Shortcut #53: The Hunger Games

I am highly controversial.

No, wait.  I am highly contrary.

Part of the reason I never took a class with a certain professor in grad school is because everyone I talked to effused with praise for him.

And it’s not that I thought that there must be something wrong, at heart, with someone who is praised so highly.  And it’s not that I thought I’d get a better education from another professor who was criminally overlooked. (I almost wrote underlooked, but what would that mean?  So high profile that no one pays attention to you because you are ubiquitous, as taken for granted as air.)

No, the reason I took classes from other professors and avoided the one everyone praised is simply because I had no idea what I’d be getting from behind Door #1: Professor of Mystery.

I’m here today to tell you that you should take the bird in hand rather than the two in the bush who are just going to turn out to be rattlesnakes wearing bird costumes.  I’m here to say, listen to the hype and read

Shortcut #53: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

It was a hard struggle for me at first.  As you might expect, when a book is praised from all corners, expectations for it only rise and I felt that The Hunger Games had to be amazing in order to survive my reading.

Collins’ writing is good – fast-paced and concise.  She has a talent for description that’ll focus on a small part of the world and make that part so real you could reach out and touch it.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat.  Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash.

That’s the beginning of the third paragraph, and it’s the description of the eyes that caught me off-guard, that paused me, that made me stop reading to think, Ah, yes, here we have some eyes.

And yet her writing didn’t wow me.  I was building a wall against the book, seeing how much of what Collins was writing seemed to fit into YA speculative fiction conventions.  I was annoyed how Collins transformed and updated the myth of Theseus and the minotaur.  I was especially bothered – and, actually, still am – by a moment where Katniss, our hero, is in the wild, perfectly alone, and yet says a witty comment aloud, a move transferred back into literature through aside conventions in plays that have been adapted for the big and small screen.  The comment would have been equally effective (more so, obviously, to me) if Katniss thought it, especially since the narration is firmly fixed in her head.

But by the end of chapter two, I was hooked.  I teared up at Katniss sacrificing herself as a tribute to the Hunger Games for her sister’s sake.  I was fully invested in the world that, though post-apocalyptic, was completely realized as Collins’ own unique creation, not a half-baked cast-off of another writer’s world.

The focus on televised games of death has been around for a long time (see Death Race 2000 and The Running Man since I apparently can only think of movies at the moment), but Collins spends a few chapters detailing how much of such a game would be about presentation.  The novel is not just about teenagers forced to kill one another both as entertainment for the ruling class and punishment for those who tried, in the past, to buck that rule.  The Hunger Games is about deception and presentation, about growing up and, as part of that growing up, learning how to properly act in society, both in terms of manners/decorum and in terms of meeting other people’s expectations.

Some of the scenes that are the most affecting involve Katniss as spectacle, either being paraded in a dress that’s on fire or being interviewed in front of the whole nation, where her words determine whether she’ll get sponsorship, and sponsorship often determines who wins the Hunger Games.  It is only through – in Katniss’ perception – pretending to be one of a pair of doomed lovers, and playing that angle up to the people watching the Games at home, that Katniss can be “sponsored” with a parachute dropped at her feet that will contain exactly what she needs.

And, yes, there are parts that seem a little contrived.  Katniss is saved once from a band of killers by having happened to climb up a tree that contains a nest of deadly, mutated wasps.  Also, part of the emotional power of the end relies on us believing, as does Katniss, that the boy who she thinks pretends to love her was actually just pretending and not actually loving.  Since it’s pretty clear to the reader and to everyone else in the book that the boy is not pretending, we’re left feeling Katniss is a little dim or willfully blind, neither of which fall into line with her character.

But none of that takes away from the power of the book (and, usually, I like my masterpieces a little flawed), or will prevent me from buying the other two books of the trilogy as soon as I can.

Honestly, I did not want to like this book.  Despite my best efforts at denial, The Hunger Games has defeated me.

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