I have been doing some reading along the way — a lot of it has been
advice on how to write great fiction (which I won’t bore you with), but
some of it has been books that you might be interested in yourself. So
here’s a run-down of a few things I’ve read over the last couple of
months, and what I thought of them. The first one was Suzanne Collins’s
runaway bestseller Hunger Games
Since I’m working on science fiction of a futuristic sort, I’ve been concentrating on speculative fiction of various sorts, to get a feel of what sort of thing is getting read these days. So I was excited when Amazon offered the entire Hunger Games trilogy for Kindle download for just $5. I hadn’t read any of the books – and, frankly, hadn’t intended to, until I saw the movie based on the first one and thought, “That was pretty good.” I’d heard the film was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, so I was interested in seeing how close the two were (I’ve already had my rant about what makes a good film adaptation of a novel). I found that, as far as the story itself goes, the two are remarkably similar (just one or two minor characters who get dropped in the film), but the effect of reading the novels was completely different.
The books are narrated by Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, so the reader never gets any relief from her attitude, which is bitter and cynical. I never really understood why she was as bitter as she was, since other characters who had to endure many of the same hardships she did were much more sympathetic and likable.
I kept thinking that her love for Peeta and/or Gale might help her to overcome a measure of her bitterness – surely she would grow and mature? Instead, her creator, Suzanne Collins, kept subjecting her to more and more nightmarish tortures, making her more and more deeply damaged emotionally. After reading the entire trilogy, frankly, I was sick of Catniss and her world. By the end of the third book, other characters had moved on, literally and figuratively, but Catniss and Peeta, and even their children, remained haunted by their grim world. At a climactic moment near the end of the final novel, I realized that the whole trilogy was little more than an anti-war screed, which explains why the author insisted that Catniss could never live happily ever after – because she was the poster child of the “war is hell” message, and to suggest that the evils of war could be transcended would undercut that message.
This touches on the thing that I found most irritating and unrealistic about these novels: total lack of any kind of transcendent hope or faith. Although the stories are set in a North America of the far future, and traces of regional culture remain (the hard-scrabble coal miners of Appalachia, field gangs of virtual slaves in the deep South), none of the people of any of the districts of Panem seemed to have any kind of religious or philosophical belief that suggested there was any way to transcend the harsh conditions of their lives. It was a world utterly without hope. Leaders on both sides in the rebellion were equally cynical and corrupt. Even after the rebellion succeeded and life was moving on, there was no sense that anything was, or ever would be, better.
I was hoping that, despite the disagreeable personality of the lead character, I would find that the Hunger Games would be a good book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined that term in An Exercise in Criticism — i.e., one that makes the reader feel “enlarged” or in someway better off for having read it. Alas, this was not the case. Instead, I felt damaged by its corrosive commentary on life. In the end, I was heartily glad to say goodbye to Catniss Everdeen and her dreary, soulless world.
I’m sorry that I found the books so toxic. On the face of it, they have a lot to offer — a modern up-dating of the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, a technically well-structure plot, some very inventive “games.” But it was like eating a feast at a chain restaurant — looks good, smells great, all your friends say you’ll love it, but too late you realize that every dish is full of chemical additives that provide no real nutrition and may actually prove indigestible.
Fortunately, I went on to read something much more satisfying, if not perhaps a lot more nutritious. I’ll tell you about that next time.