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The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, Book 1)

The Hunger Games - Suzanne  Collins I hate to rip on a book that was given as a gift, but I gotsta do what I gotsta do…The Star Wars franchise has its rough patches, but I can’t deny that I love the series as a whole. When I first saw Episode I: The Phantom Menace, I enjoyed parts, but the overall experience was plagued by an irksome hyper-awareness that the entire story was an eight year old boy’s fantasy. Unlike other kids his age, young Anakin Skywalker could build cool robot friends, and race cars pods, while his neighborhood pals cheered from the sidelines. The adults in his world were cool, and regarded him as an equal. In fact, they frequently talked among themselves about what a super extra-special little guy he was (and they have the blood test to prove it). On the down side, young Anakin was a slave, but it was a sort of name-only slavery, without physical beatings, molestation, or being sold away from his family. His slavery, in fact, was really just a sort of fashion accessory to assure people that he didn’t have things too good, and they could continue cheering for him, secure in the knowledge that he really was an underdog who was beating the odds. Underdog against who? Ill-defined bad guys, who are villains not because of their ideology, but because they want to hurt his friends. (Who has ideology at eight years old?) The grand finale comes when the eight year old, together with one of his neato robot friends, gets to fly the equivalent of a fighter jet, and single-handedly wins the war. In the end, his Important People buddies, the Queen and the Galactic Senator reaffirm what an extra-special guy he is, and tell him they couldn’t have done it without him and how great his future is going to be. “Bleh” But despite all this, I can look past the eight year old’s fantasy and still find things in that movie to appreciate. I love the rich universe Lucas created, and I enjoy all the high-tech razzle-dazzle, and I liked the swordfights and the dogfighting action- Boy Genius fighter pilots notwithstanding. In the end, I was still entertained, even though I knew it was mostly empty calories I was being fed.Hunger Games reminds me a bit of The Phantom Menace in this regard. This time, instead of playing to eight year old boys, the fantasy plays to sixteen year old girls. Katniss Everdeen is confident and self-actualized, with apparently none of the insecurities so typical of adolescence. She’s best friends with the coolest, most capable guy in school, who shares a common interest with her (hunting) and who is obviously way into her. She had a great relationship with her Dad, who taught her to hunt; so when he died, she took on his role as the family’s provider. Her Mom was so overcome with grief at the time, she became kind of worthless around the house, so Katniss took on the maternal role as well, becoming super-Mom to her younger sister, Prim. No Electra complex here! Like young Anakin, Katniss has it tough, in a sort of theatrically faux-tough way that is maybe not really as bad as one might expect, given the book’s premise. She’s an underclass kid in a remote and impoverished district of a distant-future North American government which I can only describe as the Roman Empire Lite. She doesn’t have a lot of bright prospects for the future, but I don’t think her existence is nearly as bad as what occupied people during the real Roman Empire experienced. They were routinely enslaved, worked to death, beaten for sport, raped, stolen from, harassed and even casually killed by imperial troops. Katniss goes to school (!) and appears to have ample free time which she spends hunting, even though it’s technically illegal. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a shitty situation, but it’s also not quite what I’d call "living under the boot of totalitarianism". The coercive power of the state appears to be mainly manifested in the “Hunger Games”… gladiatorial games where teens from oppressed districts are selected by lottery and forced to fight to the death for the Lite Romans (and they even have Roman names) living in the Capital City. Okay, that part sucks.When little sister Prim is selected for the Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead. The other gladiator selected from her town is the Baker’s son ("Peeta", get it?), who of course also has a crush on Katniss. Okay, sixteen year old fantasy time again: Peeta has a big old obvious crush, filled with longing stares, and tender declarations of love, which author Suzanne Collins beats us over the head with every six pages or so. Naturally, Katniss -even though she’s super smart, and just about the most competent person you’d ever want to meet in every other respect- doesn’t ever, EVER (even on the very last page of the book) get that Peeta likes her. Why? I think it’s part of the teen fantasy to show that she’s not narcissistic, as many real teenagers tend to be, and she’s not superficial- wasting her time thinking about boys and appearances- because she’s so busy being a badass hunter and surviving the gladiator tournament. On one hand, that’s great and all, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the realities of her situation. She worries about putting food on the table, and she’s got two very interested suitors… one an outstanding hunter, and another a future baker, whose family seems to be better off than most. Doesn’t it ever occur to her that either of these good-looking and quite smitten lads might be a good potential mate? I'm not trying to take away from Katniss's independence and Girl Power here, but she’s living in a neofeudal society, where sixteen is about the age to start thinking about these kinds of things. I find it difficult to believe that Katniss never even considers Peeta or Gale as potential mates, if only on utilitarian grounds. Whatever.So anyway, Katniss and Peeta are whisked to the Capital, where they spend a week getting manicured by a whole team of beauticians, and Katniss has her very own stylist who dresses her up in all sorts of elaborate and beautiful designer gowns… exactly the sort of thing most teenaged girls probably hate and want no part of whatsoever. To make things even "worse" the entire civilized world has to watch her on television. It’s the law… but they don’t mind, because she’s so beautiful (they all agree). She’s way hotter than any of the other female gladiators… she’s the talk of the town! A celebrity! And everybody in the Capital city just adores her. But she’s only doing it because they’re forcing her… normally she wouldn’t care about those beautiful dresses and all the attention at all, because, you know, it’s so beneath her, but it’s only her noble, noble love for her little sister that makes her endure such a hellish treatment. Gosh, that