First, a note: I quit updating rather abruptly about a week ago. I hurt my wrist, and things like giving massage, typing, and buttering toast all cause varying degrees of pain. Naturally, I decided to save my hands for the things that pay the bills and keep me fed, but I’m going crazy enough that updating this blog seems to have slipped into the Necessary For My Health category without my noticing. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

During my time off, I read the Hunger Games trilogy. And saw the movie. And thought a lot about it. And discussed it with others.

Here are some of my thoughts:

As a trilogy, these books are an important piece of anti-war literature for young adults. They deal with very pertinent issues like PTSD, substance abuse, and mental illness in soldiers and others who have been directly affected by large-scale violence. They directly address some of the moral and motivational ambiguities of war. They also focus on the institutional nature of war, and the role that the media plays in its propagation. It’s good stuff.

But you won’t get any of that just reading the first book.

I’ll get some flak for this, but on it’s own, the first book is worthless.

Not that it’s a bad book. It’s a good read, significantly better than the third book in some respects. But if the first book were all there were, I’d still be where I was two years ago, determined not to read it because it seemed to be a babyish, watered-down version of Battle Royale. I believe the author when she says she’d never heard of the book before writing The Hunger Games, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t comparable. Where Battle Royale was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read in my life (up there with Lolita, which was disturbing in a totally different way), The Hunger Games was, at most, amusing.

It was an interesting thought-experiment on the dangerous and seductive nature of reality television.

It takes Mockingjay to bring the message home.

After I finished all three books, I couldn’t help comparing it to another set of novels that explored the intersections between youth, innocence, the search for truth, and war: Ender’s Game and the books that followed. Card’s vision is a more hopeful one than Collins’, putting much more faith in the ability of individual human beings to influence society for the better, make peace with one another, and (perhaps most importantly) to heal. Ender quickly recovers from the childhood nightmares, moving on to a relatively well-adjusted life as a peacemaker, truth-teller, and (eventually) family man. Peeta (who strongly resembles Ender in charisma and his inherent nobility, if not in brains) and Katniss don’t make it through their futures so easily, and neither does their world.

I feel like this is a pretty natural extension of the times in which these books were written. In the 1980s, the anti-war message aimed at young people in the US was primarily, “They are just as good as we are, and we can talk things out.” In 2010, the message had shifted tone: “Ugh, we’re only going to make things worse if we invade.” The public acknowledgement of the massive amount of PTSD and mental illness among returning soldiers has changed the way we think about the cost of war. And the impotence of the protests that emerged before the US even entered Afghanistan or Iraq served as an inoculation against the sort of hope that might lead a Valentine or Peter to truly believe the voices of young individuals might make a difference in the affairs of those wielding political power.

So the edge of cynicism that so disturbs people about The Hunger Games trilogy makes sense, in context. The message is both for and of our time.

Now, are there problems with the novels, particularly Mockingjay? Of course. Having your main character fall unconscious so often, only to have major advancements in plot explained by other characters is pretty annoying. And my sister, a military officer, couldn’t stand the author’s lack of understanding of tactics. Funky one-off booby traps in residential neighborhoods is okay for an arena, but useless defense in an actual war. And it is a bit heavy-handed, even if I think it was necessary in order to make its point to those young readers who aren’t that used to reading between the lines.

The ending, for all people hated it, was exactly right, the only way it could have ended. Not perfect, not happy, not “fixed,” but livable. Everything is changed, but there’s enough hope to continue on.

I’ll be interested in how Mockingjay will affect the rising generation of anti-war activists and writers. I hope they learn to think long and hard about the complexities of institutionalized violence, and the ways in which individual transformation can (and cannot) instigate meaningful change. I’d like them to learn to play “Real or Not Real” in their everyday lives. And I hope they show compassion to those who have difficulty unraveling the knotty bits of truth in the world around them.

I hope that the odds will be ever in their favor.

And I hope they come up with some great new books. I’m already looking for my next engrossing read …

 

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