teen romances. It also made her feel even more like a sociopath.

On the subject of love/attraction, Gale’s lack of characterization was a problem. The love triangle doesn’t work when Gale has no screen time and is not fleshed out at all. There was clearly supposed to be some sort of Team Gale v. Team Peeta set-up in this book, but how can I root for Gale or care about him if Collins can’t even be bothered to?

As this has been a mixed review, I will say this. I did very much enjoy this book and found Katniss to be a strong and interesting character. I’m just dissatisfied because the book could have been so much better, its half-done message so much more powerful. However, at the end of the day, The Hunger Games has my eternal support and gratitude for making little girls want to play with this instead of the usual vapid bimbo doll. Between The Hunger Games and Brave, there are toy bows and arrows in *gasp* the girl’s section of the toy store. Sadly, they’re still in ‘girl’ colors, but I’ll take it. Not to mention there are record numbers of kids signing up for archery lessons. Win.

THE DEFENSE: Though I was not at all surprised to learn that The Hunger Games was banned, I was quite taken aback by several of the charges. Especially the insinuation that the books are anti-family. That is absolutely ridiculous. From the very first pages, we see people who care desperately for their families. Katniss and Gale love their siblings and have been serving as both older sibling and parent for years, Gale because he has no parents, Katniss because her father is dead and her mom has mentally checked out. They are not merely the primary breadwinners of their homes but the only breadwinners. Their every action is to feed their families and ensure their survival. Both voluntarily have their names entered into the drawing for Tribute more times than required in exchange for rations and supplies to get their family through the winter. Katniss and Gale have an arrangement where if one of them is chosen in Tribute, the other will make sure their family doesn’t starve. The entire plot centers on Katniss’s sisterly/motherly love for her little sister, Prim. She volunteers as Tribute to save Prim and its her need to keep Prim safe transposed onto Rue that makes Rue’s death the emotional crux of the book. Yes, this is not your nuclear family, but nuclear families are a luxury the people of District 12 cannot afford. Out of necessity they have formed their own families in order to stay alive and stay sane.

The books’ alleged anti-ethnic sentiments confused me as well. Again, I thought the book handled race and ethnicity far better than most in its genre and subgenre. The Hunger Games explores issues of power, oppression, privilege, classism, and wealth disparity. Given that those issues have historically had ethnic, cultural, or racial components, it seems that this book is far more sympathetic to the struggle of traditionally underprivileged peoples than damning of them. Again, perhaps there are things in the later books that would back up this claim, but the first book hardly seems anti-ethnic.

The accusations of insensitivity, violence, and being inappropriate for the intended age group are nothing short of coddling and sugar-coating. As I said in the review, the book is actually not that violent and far more children’s classics contain a great deal more violence and disturbing content. Kids (especially teens, which seem to be target audience) are more than capable of handling the themes in this book. The Hunger Games is hardly insensitive to the violence or suffering in its pages. It merely points out society’s insensitivity, and perhaps that’s the problem. This book critiques us. So we take our discomfort and outrage out on the material itself rather than look at ourselves and our own crimes. Finally, I have no idea where people are getting the idea that The Hunger Games has occult/satanic content by any stretch of the imagination.

Offensive language seems odd since I don’t recall a single curse word or slur in the entire book. There’s even an image circulating the internet about how Katniss never swears, despite all she’s been through. I find the charge of sexually explicit content strange. Admittedly, I have only read the first book. Maybe there’s some crazy revolution orgy in the next two that I am unaware of, but at least the first book is about as chaste as it gets. Katniss hems and haws and blushes over a crush and a kiss like she’s in middle school. Nothing beyond snuggling and snogging ever happens or is even fantasized about. I promise any child reading this book has seen and heard (and probably imagined) much more graphic content.

Most of these issues seem to be a desire to sugar-coat reality and keep children from being exposed to anything remotely gritty or controversial. This condescending attitude is very common, especially when it comes to young adult and children’s literature. However, it seems all the more like an overreaction considering this book is actually quite tame. The concept is violent and dark, but the book itself would be appropriate for most young readers. Secondly, this book shows a world where the privileged and sheltered are oblivious to the suffering of others even as they cause and revel in it. They don’t have to care because they don’t have to see it or deal with it. What does it say when we wish to shelter ourselves and our children from a softened glimpse of suffering that, while fictional, is hardly out of place in our own world?

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend, folks. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

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