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'The Hunger Games' serves young adult drama

September 22, 2010 11:48am
With vampires, werewolves and, yes, even zombies, transforming bookstore shelves into a veritable supernatural buffet, what’s left on the menu for those who are hungry for a different kind of literary escape?

Your server for today recommends: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games is narrated by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. She lives in the poverty-stricken fringes of Panem, a nation that rose from the ruins of post-apocalyptic North America, whose authoritarian government rules over 12 Districts from the confines of its Capitol.

To punish the people of Panem for a rebellion that happened 74 years ago and to emphasize the extent of its power, the Capitol holds the annual Hunger Games, a televised contest for randomly-picked Tributes aged 12-17 years old.

It’s as extreme as reality television can ever get: Survivor for kids minus Jeff Probst minus the democratic Tribal Council, with a whole lot of blood and mayhem. The object of the game is to outwit, outplay, and outlive the competition. The ultimate survivor wins fame, fortune, and a year’s supply of food for his or her entire district.

When Katniss finds herself in the deadly Arena, she resolves to outwit the Gamemakers and to outplay and outlive her fellow Tributes on her own terms. Her performance in the Games stirs the hearts of the audience, but earns her the ire of those who are struggling to maintain the delicate balance of power in the nation. Just as Katniss starts to believe she may actually survive, she also begins to realize that the real Game has only just begun.

Though it is devoid of the magical realms and otherworldly creatures that populate the pages of most popular young adult fiction today, The Hunger Games is making waves in international bestseller lists and in the consciousness of millions of readers.

It has spawned numerous online fan sites, generated several gigabytes worth of heated discussions, and the first book will soon make its way to cinemas as a feature film.

The Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, have sold millions of copies worldwide, attracting readers beyond its target young adult market. The series is even endorsed by other bestselling authors like Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining, The Dark Tower series), Stephenie Meyer (The Twilight Saga), and Rick Riordan (The Percy Jackson series), and is favorably reviewed by many literary critics.

The diverse appeal of the series is in its ability to allow readers to experience the story on several different levels despite its formulaic style.

Suzanne Collins used to be a television writer before she began writing novels full-time, and in early interviews, she said that the series is plotted using the 3-Act Structure of television shows. This is evident in the way the story unfolds—the plot moves fast, and the action and suspense will keep readers up all night, thinking while flipping pages.

Broadcasting and television is, in fact, one of the major themes of the series. Collins illustrates how the medium can be used as a tool to manipulate politics and the society by broadcasting something as superficially “innocent" as a competition.

The Games itself is a big draw because reality television has become such a huge phenomenon. Reading about how Katniss deals with the challenges of the Arena is like watching an episode of Survivor Panem: Extreme Edition, but Collins also opens the door for further exploration of the concept of reality as entertainment by raising the stakes.

Victory in the Games is not just about getting everyone else voted off the Arena to win a million dollars; winning has real rewards and consequences. To win, Katniss must kill or be killed.

Each decision that she makes inside the Arena creates ripples all throughout Panem; each decision that she makes inside the Arena threatens to change who she is as a person. Katniss’ trials and her personal battle not to lose herself in the Games become vehicles through which readers could live vicariously and ask themselves “What would I do if I were in the Arena? Can I kill others so that I might survive? Am I really capable of sacrificing my life to save someone I care about?"

In the second course of the Trilogy, Catching Fire, Collins explores Katniss’ victory in the 74th Hunger Games and the fire it ignites in those who have long wanted to rebel against the Capitol. (That isn’t really a spoiler, right? Of course she survived, or there will only be one book!) As Katniss visits the other 11 Districts and returns to the Arena for a second time to fight for her life, she becomes an unwitting pawn for both sides of the war.

Collins asserts that the series is really a war story at its core inspired by her experiences growing up a daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, and this is especially evident beginning from the second book.

Being a war story, the novels are peppered with portrayals of violence, which may deter some parents from allowing their children (the book is recommended for 12-year-olds and up) to read the books. The violence is rarely written out of context, though, so with proper guidance, the series provides a good opportunity for families to immerse themselves in a great story and discuss the books in depth.

However, parents may want to carefully examine whether the third book is appropriate for their younger children.

Mockingjay was released worldwide on August 24, 2010, approximately two years after The Hunger Games was published.

In the book, Panem is now truly at war, and Katniss is struggling to come to terms with her role as the symbol of the rebellion. With the entire nation as the Arena, Katniss is plunged into the middle of the war where she must once again face the same dilemmas that plagued her in the Games.

As if children killing each other in combat aren’t bad enough, Collins is even more ruthless here. She paints such a grim and realistic picture of the war that one will almost forget that the heroine is a teenager—people die left and right, some in a hard-fought battle, and some with but a wrong step.

It is also in Mockingjay that one can find perhaps the best demonstration of the ultimate key to the series’ appeal: good characterization. Katniss may be a teen, but it is difficult for even an adult to not sympathize with her because her trials transcend age. In the Arena, and even in the war, anyone would ask the same questions; anyone would mull over the same decisions.

In the months leading up to the release of Mockingjay, some fans were caught up in “Team Peeta versus Team Gale", debating over which boy Katniss will end up with: Peeta Mellark, her fellow District 12 Tribute, or Gale Hawthorne, her best friend.

Some critics argue that this is the least of the issues and themes that readers should focus on in The Hunger Games—that it’s just “a teenage thing", just the icing on top of a multi-layered cake—but there is good reason why even adults had fun placing their bets.

Collins did not make it easy for anyone, least of all Katniss, to decide who would be perfect for her. With the war as a backdrop, even something as innocent as a teenage romance can be used to further the interests of the Capitol—the icing is not just a sweet romance but one with a bitter political twist.

Collins set out to write a story about “the effects of war to those who are coming of age", and she succeeded. While set in a fictional world, Katniss’ experiences are told with an astute understanding of how a young person would realistically deal with love, loss, betrayal, and the need to survive.

The series closes on a hopeful note, but Collins remains true to her vision and her characters; in the end, the war may be over, but the survivors will never truly be free.

The Hunger Games trilogy is a pleasant blend of action and drama, with a dash of romance, and a refreshing depth of flavor for something that is labeled “young adult". The supernatural fantasies may be headlining the menus, but this dystopian action-drama is definitely one of the specials. - GMANews.TV
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