Saturday, January 14, 2012
Every year, the Capitol selects two children from each of the twelve outlying Districts: one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen. These twenty-four young men and women are taken by train to the Capitol, where they participate in the nation of Panem's biggest annual sporting event: The Hunger Games. The winner takes home a lifelong pension from the government, a fancy new home for their immediate family, a year's worth of extra food for the members of their home District, and exemption from being entered in the Hunger Games for the rest of their lives.
All the other contestants are murdered in the arena, live on national television.
That’s the setup for Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy of young adult novels: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I can’t say enough good things about these books. They’re intense, gripping page-turners from the mind of a professional screenwriter. They’re a blistering commentary on the state of our nation and the world, and the vast disparity of wealth between different countries. They’re a thoughtful deconstruction of the nature of fame, celebrity, and mass-media spectacle. They’re a guidebook to how oppressive regimes, from ancient Rome to modern-day North Korea keep their citizens frightened, in-line, and downtrodden. They’re a damn good read. The list could go on and on.
But mainly what keeps me coming back to The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the leading character and central focus of the trilogy. She’s honestly one of the most complex and nuanced characters I’ve ever encountered in YA literature. She’s a brutally efficient hunter, and a survivor to the core, but she’s also vulnerable, confused, and deeply scared not just for her own life, but for the lives of those she loves and depends on. Classifying her is difficult, as she contains so many seemingly contradictory elements, but one thing about her is always clear: no matter how long she lives, the emotional and psychological scars inflicted on her by the Capitol will never truly vanish. Collins' commitment to psychological realism is striking, and brings into sharp relief how easily the characters of other books (especially young adult fiction, or YA) seem to shrug off emotional wounds which would be permanent and crippling in real life.
The Hunger Games are brutal and gut-wrenchingly honest, but really that's the only way you can write about a dystopian hell and maintain your integrity. To those who say that the books may be too intense for younger teens, I call "bullshit". There are kids in our world who live lives very similar to those of Katniss and her family in District 12. When I was talking recommending trilogy to a coworker from South Africa, I mentioned that the series had really changed the way I look at the world, because I realized how very fortunate I am to live in a country where, unlike Katniss, no one I know will ever, ever need to worry about dying of starvation. My coworker's response was chillingly honest:
"Well, come to Africa sometime."