For once in my life, I am ahead of the cultural curve. Despite being a curmudgeonly old fart of 58, I have actually read all three volumes of the Hunger Games trilogy -- the first of which is about to be loosed on us all in the form of a blockbuster movie.
I stumbled on these books somewhat by accident, without realizing that they have become a cultural phenomenon. And though I enjoyed the first (the second and third volumes are much inferior) I have to ask myself what accounts for their tremendous success.
The plot is easily told. The scene is a post-apocalyptic America where much of the country has been ravaged by some kind of war and the people who have survived have been herded into 12 districts, all ruled by an iron hand from the Capitol. A thirteenth district which rebelled against the rulers has been vaporized.
Every year, two youngsters from each district are selected by lot and sent to take part in the "Hunger Games" -- a kind of lethal version of our own beloved reality show Survivor. The contestants are supplied with a variety of weapons and challenges, the result of which will be the deaths of 23 of them. The sole player left alive will be proclaimed the winner and go on a nationwide victory tour. The whole thing is televised for the amusement of the citizens of the Capitol -- and required viewing for the rest of the country.
In District 12, which we gather is somewhere in coal mining country in West Virginia or Kentucky perhaps, our heroine Katniss Everdeen lives with her mother and younger sister. Katniss supplements the meager government rations supplied to the citizens by sneaking beyond the fence that encloses the district into the surrounding woods and hunting for game with her bow and arrow. Her companion on these excursions is the hunky Gale.
Of course, Katniss finds herself stepping forward as a volunteer for the Hunger Games to replace her younger sister who has been picked in the lottery. (Under the rules, this is allowed). Her fellow contestant from District 12 is the baker's son, Peeta, who has been silently in love with Katniss for years.
One can see part of the attraction of these books is the way they have been structured to appeal to multiple audiences all at once. Males may enjoy the mortal combat and the various imaginative ways in which people are killed, complete with lots of gore. Girls may enjoy the fashions shows (the contestants of the games get to strut their stuff on TV in especially designed costumes before the games begin) and the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta. There's no actual sex but there is a little bit of what might, at a stretch, (actually quite a big stretch) be called romance.
Then there's the theme of defying and outwitting authority -- of sticking it to the man.
Katniss herself is a rather successful fictional creation. She's conflicted and torn and confused and angry -- and she kicks some serious butt. The other characters don't amount to much.
I don't want to come off too snooty here (and I understand those who might say that these books are nothing but harmless fun). But it has to be said that morally speaking, these books uphold reprehensible values and one cringes at the thought of millions of teens reading them. I guess any kind of reading is good in its way -- which can't be said for the movie, already shaping up to break box office records.
Neither Katniss nor the author ever really questions the moral underpinnings of the games themselves -- the idea of children being forced to perform in gladiator contests and fighting to the death, for the amusement of the citizenry. Katniss just wants to win.
Peeta is a more moral character. He's willing to sacrifice his own life to save Katniss. But Peeta is too wimpy to really make much of a hero.
The books seem to accept many of the tropes of our existing "reality TV" fantasies -- the idea of contestants being weeded out (kicked off the island, or in this case actually killed) one by one; the idea of fashion defining our identities for a mass audience; the post-game interviews that are conducted.
I suppose we do increasingly enjoy brutality, whether real or imagined, as part of our entertainment diet. The NFL and Mixed Martial Arts offers us the chance to see real people suffer real pain and real injuries. Professional wrestling offers us a more theatrical version (not that people don't get hurt in that too). But I think we're a little ways away from actually watching people die.
Or are we? Several years ago, when I was Reuters National Correspondent, I had to observe and write about an execution in Virginia. To my surprise, several of those watching with the media (whose job it was to be there) were "citizen observers" -- just regular folk who had written to the prison authorities volunteering to observe the proceedings.
I asked a couple of them why they were there. They replied that they were just curious to see the state's justice system at working, taking a man's life.
So perhaps we're not that far from The Hunger Games as all that.