WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE?
I hate to beat the conundrum further about THE HUNGER GAMES today. I read the books. I enjoyed them compulsively. I admire them a great deal.
But I also find them really and compellingly WEIRD.
I know everyone in the world has read these books, but in case not, I warn you that my rant below may accidentally reveal some gentle SPOILERS.
ON THE ONE HAND, my worry that they would be merely exploitative was almost instantly erased.
In the first book, Suzanne Collins’s almost insidious deftness at making the children who were murdered REALLY CONVENIENTLY AWFUL or REALLY CONVENIENTLY TRAGIC or REALLY CONVENIENTLY OFF-CAMERA troubled me.
But her emotional portrait of Katniss is always complex and real, and by the second book, the toll and trauma of all the violence around her is affecting and totally uncompromising.
And her portrayal of war—the actual, non-entertainment combat—and its necessities, its betrayals, and its stupidities is so beautifully un-beautiful and disembowelingly harsh that it not only makes up for the stagey-ness of book one, but brings it full circle.
ON THE OTHER HAND, for a book that can be so brutally and emotionally realistic, I’ve don’t know that I’ve read a story that feels so completely unconcerned with PLAUSIBILITY.
It’s an unusual post-apocalytptic story in which the apocalypse is not the hidden mystery, and the contemporary story not a warning of some kind.
(Unless the warning is: go easy on reality television, everyone, or else you will start murdering your children. In which case, I already have BATTLE ROYALE.)
This is actually fine and sort of great: I don’t want moralism in everything I read or see, and if I were a 16 year old living in Panem, I probably won’t give a feces about it either.
But it’s weird, because not even the BOOK seems to give a feces. Nothing about Panem feels familiar, or inevitable, or queasily unavoidable. It just drifts out there in the future, without any meaningful connection to our world. It exists JUST BECAUSE.
And that’s fine too: that kind of book is called a fantasy novel. It creates a world with different rules in which to explore a particular story.
But while it may be a key to her success that Suzanne Collins never engages in the obsessive, beard-twisting, world-building of a Tolkien or George RR Martin (go Jets), Panem leaves me with a lot of questions.
I brought it up in my last tumbl, and then went on to read lots of comments to that YGLESIAS link that echoed my own confusion.
-How large is District 12?
-Why does everyone seem to know each other there?
-Is there really only one town? And it produces ALL the coal?
-Why is it within walking distance of the fence that separates it from the wilderness?
-Who determines who lives in which District (and for that matter, the Capitol)? How are these populations monitored and maintained?
-Why is there not a District assigned to creating Panem’s most valuable asset: slaves?
-Apart from being mean, why would the Capitol ever massacre its miners and attack its only source of coal with FIRE? Does Centralia, PA mean nothing to them?
-And for all the times that the Seal of Panem is mentioned hovering ominously in the sky, what does it LOOK like?
I could be wrong, but I honestly don’t recall Collins ever describing it.
Look, after spending a year lost in the heraldic intricacies of the banners of Westeros, I suppose I can cotton to an attitude which amounts to “OK, it’s some kind of generic eagle (which is how the movie has it). Let’s move on to the children murdering each other.”
And these questions are not meant as a critique of the book. Because clearly Collins is a smart enough writer to answer them. It’s just that, for the most part, it seems like she just doesn’t BOTHER to.
Maybe we don’t see the seal because Katniss has stopped seeing it. Maybe the descriptions of the Capitol—and even the costumes—are vague and generic because they are being seen through the eyes of a 16 year old who never developed a vocabulary for beauty. She sure knows how to describe the one thing that matters to her, which is food.
But it also leaves the world of Panem feeling a little flimsy, contrived, and groundless: a massive, phony arena constructed to house a brutal entertainment for our benefit, and nothing beneath it but the access tunnels and mechanics of the plot.
(And let’s be honest, there’s a whole lot of deus in the machines of this book; most of them taking the forms of hovercrafts).
If this were a true SF novel, we would probably learn that the whole nation was designed as a social experiment by some race of alien tripods or maybe Europe. Maybe it’s Suzanne Collin’s real accomplishment that she resisted this cliche.
That she instead created this resonant story about real people in a fake world, a story at once harsh and naive, principled and ambiguous, that exists JUST BECAUSE.
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