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Bread and circuses April 5, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , ,

I remember the first time I watched an episode of the Australian version of Big Brother. It was in 2001, during the Easter holidays. I had gone down the South Coast with several of my friends, and we were camping, I think in Durras. My friend’s parents were staying in a cabin in the same campground, and in the evenings, exhausted, we would sometimes hang out in the cabin and watch TV. On this particular evening, we watched the first episode of this new TV series, one of the first examples of a new TV genre: ‘reality TV’. I was only 16 at the time, but I noticed two things right away. The first was that this had absolutely no connection with reality. The second was that it was a particularly 21st-century incarnation of ancient Roman gladiatorial contests.

In her young-adult novel The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has made this connection.

The book, which will be the first in a trilogy, is set in a dystopian American future, where the United States has collapsed into 12 districts. It’s a totalitarian future, with great disparity of wealth between the various districts. To distract people from the horrors of their lives (and to maintain control over a potentially mutinous population), the Powers That Be instituted the Hunger Games, a deadly reality TV series which demands two participants (or, more correctly, victims) from each district to fight to the death for the entertainment of viewers. Our heroine, Katniss, comes from the poorest district, District 12, and when her younger sister Prim is chosen, Katniss boldly takes her place.

What follows is an absolutely harrowing 450-page descent into hell. The Hunger Games are horrific – Lord of the Flies meets Survivor. Collins doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is: adolescents slaughter their peers in gleeful violence, and the casual acceptance of the sacrifice of children to this modern-day Minotaur is incredibly disturbing. These horrors are tempered – without sentimentality – with youthful idealism, compassion and bravery. Collins is a welcome addition to the newly reinvigorated YA scene, and she is spot-on in her depiction of indifferent, self-absorbed cruelties of our reality TV culture.

It’s funny, because even though they’re rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred.  “I was still in bed!” “I had just had my eyebrows dyed!” “I swear I nearly fainted!” Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.

– Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, pp. 429-30.

I remember, a couple of years ago, interviewing Young-Adult writer Sophie Masson. One remark she made about folktales and fantasy literature has always stayed with me. Folktales have power, she said, because they get straight to the heart of things. Fantasy is not trivial, because it has a similar kind of power. It can talk about deeply important concepts in a very direct way.

I would argue that the best YA writing does this too. From Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (a cautionary tale about the dangers of surveillance and anti-terrorism laws) to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (which tackles issues of body-image among teenagers without ever getting preachy), from old favourites such as John Marsden’s Tomorrow series (which brought home the realities of war to a generation of Australian teenagers) to newcomers to the field such as The Hunger Games, YA writing fearlessly tackles the big questions.

The common quality all these series and books possess is a courage and a truthfulness. Their authors explore complex themes in a way that is respectful of their readers’ intelligence, never preaching, never allowing the seriousness of their subject matter to overwhelm their desire to tell a good story. Suzanne Collins is a welcome addition to the YA fold, and I can’t wait to hear more from her.

Thank you Sibylle for introducing me to The Hunger Games. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


1. ElleVee - April 11, 2009

Is ‘Little Brother’ worth reading? I keep picking it up, then putting it down and wandering off.

Also: I think I really keep posting the Alan Moore titles solely because they make me laugh when I type them up.

2. dolorosa12 - April 11, 2009

I think it’s worth reading. I think it was one of the top young-adult books published last year, and I adore Cory Doctorow. It is very preachy, but since I’m kind of the choir to whom Doctorow is preaching, I don’t mind.

Keep posting those Moore titles. They make me laugh when I read them, too.

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