Jan 13, 2012

A Quasi Defense of The Hunger Games (book one)

The back story:
It was late one night when Joanne and I talked about The Hunger Games on Twitter. She was expressing how much she disliked the details of the book, and though I really enjoyed reading it I wanted to hear her IN DEPTH reasoning. So she reread the book and wrote THIS POST. (Please read it first since my post, is in part, a response to it.)

Joanne Renaud, who earned a BFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design, has been writing, drawing and painting as long as she can remember. She currently works as both an author and a freelance illustrator. Her novel, A Question of Time, is due for release in November 2012 from Champagne Books.

My response to Joanne Renaud:
The Quasi Defense

In January 2009 I read The Hunger Games before most people had ever heard of it. But some book bloggers were eager to recommended it. I am different from many readers/book lovers/bloggers in that I don’t actually like to know much about a book before I read it. I think I knew that this book had at least some dystopian themes which I had been desperately looking for in young adult fiction.

I went to the library and checked out The Hunger Games. I got in bed with my pile of books ready to read the weekend away. Sometimes I switch between books when one gets slow or just doesn’t fit my mood. I will read a few chapters and then switch to another. Also proof of my attention deficit disorder. J

I remember feeling a lot of the same confusion about the world building in The Hunger Games that Joanne described in her review. How did the world get like this? Why is everyone so afraid? But I was willing just to accept the lack of details or fill them in myself because I really felt pushed by the desire to know more about this world. I was compelled to know what would happen next.

I had no idea where the story was going every step of the it. It felt so new and fresh to me. It has been suggested that The Hunger Games isn’t a particularly new idea, and I guess that is true, but in those late night moments of reading I almost felt like I was on fire, so filled with excitement to read something like I had never experienced before.

The idea of the Hunger Games, when you really think about it, of teens murdering each other year after year on TV while everyone watches in awe and wonder, like it is a soap opera, is really overwhelmingly horrifying. It is a future of our world I don’t feel comfortable thinking about. I guess I appreciated the less graphic nature of the games, and I don’t think I could have respected Katniss if she had been doing an overwhelming amount of killing.

When I read a book I have two standards. There is my adult standard and my young adult/middle grade standard. What I am willing to accept in an adult book is very different from what I am willing to accept in a book for younger readers. Somehow the world “adult” glosses over a lot of the real life issues that stir up in me. But with young adult novels some themes will disturb me beyond enjoyment of a book. So one person’s “too safe” is my “happy place.”

When I first read The Hunger Games I was ready for more books similar to it in story and tone. I found a review (I can’t find it now, have no idea where I read it) that suggested there were “so many other books with the same theme but better.” And I was EXCITED to find out what the tiles of these better books were. My eyes raced down the page looking for the promised titles. I wanted to read each and everyone. I liked The Hunger Games, better was going to BLOW MY MIND. But the author of the review only shared one single title. What do you think it was?

Battle Royale.

This brings up an issue of my resentment. I resent The Hunger Games constantly being compared to Battle Royale. Using this as proof that because Battle Royale existed and was entertaining, The Hunger Games never should have existed in the first place. I know many people will take issue with this, but I kind of feel like it is comparing apples and oranges even though the plot lines are relatively similar. Just because a book can be seen as a “lesser” version of something else doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist and isn’t entertaining in its own right. I should also state that I have not yet read or watched Battle Royale though I hope to do so very soon. As far as I can tell Battle Royale was never meant to be a young adult book. It may have crossed over due to the ages of the characters, but the level of violence was not, in fact, intended to be read and enjoyed by teens. (This goes to my previous types of reading, depending on the intended audience.)

Just because plot lines are similar does not mean that one of the two books should not exist. And every time I hear that The Hunger Games has been “done before, so many times” I feel so disappointed when I ask when and where the only answer I EVER get is Battle Royale. I am not doubting that it is a good book/story/movie/ect but done before once is not really OVERDONE at all, especially because I don’t consider Battle Royale to be particularly mainstream. Hell, up until The Hunger Games the word DYSTOPIA wasn’t mainstream.

The Hunger Games is not a particularly overwhelming piece of dystopian literature, but it can be a good introduction. It is too late for the book to take many people by surprise, like it did me. But it is still a good book for teen readers not really knowing who they are as readers. This book can help them find more books they like, or know that they didn’t enjoy this. It also brought forth an explosion of so called dystopian young adult books, a lot of which were poorly conceived. But it still kinds of excites me knowing there are so many options still left for me to read. And I will find more that I have a great reaction to again.

I love dystopian literature because it was one of the first types of literature to really connect with me on a deeper level. When I first read 1984, I started seeing the world a little differently. Since then I have been yearning for books that make me feel the same way. I have found a few, but most recently more have been disappointing than not. The whole experience has me questioning the function of young adult books combining with the concept of dystopia. Here is the issue: a lot of the themes and feelings that a main character in a dystopian world goes through are essential to understanding the horror of the world. But the average teenager feels alone and different in the world. They feel naturally that the world does not function the way that it should. So when you take that and oppose it to the dystopian force the whole reading experience can get a little dulled out.

To EVERY TEEN, or at least most teens, the world is a “bad place.” And the concept of a bad place is the most fundamental element of dystopian literature. When you take that angsty teen experience and lay it over good world building the world loses some of it’s terror. And good world building has often been a very rare treat when it comes to young adult dystopias. And while I think there is an inherent flaw, I also think there is a way around it. I can think of titles that worked really well for me. The one that comes to mind most easily is The Giver (but don’t get Joanne started on THAT book.) So I continue to search for the type of books that resonate through me and make me see the world in new ways. I love it when I know a young adult book will make readers look at and question the world around them.

As a die hard fan of dystopia looking for something new, YEARNING for something new, The Hunger Games came across as a shining beacon of perfection for me as I raced through the pages late into the night. I see now that partly I was just drinking the Kool Aid. I agree with A LOT of what Joanne has to say about the weaknesses of this book, but when I read it I didn’t think about any of these things. When I read it I felt excited.

Two things have happened since that night in January several years ago when I first read The Hunger Games. 1. The excitement has worn off a bit, but I still respect a book that can create it in the first place. And 2. The two follow up books were published and overwhelmingly disappointed me and put a tarnish on the first book.

When I think about The Hunger Games I try to think about how I felt when I was reading it and not all the thoughts I have had since. There are a lot of people who normally don’t read who will and have read this book. And that, more than anything, means the most to me.
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