What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Hunger Games Bigger Picture

*Disclaimer* I did my best to leave out major spoilers, but you may still find some of the information within this post to be more than you want to know, if you plan to read these books.

I'm currently reading the book Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins after quickly reading through the first book of the Hunger Games Trilogy. I was really impressed with the first book. It was fun and kept me on the edge of my seat, but I also had a few problems with many elements of the story. Basically, I thought that things wrapped up way too easily for the protagonist, Katniss. What I mean is that things were fairly predictable and Katniss really never had to do anything wrong, or morally questionable. She kills and breaks the law, but in ways and within circumstances that any normal and sane person could reasonably be expected to do the same.

If you aren't familiar with the premise of the The Hunger Games it's not giving too much away to explain that the plot revolves around a Not-Too-Distant-Future nation called Panem that exists where North America once was. The country is divided into "districts" and Katniss is from one of the poorer districts, District 12, although all of the districts are at the mercy of a controlling, totalitarian government. As a reminder of the power of the government, which exists in a District known simply as The Capitol, each district, except The Capitol, must choose by lottery a boy and a girl to participate each year in an event known as the Hunger Games. This Nationally televised, mandatory viewing for all citizens is a fight to the death between kids, age 12-18, with the winner receiving wealth and fame for the rest of his or her life. Since you already know that there is a sequel, it's also not too much to tell you that Katniss survives.

When I say that the plot is too easy for her, what I mean is that Katniss is never really faced with a situation that would force her to do something she finds morally wrong. For instance she never has to kill someone who is portrayed as a "good" person. The subject is discussed throughout the book that the so-called "bad-guys" who are out to kill the other contestants, known as tributes, are not really the enemy, since they are all forced to participate. However, when these kids die you never really feel bad for them, like you would if the "good-guys" die.

I understand why the book was written that way. Obviously, as a reader, you don't want to see your protagonist do something abhorrent or evil, but I also feel that the story should have been told more honestly. A teen reader, for whom the book is primarily written, may be more sensitive to this kind of moral ambiguity, and therefore it may explain why Collins chose to not compromise Katniss's goodness by having her face such a morally perplexing decision as killing someone she didn't want to kill. In other words, in a graphically violent book perhaps we as the reader needed at least something, in this case Katniss's righteousness, to fully rely on. I still would have liked to see her at least face such a decision, and she never did.

So comes Catching Fire which my wife, as well as the internet see as the superior book in the trilogy. While I have still not delved very far in the second novel, (I've decided to come to terms with the fact that Katniss will probably survive this book, seeing as how there is a third) I can already see that this book will be bleaker, and truer to the world that Collins created. It also deals with at least one subject that is quite relevant to the current state of the world. In the chapter I'm currently reading, Catching Fire describes a party at the Capitol where people gorge themselves on food and drink, only to regurgitate periodically so they can continue partying throughout the night. In the following passage Katniss relays the stark contrast she sees between the citizens of The Capitol's wasteful behavior and in the faces of the starving children within her own district and others throughout the country:

"All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give. More food.... And here in the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It's what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun."

This passage made me feel shame. It's what we do every day in the U.S. while there are people starving in other countries. Forget other countries, there are people starving right under our noses, but most of us throw away more food in a day than many get to eat in a week.

I never felt rich, by any stretch. I always saw the shoes that other kids wore, or the cars that other parents drove and felt cheated, somehow. I wanted to know why I couldn't afford the expensive Nikes with the little air pockets and the pants with the tag on the fly; made by some designer with a name I had trouble pronouncing. But, I never worried about where food would come from. We had a car that was always full of gas and a house that was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I was fortunate to have parents that expected me to get an education so that one day, when I was an adult with a family I wouldn't have to worry about these things, either.

When I see people in my own town who struggle with these very issues it makes me at once thankful, and determined. Determined to always provide that same feeling of comfort for my daughter, so that she never has to worry either. But, even more than that, I'm determined to show her that not everyone is as fortunate as she, and that there is a corner of our society that struggle to gain basic needs like food and shelter. Not because I want her to feel guilty or ashamed for what she has, but so that she stays aware and thankful for her position and doesn't fall into a trap that I think so many in the western world fall into. The trap is to think that because we have it, it is readily available and easy for everyone who wants it. "It" being prosperity, or at the very least, self-sufficiency. Those who don't have "it" are either lesser beings or are in that situation because they want to be there. It would be very difficult to say those things if they had ever been in that situation, I'm sure, but even just working with the students that I have worked with over the years have given me a clue about life in poverty and the difficulty in getting out of it.
I'm happy that Suzanne Collins decided to make Catching Fire a more difficult read (if, in fact, that's what she did. It's still early in the book, but so far, it seems that way). I read a critique from Stephen King that spoke highly of The Hunger Games but regretted the squandered opportunity to fully delve into the social and political issues inherit in the fictional Panem, that relate to our present world. I'm already seeing this particular critique addressed and my hope is that it will continue. It's a great read and I'm really into it from a story and character standpoint. I just hope that the younger audience that the book is marketed to can catch onto and understand the correlation between the world of fiction and the one outside their door.

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