Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Left Hungry

Everybody has an opinion on the Hunger Games series, which is quite appropriate since the series seems to have little opinion of itself. Just as people are always quick to praise the exulted quiet man, be he hero or villian, the great mass of readers (yes, there are still enough of us to compose a 'great mass') will say as much as they can about the popular book that has little to say on its own. There was that author that commented he had stopped reading his fan mail and book reviews because he was tired of people telling him what he had said. He explained that he never meant to say half the things they said he said. Suzanne Collins might voice a similar complaint, but the irony is that, even if she doesn't deserve all the attention she is getting, she does deserve all of the comments. That is because the Hunger Games begins and ends on an empty stomach. Should the fans be blamed if they are forced to stuff their mouths with commentary (if not, like the characters of the book, with food) because not enough was served them by the author?

The test by which any science fiction or fantasy must be judged is how realistically it portrays humanity. Tolkien was fond of pointing out that the suspension of disbelief should not be shyed away from, but embraced but it is embraced on certain terms. I can believe in human beings being tempted by an all-powerful ring because I have seen human's tempted. The fact that I will never (God willing) come across an all powerful ring is a minor detail in comparison to the fact that I will (devil willing) come across powerful temptation. I can believe in an evil galactic Empire that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far far way because I have studied evil european Empires that existed a short time ago. It is the humanity of science fiction and fantasy that must ring true precisely because we do not rely upon the believability of the technology or the magic. Nevertheless, this technology and magic must be consistent with human nature. I accept the idea of an 'Eldar Wand' or a 'Death Star' because I know humans are always trying to build more awful and more deadly weapons. However, I also know that these weapons rarely work to benefit those who build them. The reason why the stories that contain these menaces are received with such relish is because, deep down inside, we all know that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.

It is the lack of this lesson, or the confusion with which it is presented, that makes the Hunger Games less than satisfying. The story has a lot of potential. It begins with a simple and powerful conflict: a progressing post-Apocolyptic society, an evil Capitol, hungry slaves, illegal black-market deals, a young warrior, and an oppressive gladiator style competition (and thats just the first 50 pages). However, written in typical 'page-turning' fashion, the reader is given little chance to dwell on these facts. The bad guys get things going too fast, and the narrator is too worried about mere survival, for full rumination on the subject of human dignity, the greater good or the nature of self sacrifice. In a world where injustice draws names out of a hat and the good guys shoot first and do not even ask questions later, virtue and vice become matters of reflex, not matters of choice. Good and evil seem to be little more than instinctual. Life is a game. The driving force is hunger. If there is any greater depth to life in Panem, Katniss Everdeen never discovers it.

There are many powerful points in the plot, too many to mention because the author overloads the story with them. If the reader comprehends their significance, its only because she has taken the time to dismiss the urge to flip the page. That is to say, she has chosen to make a choice that none of the characters make: the choice to reflect in order to grow. As long as the action keeps coming, this is no problem to the stream-of-conscious plot (though it should present problems to the conscience). But when the series draws to its conclusion, and Plutarch Heavensbee smugly suggests that victory over the Capitol may or may not change anything after all, the honest reader wants to throw the book across the room. Or when the love triangle resolves itself because one of the guy's philosophy on total war shoots him in the foot. Or when Katniss ends up as a recovering morphine addict thanks to her 17 visits to the hospital over the course of 18 months. Without giving too much more away, I think that these examples suffice to show how the ending is less than thrilling. The fact that the first book showed so much potential only makes it worse. Here was a popular teen phenomenon that addressed such relevant points as solidarity, first-world vs third-world poverty, human rights, and a bitting critique of the media's role in undermining human value. Even the love triangle was intriguing: ever-faithful Peeta vs. edgy, sexy Gale. There is so much here that could have challenged us. Instead, it merely charged us up for a less-than-satisfying conclusion. 

I really wanted to like these books. I really wanted to tell you to read them and like them too. Instead, I find myself warning you: if you do read them, don't get your hopes up. Katniss Everdeen may be a girl on fire, but she is no phoenix. When the blaze of the games is over, she does not rise from the ashes. Redemption and resurrection have little place in this novel. It is never Easter season in Panem: yet one more reason to be glad that the place is fictional.

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