Admitting my big love of The Hunger Games is nothing like as embarrassing as admitting my feelings for the Twilight Saga was. Its journey from bestselling novel to blockbuster movie has been accompanied by all kinds of speculation as to why so many actual adults are reading a novel categorized as, “Young Adult,” so at least this time I know I’m not alone. The dearth of sparkly vampires and sulky werewolves probably helps too.
I never read YA fiction when I was actuallyYA age. I’d hit the high points by thetime I was nine or ten - Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Bridge to Terabithia, Judy Blume, of course - and moved on ahead to Dickens and the Brontes. There may also have been a brief Sweet Valley High interlude, but I don’t like to talk about that
It started with Harry Potter, but doesn’t it always? Once I’d made it through that gateway, there was no stopping me. The Golden Compass, Unwind, The Uglies, the Maze Runner, Divergent, the aforementioned Twilight Saga, I couldn’t get enough. Of course I found my way into The Hunger Games.
In last Thursday’s New York Times, Joel Stein made the bold move of fully committing to his stand against YA fiction. He’s never read any, and he never will. Why he imagined anyone would care, I can’t really say, but he evidently did. If he intended it as self-parody, referencing those who denounce the Harry Potter books for promoting witchcraft, or Lady Chatterly’s Lover as pornography, without ever having read a page, it kind of worked. If not, it wasn’t nearly as clever as he might have hoped. The one good line, “I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults,” is just a shade too easy, isn’t it? It did prod me into thinking though, about why, out of thousands of years of fiction written for people of any and all ages, I’d choose to read The Hunger Games, there being, after all, so many books, and so little time.
There are the standard reasons, and they’re true, as far as they go. It is a good story, well told, and those aren’t so easily come by, whatever the millenium. The story of twenty four teens thrown into a battle to the death is as exciting as it is disturbing. Katniss Everdeen is a compelling, convincing, character, one you may not always love, or even like, but you do always believe in. You can’t help wanting to know what she’ll do next. Her energy inspires a revolution, and keeps readers, and now moviegoers, coming back for more.
I do love a good dystopia, so there’s that as well. Preferably post-apocalyptic, but that’s not a strict requirement. Zombies are also optional.The Hunger Games certainly qualifies as a dystopia of the post-apocalyptic, zombie free variety. But still, that only goes so far. There are plenty of adult directed dystopias for me to choose from. Classics like 1984, Brave New World, and, Lord of the Flies, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and very nearly, but not quite, everything else Philip K. Dick ever wrote, newer options like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Stephen King’sUnder the Dome, the list goes on and on.
The thing about genre fiction, YA included, is the space it has in which to engage with subjects rarely seen in more mainstream literary fiction, the unexpected transgressions against unarticulated norms. The Hunger Games is no exception. A strictly enforced class structure and income inequality form the foundations of its world. Without the twelve outlying districts to provide it with life’s necessities, the Capitol would collapse. So the districts are exploited for their resources, which are then used to maintain their submission. Imperialism finally makes its way back home.
We tend to think of books like 1984 as cautionary tales, meant to inspire vigilance and resistance in the face of ever expanding state power. But they function at least as well as calls to apathy. In the end, Winston and Julia fail themselves and each other, Decker’s toad is artificial after all, and the Soma orgies never end. Resistance is futile. Speaking truth to power causes nothing but trouble, and the social order is as firmly entrenched as ever.
The Hunger Games trilogy takes us somewhere else entirely. For all the blood and sparkle, the first book is really the story of Katniss’s political awakening. Fighting for survival, she finds her own power, and starts learning how to use it. Her resistance isn’t futile in the slightest. Over the course of the next two books, it grows from the desperate gesture with which she saves herself and Peeta, all the way into a revolution. One voice can matter, in this world.
It isn’t that I always want a happy ending, not at all. In general, I prefer my endings on the dark and murky side. But there’s something to be said for remembering other possibilities exist, every now and then.