Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Hunger Games - going off-road

Our copy is out on loan, so I
had to steal a pic from Amazon.
Sorry, Amazon
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic: 2009) In a post-apocalyptic America, children are forced to fight to the death by an all powerful ruling elite. Their battles are the reality TV event of the year for a blood-thirsty public. But when Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old from one of the poorest districts, enters the arena, her battle to stay alive puts her on a collision course with authority.
I tried to write this last Sunday, but gave up. I got half way through, then slumped. I read what I’d written, and decided it was best for everyone if I just shut the lap-top and walked away. I saved you from one there. It stunk.
I found it tough because I wanted to make a point with it. But it got a bit preachy. A bit shouty. So let’s try again.
I’ve had a couple of comfortable GBR weeks. Glen Duncan followed by PG Wodehouse. Safe and safe. Time to off-road a little. Step up, young-adult fiction (or YA to those in the know).
You’ve heard of this book. It’s no point denying it, I know you have. It’s one of those cultural phenomenon things. You don’t know where you heard about it first, but it’s come into your life. And for most of you, it’s forced you into a choice. Open the mind, give something new a go, try to understand why millions of fans like it. Or go the other way, judge the book by its cover, assume YA fiction isn’t for you, and look down on the millions of fans that have gone a bit potty about it.
See what I’ve done there. I’ve painted one of those as the good choice, and the other as the bad choice. Not subtle, I know. But you should have seen my first try last week. You’ve got off lightly this time around.
Let me be clear – I’m not a YA cheerleader. But I am a fan of trying new stuff. Haven’t always been, but I am now.
The Hunger Games goes to the movies
Here’s a book, a franchise, that’s exploded. It’s spawned at least one box office smash, and has the kind of devoted fan base that is difficult to ignore. There must be something to it, right? At the very least, it’s worth reading to find out for myself. Ignoring it as a kid’s book, as a genre that’s not meant for me, as something unworthy – that’s too easy. It’s won too many people over and has too many intelligent defenders (Mrs GBR amongst them) to dismiss it like that. It’s earned a look.
And, having looked, I confess - I enjoyed it. That’s got to be the first (and probably most important) thing. I resisted a little, but I was gripped. I knew the basic plot and setting going in, but that didn’t make it boring. Collins keeps you uncomfortable from the beginning to the end, never lets you get to grips with the world she’s created.
Which is a good thing – it means you slurp up page after page in your quest to get your head around it all. It means the whole environment of the book is fascinating. Despite myself and my cynicism, I did start to care about the characters and their fates. I did start to react to the bad guys. I did feel the unfairness. I became tense in all the right places.
There’s the YA flavoured downsides too though. There’s a lot said about the “darkness” of this series, about the macabre concept of kids fighting to the death. And yeah, it is a dark idea, but not one that Collins ever really succeeds in making pitch-black dark. She could have gone gothic with it, but the teenage girl voice that drives the narrative holds it up. The idea and the events made me uncomfortable (which, like I say, was a good thing), but the constraints of the genre stopped it ever making the leap to disturbing believability.
Collins also tries to create knots of moral ambiguity, of complex questions, but it’s all set against a simplistic back drop of good vs evil. There are the instantly recognisable good guys (with their love for each other and strong sense of right and wrong) and the cartoon bad guys (with their complete lack of empathy and their blood lust). It’s a lazy formula, and one that skips any attempt to understand where the good and the evil comes from.
There’s the clumsy love element to the story too. And it really is clumsy. Maybe it’s because I was never a teenage girl, can’t identify with it, but there were bits that had my eyes rolling until they could roll no more. And it’s not because I’m unfeeling. I’ve read books about love and been moved by them. But not here. Here, it’s cutesy and rose-tinted.
But that’s what this genre brings. Young adult books are written for young adults, so there are always going to be bits that jar for the rest of us. But if you can get over that, there’s plenty for adults too, especially when they’re as well written as this. The Hunger Games world really is incredibly constructed. The plot has a rhythm and direction that you can’t help but get on board with.
I raced through the book, and kind of want to pick up the next one. I enjoyed it. It brought out reactions from me. I can forgive it its young-adult flaws, because it had the best of the genre too. It had excitement. It had imagination. The pages practically turned themselves.
Classic fence sitting score.  I haven’t quite drunk the YA cool-aid, but I’m getting thirstier. I can say hand on heart there were parts of The Hunger Games I hugely enjoyed.
You should definitely read this. Some of you will love it. Some of you will just quite like it. And some of you will still end up hating it, but at least you can say you gave it a try.
Next week, something that will hopefully make me less preachy.

1 comment:

PaperblogPrincess said...

Well read, sir. But you left out one really important thing: PEETA OR GALE?

(My boys book club discussed this one - except instead of discussing the book they spent approximately 10 minutes in a shouting match about whether or not movie Katniss is hot. You stay classy, teenage boys.)