I sometimes wonder why, in a world where young people supposedly never read and the printed word is fashionably considered obsolete, the most visibly popular fiction seems to be from the "young adult" section. We had the long decade of Harry Potter mania, which was mostly fun and helped turn a generation of children into sometime-nerds. On its heels came the dismal twilight of, well, Twilight, which was much creepier and nearly ruined vampire fiction forever. Regardless of their relative merits, books like these and their many imitators have sold many copies and made their authors very rich people.
Why all the popularity? I think we can say, without speaking to the quality of any particular book or series, that young adult books are written at a level that can be clearly understood by a typical high school student. It follows that, mechanically speaking, they are not particularly challenging reads for anyone looking for something light and entertaining. They are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the hungry consumer who doesn't actually want to cook anything. And you know, there's nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I don't really care for them myself, but they are certainly tried and true.
I had one such sandwich recently, digested slowly over about a month in audio form (the latest in sandwich/book delivery technology). Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is, like many young adult books, a story about "young adults." The basic premise is of a nightmarish future America, ruled by a totalitarian government that calls once a year upon a handful of teenagers to fight to the death on live TV, to entertain the masses and remind them of the power the government wields. It is, you might imagine, pretty depressing, as the heroine (Katniss Everdeen, sixteen years old) spends most of the book dreading, avoiding, or inflicting death.
It's not hard for me to realize why The Hunger Games became popular, because I like it pretty well myself. It's a very competent piece of science fiction that doesn't get too hung up on the speculative science to tell a compelling story. It is filled with violence but doesn't really glamorize it: most of the violent deaths occur "off screen," and much more time is devoted to the more mundane aspects of survival. Best of all, the book is intelligent, critiquing social institutions and reflecting the harshness of inequality. There's little holding back against the powerful and the privileged.
The prose of The Hunger Games is not especially artful. It is effective and communicative, but not subtle or very interesting on its own. If a character makes a sarcastic and patronizing remark to Katniss, she will go on at length in her narration about how the comment was especially cutting because it was delivered sarcastically and patronizingly. It isn't awful, although one wonders how Katniss, a girl of few spoken words, can maintain such a detailed first person, present tense monologue at all times without being stabbed by a fellow contestant in the games.
The generic prose style has some strength: it doesn't usually get in the way of what is otherwise a well-plotted story. It's not exactly perfect, but it moves from place to place in a series of credible events. The story never drags or lingers in one place too long, and is seldom repetitive. It has the forward-thinking pace that a good adventure story demands, and it keeps the action rooted in the plausible.
The book also has a number of interesting supporting characters, but the nature of the Hunger Games competition does not allow the story to do most of them justice. Of the twenty four teens fighting for their lives, Katniss manages to have real conversations with only about four or five of them, and some of the more compelling ones are not given nearly enough time to develop. Katniss herself is a good lead character, though she is too consistently lucky for the good of the story. In a game that is supposedly about killing off the entire competition, she is never forced to murder anyone who isn't clearly set up as a "bad guy." But she is capable and intelligent and easy to root for, without being idealized to the point of annoyance.
As frequently noted, the games themselves are a cruel mixture of the Olympics, ancient gladiatorial contests, and reality TV. In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the weird disconnect between life or death moments of truth in the arena, and the morbid voyeurism and vapid celebrity culture outside. "The Capital" is a term with many meanings in The Hunger Games, but two are primary: a center of absolute political and economic power, and the home of a privileged class of people who regard the suffering of the lower orders as potential entertainment. They tend to have Roman names (like Flavius and Caesar) and speak with ridiculously affected quasi-British accents, which of course are common shorthand for imperiousness and superficiality. But the Roman and British empires are history, and Collins' story was written against the backdrop of America's imperial adventures in Asia. There's not a lot of question as to who she's actually critiquing.
Katniss's weird imperative to constantly seem loyal and even grateful to her oppressors in the Capital, even as she seethes at them in her heart, puts the real plural in "games." There's never any doubt that Katniss, who hunts with a bow for a living, has the ability to kill her opponents. The open question is whether she can survive the machinations of the Capital, or win the support of her audience by affecting a compelling personality. With her every move recorded on hidden cameras, the book recalls 1984 in predictable ways. When Katniss does rebel on camera and defy her oppressors, her actions can be edited out from the broadcast, or spun in a more acceptable light. The goal is not to destroy Katniss outright, but to first make her into a celebrity in the process: that means redefining her image.
From the selection of the Hunger Games contestants to the mutilation and slavery imposed upon political prisoners, the book is dotted with instances of cold, inexcusable cruelty by the powerful, and contrasted with the drudgery and plight of the poor. In fact, the games themselves are a kind of ritualized class warfare, waged by the rich against the poor. The contestants are raised up, and one by one knocked down at the capricious whim of the game makers. Whether even the winner has any say in the matter is the most politically significant issue as the story comes to a close, setting the stage for further conflicts in the book's two sequels.
All of this is rather ponderous to think about, but it's lightened by the accessibility of the text and a few standard elements of the young adult genre. There are a few moments of humor and mild sensuality to lighten the gloom, and a love triangle for all the busy shippers in the audience. But these are thoughtfully integrated with the story's central themes: Katniss's romantic feelings are as subject to media manipulation as any part of her performance, and the question of who is truly in love with whom remains somewhat unanswered by the end of the book.
So, is The Hunger Games worth reading? In answering that question, I find myself confronting a bias. As a well-read, proudly literate man, I instinctively believe in a hierarchy of high and low literature; books for teens are not often grouped with the high. But that's a prejudice, and I think The Hunger Games offers more intellectually than anything that could be considered a base form of literature. I don't want to call it a guilty pleasure; instead, I'll call it a welcome surprise.
There's a line in children's art and literature, between works that respect the dignity and intelligence of its audience, and those that do not. The same should be true of art and literature for teenagers (not to mention adults). Suzanne Collins may not be a "great" writer of prose by a more elevated standard, but there is a sincerity and depth to her story that demands a modicum of respect.
A note about the audiobook: the story I listened to was narrated by Carolyn McCormick, of Law and Order fame. Having never evaluated an audiobook before, I don't know exactly what grounds I should use to judge her performance. All in all, the experience was something like a cross between an old-timey radio show (minus the awesome sound effects), and simply being read to; being quite used to reading independently, I found that a small bit uncomfortable. McCormick adopts a distinct voice for nearly every prominent character and speaks their lines with a certain degree of nuance and intonation, but there are limits. Is it possible to read a line like "Noooooooooo!" in an audiobook context without sounding horribly, horribly fake? I'd like to think it is, but my heart goes out to McCormick for trying and failing.