Katniss is so great, sacrificing for her sister like that, isn’t she? So selfless. She is totally not having her cake and eating it too, because she doesn't actually want any of this stuff (but it's fun to think about, isn't it?) She’s being noble and selfless. Remember that. But wait, it gets better! Peeta, who always reminds me of Lisa Simpson’s teen magazine "NonThreatening Boys", …tells the world how much he loves Katniss and all the feelings she stirs up in him. Teenaged boys just looove talking about their feelings, don’t they? You can never shut them up! Especially when they’re on television, and telling everybody about a girl they aren’t even sure even likes them. What a typical guy. Oh, horror! Now she has to pretend like they’re boyfriend and girlfriend on television. They have to kiss and show their mushy affection on reality television while the whole world is forced to watch them and think they are the cutest couple ever! Really, we know that she’s too cool to ever even waste her time thinking about boys, but she’s doing it because she has to. For Prim. Katniss is not having her cake and eating it too; did I mention that? Did I mention this book is extremely repetitious? Best of all, Katniss gets all this attention without any pressure for sex. There’s all kinds of non-sexual nudity in this book… like Orson Scott Card levels of nonsexual underage nudity, but nothing overtly sexual. More of the “NonThreatening Boys” factor, I guess.Ugh. So without having ever been a teenaged girl, I feel fairly certain there is a hell of a lot of delusional teenaged girl fantasy at work here. The big question for me, as a 43 year old guy, was whether it has enough other stuff in it, that I can get past the “Gladiators 90210” stuff to actually enjoy the book. Any hope of that would lie in the action scenes of the actual Hunger Games, once they finally got started. Unfortunately, I found these were also contaminated by a lot of cake-having and also-eating. The premise of the tournament is that 24 players ("tributes") would fight each other to the death. Katniss would need to summon all of her most primal badass cold survival skills to win this one, right? But wouldn't that make her a bit unsympathetic to the reader? Well, some of the action was good, but the body count as regards Katniss breaks down like this:a) She doesn’t have to kill Peeta, after all, because the judges change the rules just for them, because they are such an extra-special cute couple!! (there are complications, but this is basically how it plays out)b) She forms an alliance with young Rue, who is killed by somebody else, so Katniss gets to be devastated about this and never has to kill her. c) Katniss gets to be insanely angry at Rue’s killer and slay him out of vengeance, demonstrating how caring she was, even in this terrrible brutal game. Nevermind the fact that Katniss would've had to kill Rue herself, if it came to it.d) Katniss and Peeta accidentally poison Foxface, so even though it needed to be done, it was totally an accident and they are really nice people. e) Cato is a psychopath who hates Katniss (out of jealousy, since she's so awesome) but Katniss doesn't take any pleasure in killing him. She never would. It is out of mercy, because those wild animals got to him, so no guilt there.f) She kills two competetors by dropping a beehive on them from, like, 50 feet up in a tree. So the bees do all the dirty work, and that counts as "her" killing them. What a cold-blooded killer, huh?g) All the other players killed each other without Katniss being involved. I guess I’m being snarky and dismissive of some of the tensions and action here. Katniss is very smart. Blowing up her enemies’ food supply? I liked that. The point I’m making is: the whole book revolves around a gladiator tournament, where our heroine faces 23 opponents, and she manages to come out on top without any cold-blooded killing or moral ambiguity at all. I think the men forced into real gladiatorial games during the real Roman Empire- men who had to slit stranger’s throats to entertain an Emperor they hated, in order to survive- would probably roll their eyes at this story. Maybe that shouldn’t be the standard I apply, but just sayin’.Okay, last rant. I was expected to like this book because it’s supposedly a dystopia. The thing is, I don’t really think it's a dystopia. The Roman Empire sucked for most people living in it, but not every shitty situation is a dystopia. Dystopias are anti-Utopias, either because the Utopian intent has been poorly executed, or because the Utopian intent was just the propaganda spun to get the public to accept some form of totalitarianism- like “We’ll have a safe society if you give up your freedoms.” More importantly, dystopias are supposed to be instructive. They’re cautionary tales the reader can relate back to the real world, to cast present day events into a new context or perspective, which -with luck- might help one avoid a real-life dystopia. Hunger Games didn’t offer any cautionary advice the way Brave New World did, with its dark vision of how automation, efficiency studies and genetic engineering could be misappropriated; or the way 1984 did, with its warning of how the state could terrorize its own citizens if political and economic control were too centralized, and had no checks and balances. The government in Hunger Games was just a sort of loosely-constructed plot device to erase moral ambiguity; it made sure the reader knew that the good cowboys would be wearing the white hats, and that we should cheer them on; while the bad cowboys would be wearing the black hats, and it was okay to “boo” at them. Suzanne Collins goes out of her way to remove any subtlety about this. Katniss is named for a plant, nice and natural- as is her sister Prim(rose), while the Capital City folk all have Roman names like “Flavius” and “Caesar“. Katniss doesn’t wear makeup; and braids her hair in a simple style (Suzanne Collins never shuts up about Katniss’ simple, unassuming braid) …while the City folk all dye their hair outlandish colors, just to help you not identify with them. It’s just very simplistic and juvenile. And that’s my lasting impression: Hunger Games really puts the "Y" in YA. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with YA, but I’m a 43 year old guy, and people have been telling me for over a year that I should give this book a chance, and not be a snob about YA. So I gave it a chance, and you know how I feel? I feel like I went into Chuck-E-Cheese without any children in tow, and sat down to order a meal. There isn’t anything bad, or wrong with The Hunger Games; it just feels like something I should have grown past liking, at this stage of my life. I still might see the movie- action being this story’s strength, but no chance of reading the sequel books.I’m ready for your comments now. Bring it!:D