The Weekend Distraction of Hunger Games

This weekend, I set out to answer the crucial question, “Daddy, may I read The Hunger Games?” The book has been in the air, given the release of the movie and the reading list of the older students at her school, so my preteen daughter wanted in on the cultural moment. Having no basis for an answer, though, and finding the book suitably short, I decided that an educated response would be preferable to a reactionary one.

It is a fun read, and it kept me up much too late into the night, as research and policy analysis had been doing all the week before. A unique pleasure can be found in fast-moving fiction for a reader more used to essays and classics. The compulsive underliner and margin-note writer cannot but be relieved, sometimes, at finding no need of a pen.

In that regard, the pace of the book is almost too rapid. The plot concerns a dystopian reality-TV show — Survivor to the death — but the pacing of the book is clearly intended for translation into a movie. One thinks of author Suzanne Collins’s predecessors in the science-fiction and fantasy genre, notably Frank Herbert, with Dune, and J.R.R. Tolkien, with Lord of the Rings.

Many pages of both of those series are taken up with travel and relative inaction, filled with dialogue, setting, and plot development. Yet the dramatic action of The Hunger Games covers only a few weeks. It takes a well-paced 130 pages to get the reader into the arena, but then within 111 pages, 18 of the 24 competitors are dead. The last 127 pages have too much action and romance to pack in for there to be much by way of deeper reflection.

Add to that the periodically and unnecessarily inartful sentence that is the bane of young-adult literature. The most conspicuous absence of care comes with the manner in which the “Gamemakers” change the rules on the protagonists at the very end. A teenager may be content with the oppressors’ impolitic caprice, but it really wouldn’t have taken much effort on the author’s part to smooth the plot to a more-authentic conclusion.

But given what the book purports to be — a young-adult action novel — these are not much more than quibbles from a pedant. Indeed, at a secondary level, looking through the plot to an underlying cultural commentary raises an interesting evolution of gender roles.

The hero is a heroine, so there’s no question of gender equality. However, Collins also resists the blunt denial of biological reality and the norms that run along human nature’s fault lines. Men tend to be stronger, and they can manage to be so without downward compensation to their intellect. Nonetheless, women can compete, and not only through domestic arts and sexual wiles.

The partnership of the sexes, therefore, becomes just that: a partnership. Whichever half is better suited to specific circumstances, she or he leads under those circumstances and follows under others. More importantly, perhaps, masculine chivalry survives in The Hunger Games, but it is not the patriarchal chivalry of the perfect and strong protecting the weak and imperfect. Rather, it is a chivalry of men who respect the role for which biology suits them on a societal scale.

Despite the book’s positive qualities, the verdict for my daughter was “no.” Let her have a few more years without such elevated first-person violence. From time to time, one reads professionals’ concerns about the psychological effects of first-person shooter video games, but those merely put the player behind the killer’s eyes. First-person narratives put the reader inside the killer’s mind.

In this case, the rapid pace of the book leaves no space for moral contextualization. Although the main character wonders whether killing a person will have a different feeling than killing animals while hunting, her post-kill qualms appear perfunctory.

Moreover, throughout the novel, there’s not a whisper of religion or mere vague spirituality. The injustice of the game goes without saying, but it also goes without explanation. Collins offers genuinely touching moments of human interaction, but they convey no deeper truth than the observation that human beings have feelings.

In that sense, the book turns the reader into something little better than the villainous gluttons of the Capitol, who force their surrounding Districts to send “tributes,” or sacrifices, for their entertainment. They enjoy the thrill, and even appreciate the storyline of their victims’ sentimentality, but the victims’ deaths are ultimately insignificant to them — as insignificant, perhaps, as the last breaths of a fictional child who exists only as words on the page.