With all the buzz and anticipation for the Hunger Games movie, which finally comes out tomorrow (midnight tonight!), I knew I'd have to read the book. A friend of mine lent it to me on her Kindle (my first time reading a book on an e-reader--I liked it a lot) a few weeks ago, and I devoured it. I had only planned on reading the first book now, just so I would know what was happening going into the movie, but how could I stop there? It ends on an emotionally unsatisfying note that begs for the sequel, which, being just a Kindle click away, I had to start immediately.
I'm glad I finished the trilogy because not only am I finally satiated, I'm also immune to any spoilers, so I can read any analysis of the movie and books fear free. I think the first book was my favorite--probably the best standalone story, except for the fact that, as I mentioned before, it left me needing more. Without any spoilers, the third book did leave me satisfied, though there were still a few unanswered questions I would have liked addressed.
My experience reading the books was slightly tainted by the fact that I already knew what actors were playing most of the main characters, so I couldn't help but picture them in their roles as I read. In a few cases, this actually created frustration due to the age difference between actor and character--Why is Katniss being so foolish? Oh, right, because she's 16, not a 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence. I prefer to have a clean slate so my imagination can create its own renderings of the characters, but on the bright side, when I watch the movie, the characters will look exactly as I pictured them.
I have high praise for the Hunger Games trilogy. The story is great, with a reluctant, even resistant hero forced to be more than she ever wanted to be, who stepped up in every occasion because it was necessary. It examines bravery, kindness, sacrifice, trust, love, justice, selfishness, selflessness, conformity, rebellion, propaganda... It sent me through a wide range of emotions. But also, more than any other book, or even TV show or movie in recent memory (maybe BSG?), it challenged me to rethink myself and my society. And that challenge came as a surprise, seemingly out of nowhere, in this young adult book about a far off and foreign future.
The first thing that caught me was the obvious link between the horrible, televised Hunger Games (the "highlight" of Panem entertainment in which 24 children fight to the death until one victor survives) and the reality TV that we watch today. We obviously don't let people die in our reality entertainment, but we do enjoy seeing them get beaten up, sometimes physically but definitely emotionally. Now, I've never liked reality TV, except for some talent contests (So You Think You Can Dance is my favorite), so I could just place myself above it all. Still, I can't deny how fun it was to read about Katniss's trials in the arena. All her close calls, and her triumphs--they were so exciting! When a cannon would go off, and we'd learned that someone had died that she hadn't witnessed, I couldn't help but think, Aw, I want to know how he died! Was I really so bloodthirsty? Was I as bad as the people of the Capitol of Panem who actually enjoy watching the Hunger Games? I was taken aback by this thought, though I concluded that the answer is no: For me, there aren't actually real people dying, whereas the residents of the Capitol were watching real children die. If real children's lives were actually at stake, I would be beyond horrified. But still, is there something wrong with me if I enjoy reading a story in which kids kill other kids, even if it isn't real?
The other thing that disturbed me had to do with a scene between Katniss and her stylist Cinna, a Capitol resident. They're talking, it's time for lunch, and as I recall it, Cinna basically presses a button and a table full of more food than they could possibly eat pops up. Where Katniss lives, people regularly die of starvation--she and her family almost did themselves at one point, before she learned to hunt (which is illegal by the Capitol's laws). At the thought of people in the Capitol having more food than they can eat appear at the touch of a button, Katniss is repulsed. Cinna is wise enough to know it and says something to the effect of, "We must disgust you." It's as close to an apology as he can give, verbally. With his actions, of course he could do much more.
The scene disturbed me because, somewhat after the fact, I finally realized that I'm a resident of the Capitol. I have never worried about whether I would be able to obtain food for my next meal. I have never worried about perishing from hunger. If I have any food-related problem, it's access to too much of it. Though I usually don't think about it, I've known for a long time how lucky I am. I know that there are millions of people who don't have enough to eat, millions who are in danger of dying of hunger. I even know that this isn't just because there isn't enough food in the world to go around, but that the food is poorly distributed. Though I didn't really think about it, I guess I would have assumed that starving people would be jealous of people like me. It never occurred to me that they might be disgusted by me. Or that they'd be justified.
I think there's something special about the science fiction genre to make me understand this. Had the main character in a story set in the real world made a similar observation, saying that Americans with their excess of food (note: there are many Americans who are hungry; please excuse this generalization) disgust them, I would be defensive. Well, it's not my fault that I was born to a family with enough money to provide me with adequate nutrition. It's not my fault that my society is like this. I'd help you out if there were some easy way to do so--actually, I'll have you know, sometimes I do donate to the hungry! Because I already have my own place in this world and my own views, I am already biased and resistant to criticisms. But in a foreign world like Katniss's, the only place I have is hers. Hers are the only eyes through which I can see Panem. From the first-person point of view, I can see that she is a flawed but overall good and reasonable person, so I trust her. Thus I have no choice but to view the world the way she views it. And so I accept on face value that if the people of the Capitol disgust her for how much food they have while others starve, they disgust me. Then, when I then put down the book, I can see that this particular way in which the Capitol residents are disgusting applies to me as well. It's a trick. I have been tricked into finding myself disgusting.
I don't know what will become of this revelation. Having caught the trick, I can pull up my defenses again. But the Hunger Games definitely hit a chink in the armor. Not only was it an exciting, fun, imaginative, beautiful book, it also upset me in surprising ways. That's what you can hope for from a great book.