America has fallen. The powerful and wealthy ruling elite have crafted a new society for their sole benefit, ruthlessly oppressing the majority and imposing a vindictive system of reparations upon those who have opposed them in the past. These punitive taxes, or "tributes" serve a dual purpose; to prevent the subjugated masses from even the smallest sign of dissent, and to secure the most luxurious and decadent lifestyle possible for the favored few as they run society in the way they please. Bread and circuses: it worked for the ancient Romans for quite some time, after all.
This is, of course, the scenario of The Hunger Games, the phenomenally best-selling dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins. I like my writing to have layers, so you may draw your own conclusions about how I feel about the events of the most recent election cycle. The Hunger Games was my first real foray into the "Young Adult" category of children's literature, and at least in part I felt compelled to read it since it is phenomenally popular among young people I know, and touches on the political intrigue and convoluted history of the ancient Romans. I don't normally gravitate to edgy or dystopian fiction myself, but this trilogy is deservedly popular, and of course, there is a major motion picture now, making it a book that kids are eager to read and parents are concerned about. For a review of the series from a Christian perspective, check out this one from Redeemed Reader. I plan to review the series in three parts, and hope to avoid giving spoilers, although when I get to the 2nd and 3rd books I will have to refer to events of the previous books.
The first thing you are struck by in the opening pages of the novel is the first person narrative, and the second thing is the present tense. The entire series plays out this way, drawing us into the very mind of heroine Katniss Everdeen with an immediacy that is impossible to deny, rather like the command performance of the Hunger Games where every citizen of Panem is forced to watch children drawn from the twelve districts kill each other for the entertainment of the Capitol. Once you have read the first few pages, it is almost inevitable that you will be swept along with the story to its conclusion. It's hard to stop after the first book; there is an insidious power that draws you in, even though Katniss is far from a likeable heroine and the world she inhabits is bleak.
I have heard that most young people do not find the book disturbing but treat it as just a "what if" scenario. Adults tend to take a harder line against it; and not because of lack of literary merit or author's ability. In the wake of the Connecticut school shootings especially, a world where children kill children for the entertainment of adults is something we would prefer to keep unthinkable, and my own first reaction was that it would have been better if this book had never been written in the first place. Some questions should never be asked, and some thoughts should never be entertained, and it may very well be better for most people never to be forced into the mind of someone who must either kill or be killed. But the book was written, and we who work with young people need to deal with it in an intelligent way.
As Katniss volunteers to take her beloved little sister's place as a tribute from insignificant District 12, we are carried along with her into a different world from the life of deprivation and oppression she has known until now. She has developed the ability to provide for her family in a meager way by sneaking into the woods to engage in illegal hunting with her best friend, a boy named Gale. But all that abruptly changes when she and Peeta, the more middle-class son of the town baker, are treated to makeovers by image consultants and stylists to present them along with the other 22 contestants at the gala opening ceremonies. Plot points unfold at a breathtaking rate; Katniss herself is too caught up in the circumstances to think of the future, but Peeta sets up a gut-wrenching love triangle when he reveals on national TV that he loves her. But only one person can win the Hunger Games, and it's unlikely to be either one of them.
I assume that Suzanne Collins wrote this postmodern trilogy with the intent to promote an old-fashioned anti-war message, updated for a generation of kids who are comfortable with sharing every thought on social media. But the very medium she uses, with immersion into the mind of the protagonist who must kill to stay alive, is the literary equivalent of those violent first-person shooter video games that most responsible adults would like to remove from their children's lives. It's the same senseless bloodbath in an artificial world created only for killing, but with a better vocabulary. At the end, Katniss has either been forced to kill in self-defense, or killed somewhat accidentally, or killed in mercy, or helplessly witnessed the deaths, of several human beings. One wonders if this has the same deadening effect on the soul of the reader, who shares Katniss' eyes, as those shooter games. Granted, Katniss acts with a more or less consistent moral integrity, albeit in a world completely empty of a religious presence of any kind. But she shows little ability to think over the moral component of her actions, or their future implications beyond the immediate threat. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate the teenage mind, with its tendency to live only in the present, and its tendency toward narcissism. That's just the thing, it's hard to tell whether Collins is being moralistic or simply using modern techniques to tell an action-packed story in an amoral setting. I tend toward the former, but she hides her preachiness very well. Maybe that's a good thing for this generation.
My own opinion on the book is that you shouldn't encourage your child to read it at all before the age of 15 or so, and then only if you are willing to discuss it with him or her rather extensively. There are some young people who really shouldn't read it at all... those with depressive or violent tendencies especially. The theme of suicide is particularly disturbing from my point of view, and (not to give spoilers or anything) its use as a possible game strategy. I cringed a bit when I saw a 6th grader lending the 3rd volume to a 7th grader a week ago. Yes, it is possible to read these books thoughtfully. And those who are not thoughtful enough at this point of their lives to appreciate the questions they raise will certainly remember them vividly when they get older. Still, I will try to keep my own children away from the Young Adult ghetto of moral ambiguity for awhile yet.