Hungry Hungry Hunger Games
I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy yesterday morning and wanted to set out some thoughts, as many people asked for a follow-up to the post about the terrible character names I wrote when I began the first book.
Before I begin, let me say that every conceivable spoiler follows; if you haven’t read the books and you think you might one day want to do so, you probably won’t want to read this blog post.
With that out of the way, I should note that I read the three books in six days. On one of those days, my son was not in day care and so I didn’t read much; I spent two more of those days packing up the house that I’m in the process of selling and so I didn’t read much.
This leads directly to my second point: These books do not take any mental energy at all. I don’t even know when I read them; all I know is that they kept getting finished. They’re the literary equivalent of taking drugs: You know it’s no good; you don’t even remember why you started; but once you’re doing it, you just keep doing it because there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do otherwise.
It’s quick, easy reading for a reason: The books are all action and no character development. It’s just running, jumping, yelling, and killing. And teen angst. It takes no time at all to read books like this. One thing happens and then another and then another. But we never have to spend any time dealing with the consequences of all the action because the characters themselves never do.
Think for a minute about Peeta. We know the color of his hair and eyes. We know he can lift heavy objects, that he bakes bread and likes to paint (usually with frosting), and that he speaks very well in public. We know he is compassionate (sometimes) and we know he loves Katniss (when he hasn’t been brainwashed). We know all of the things that happen to him in the arena and out of it. But we don’t know a single thing that he thinks. We don’t know what defines him, what makes him tick. One fairly major example is that his entire family is killed and we don’t see it impact him in any way.
The same is true of Gale, Haymitch, Finnick … and so on, down the line. I literally know more about the consistency of the bread from Districts 4 and 11 than I know about these characters’ inner lives. And why is that? Because they have none.
Some might say that I’m being unfair. The books are told from the perspective of Katniss and so it’s no surprise that she doesn’t know what’s happening in the minds of the other characters. The trouble is that all of this applies to Katniss as well.
We know, for example, that Katniss can’t decide how she feels about Peeta and Gale. But we don’t really know why. There’s no internal dialogue, no wrestling with herself. What’s more, she never really decides; she just keeps flipping back and forth between loving them and being angry with them until one of them vanishes and the other (seemingly by accident) becomes the father of her children. All we know is that she feels that she owes Peeta a debt, that she feels free in the woods with Gale, that sometimes Peeta is a good kisser and sometimes Gale is, and that she is often irrationally angry with both of them. Perhaps that’s the best an author can do when it comes to explaining the inner life of a sixteen year old girl … but, since I know that Judy Blume exists, I suspect not.
Let me put this another way: In books with so much action -– and so much destruction -– the stakes have never been lower. In thinking about Katniss’ final days in the Capitol, I realized that one of the most major plot elements remained unresolved.
Did President Snow lie to Katniss about President Coin’s complicity in Prim’s death or didn’t he?
Our assumption is that Coin is guilty of orchestrating Prim’s death, though no one ever says directly that she is. What we’re told is that President Snow and Katniss agreed not to lie to each another. So Coin must be guilty because (obviously?) the ruthless autocrat who has kept all of North America under his boot and annually sends children into an arena to murder one another for people’s amusement couldn’t possibly be lying. In other words, a reasonable reader might not know for sure … especially since Katniss is imprisoned, put on trial, and ultimately exiled back to an almost uninhabited District 12 due to mental instability. But the answer actually doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters, in the end, is the action: Both Snow and Coin are killed.
And why is the author able to get away with leaving unanswered such a critical question?
Because no one actually cares about the death of Katniss’ sister. I suppose that Katniss cares. And Katniss’ mother cares. But no one who reads the books cares. Why not? Because Prim is not a person; she is entirely absent of any details. We know she is 13 years old, wants to be a doctor when she grows up, and has a goat named Lady and an unattractive cat named Buttercup. I challenge you to name one more thing about her.
This is a major problem for books, I think, but I suspect that many people will disagree. Kids are reading, after all. But this is barely reading. It’s closer to watching an action movie than it is to sitting down with a novel … which is why I suspect that the movies are probably fun to watch: There’s a lot of action and no real cause for concern when characters are eaten by mutated animals. With these books, you can read and feel proud of yourself for reading … and you don’t have to think particularly carefully (if at all).
Nothing in The Hunger Games trilogy makes me reflect on my own life or on the human condition. I don’t think or feel any differently about anything now that I’ve read these books. And that, for me, is the mark of bad literature.