America has devoured the dystopian book series The Hunger Games in a manner not unlike that of the bloodthirsty viewers of the story’s horrifying, in-text reality show. But why all the fervor? Is it worth the hype? And, finally, will it make a decent movie?
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The latest itch just begging to be scratched came courtesy of author Suzanne Collins, whose dystopian Hunger Games books are the new must-have doorstoppers—the new Harry Potters. The first installment, The Hunger Games, was released in 2008 and sold some 800,000 copies in fewer than two years, by which time it had remained on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 straight weeks. It has yielded two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both of which have managed to outsell fiction super-giants like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t take all the credit for getting swept up in this particular whirlwind—The Hunger Games was enthusiastically recommended to me by a high-powered book editor, who said, in no uncertain terms, that it was “the next big thing.” Of course, she was referring, at least in part, to the forthcoming film adaptation, scheduled for a March 2012 release. And she sold me, just as I’d all but sworn off the reading of soon-to-be-adapted novels. This time, I wasn’t going to cheat at the tail-end and consult a friend for spoilers. I was going to approach The Hunger Games the way I did, say, The Sopranos: from the very beginning. I picked up book one and soared through it in little more than a week. I’m almost finished with book three.
|Author Suzane Collins|
Collins imagines a post-apocalyptic North America now known as Panem. The futuristic date is uncertain, but it is definitely post-war, and the remaining nation is a tyrannical one, where an all-powerful Capitol rules over 12 surrounding Districts, each of which cowers to Big Brother and specializes in goods and services reserved for the filthy rich. The milieu is familiar, and book one (on which I’ll chiefly focus) evokes the downtrodden, future-in-rags circumstances of countless dystopian works. But there’s a nasty, shocking and mammoth hook at the core of Collins’s opus. Roughly a century before the events in the novel, a 13th District rose against the Capitol and was swiftly obliterated. As a result, the draconian rulers devised and commenced the ultimate cautionary measure: The Hunger Games, an annual, mandatorily televised tournament in which two teenagers—one boy, one girl—from each district battle to the death in a treacherous arena of the Capitol’s making. Only one victor can emerge from the grisly proceedings which, reportedly inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, reminds the adults of Panem that revolution comes with a price worse than death: the deaths of their children.
The key player amidst this eeriness is Katniss Everdeen, a precocious 16-year-old from the coal-mining District 12 who supports her widowed mother and younger sister by illegally hunting for food in the surrounding forests (she’s handy with traps and a bow-and-arrow). Naturally, the raven-haired do-gooder winds up a Hunger Games contestant (or “tribute,” as they’re known), stepping in to take the place of little sis, whose name gets called during the District 12 lottery (let the Shirley Jackson parallels be drawn). Picked to join Katniss in the Games is Peeta Mellark, a big-hearted baker’s son who’s unknown to our heroine save for a time he offered her free bread on a cold night. If you already smell a romance, your senses are dead-on, and there is indeed some unwieldy mush in the mix. But the violent thrust of The Hunger Games is more
than enough to patch up its narrative wounds.
|Brooke Smith in Series 7:|
The age level of Katniss and her peers is something Hunger Games readers must constantly reconcile, and pit against their desensitized interests in the sort of tournament that, while horrific, is bloody exciting. How can I allow myself to be so wholly engrossed in this story when the crux of it concerns teens killing each other? The profound conundrum, combined with Collins’s lightning pace, gives the tale a breathless urgency. And these kids aren’t giving each other sleeper holds—they’re slitting each other’s throats, impaling each other with spears and arrows, and subjecting each other to torments like attacks from venomous mutant wasps. Bear in mind, too, that this is young adult fiction, aimed squarely at consumers in the very age group of the Games contestants. It’s quite likely that, with an entertainment diet that’s bound to also include a few video games where burly avatars get digitally disemboweled ad infinitum, teen fans won’t think much of the series’ awesome undercurrent, and will instead just add The Hunger Games to their lengthy lists of obsessions. But older readers, who find their gladiatorial guilty pleasures suddenly filled with youngsters, may
need to frequently slap themselves to recall just who these books are for, let alone what they’re about. You can find all the real-world relevance you want in the story’s themes of politics, war and socioeconomic class, but that hammer-swing of ugly youth mortality, that unforgiving theft of innocence, is what gives this grim fairy tale its heady weight.
|Entertainment Weekly recently released the exclusive first |
images of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen.
And it’s going to make matters all the more tricky for the hotly anticipated movie, which faces the challenge of not describing the high-stakes carnage, but visualizing it. At the risk of sounding like yet another glutton for gore, I dare say it’s unfortunate that Lionsgate Entertainment, the film’s distributor, has inevitably opted for a PG-13 rating to rope in the widest possible audience. Though some may rest easy knowing that Collins is adapting her own material (with a little help from Shattered Glass scribe Billy Ray), the visceral reaction her book elicits doesn’t want to be watered down. Fierce as it may be, the violence validates the hugely ominous mood that’s always brewing beneath the surface as Katniss attempts to eke out any semblance of teenage normalcy. Its intermittent, ferocious and unfiltered arrival confirms the reader’s fears and keeps things riveting. It needs to be rough and rated-R gritty.
If not, attention may well be drawn to all that doesn’t hold up as well in the story, namely plot holes and puppy love. Collins surely has a knack for making the pages fly and establishing a bracingly vivid environment, but she’s not going to win any Pulitzers for her prose, nor is she immune to the occasional lapse in logic. A fantasy feminist in the wrongfully validated tradition of Stephenie Meyer, Collins projects onto her story what we can only assume is an idealized version of herself—a noble, angsty superwoman who’s pined after by not one, but two hunky dudes. In addition to Peeta, there’s Gale, Katniss’s longtime friend and hunting partner, who’s about ready to chase after more than just deer. Events are never reduced to the midnight-soap melodrama of Twilight, but the impending love triangle shows more than a passing resemblance to the vampiric affair, and the self-importance it suggests about both the author and the heroine is begging to insult you on screen. Same goes for the plot elements that simply don’t jell, even if you’re more than willing to suspend disbelief with a story set hundreds of years in the future. For instance, there’s little trouble buying the notion that the Capitol can electronically control all that takes place in the arena, but how is it that every breath the tributes take is caught on camera? Are there recording devices fixed to every square inch of the landscape, even the interiors of caves? How will the filmmakers account for this?
|Your Hunger Games cast, clockwise from top left: Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson,|
Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Amandla Stenberg,
Wes Bentley, Willow Shields, Lenny Kraitz and Paula Malcolmson.
Luckily, the team that’s been assembled to bring The Hunger Games to life is more promising than not, with a cast whose every addition has been tirelessly covered in the press. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) will take the lead and wield Katniss’s mighty bow, while heartthrobs-in-training Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) and Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song), will compete for her affections as Peeta and Gale, respectively. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci are set to round out the supporting cast, along with an extensive—and, of course, expendable—selection of teenage newcomers. Leading the behind-the-camera talent is director Gary Ross, a former screenwriter whose filmmaking credits (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) offer zero indication that he’s capable of helming a gloomy yarn about futuristic unrest and forced, broadcasted slaughter. But, then, The Hunger Games is also about the emergence of untapped strength, and perhaps a newly-challenged captain is just what it needs to take off. In any case, at this point, it will matter very little to me what news surfaces before the film’s release. The seed has been planted. Like so many readers, I’m waist-deep in this phenomenon, and, true to my pop-culture urges, I’m hungry for more.