Think of the children! June 2, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: battle royale, books, fantasy novels, galax-arena, gillian rubinstein, koushun takami, reviews, suzanne collins, the hunger games
Note: Spoilers for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Galax Arena by Gillian Rubinstein and Battle Royale by Koushun Takami.
I must admit that I was seriously underwhelmed by Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games. While others were lauding it as the saviour of young-adult literature, praising it for having a strong female protagonist and gushing about the originality of its theme, I was wondering if they had ever read widely within young-adult literature at all.
Oh, sure, The Hunger Games was exploring a couple of interesting ideas, and it certainly tapped in to an important aspect of Western culture at the time of writing (reality television), but it wasn’t particularly original and its execution was far from perfect.
For one thing, in setting her series (The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy; I have not read the second book and the third has not yet been published) in a dystopian, totalitarian future, Collins’ message – that reality television is the bread and circuses to distract the ill-informed and powerless from the depravities of those who govern them – loses a lot of its impact. This is partly because her alternate world lacks a certain level of believability. There’s no explanation why the US suddenly switches to a dictatorship, and the people who inhabit the pages of The Hunger Games seem never to gain three-dimensionality.
Secondly, The Hunger Games actually has a more interesting sub-theme that gets buried beneath the glossy trappings of Collins’ exploration of totalitarian rule: the exploitation of children by adults, or, more specifically, the exploitation of poor, vulnerable children by rich, powerful adults.
Once I recognised this theme in The Hunger Games, it was inevitable that I’d compare it unfavourably with another book that explores this theme with much greater depth and intelligence, and that did so 20 years ago: Galax Arena by Australian young-adult writer Gillian Rubinstein.
In Galax Arena, children with acrobatic and gymnastics abilities are snatched from the streets of the poorest countries in the world and brought to what they believe is a giant circus arena in outer space, where they’re forced to perform for what they believe are aliens. The greater the danger, the better, and if a child should die while performing, that’s just an added bonus. (Two children do die.)
In actual fact, the entire arena is a deception. The children are still on Earth, and the aliens are wealthy, ageing human beings who are afraid of dying. Scientists have worked out a way to harness the children’s adrenaline and use it to prolong the lives of the wealthy audience. Children are quite literally dying so that the rich can live forever.
In Galax Arena, Rubinstein finds the perfect metaphor for the relationship between the Third and First Worlds. The performers of the arena might as well be the starving sweatshop labourers in China and India, the impoverished farm workers in Africa and South America – all the people that we in the West push to the back of our minds as we go on enjoying our delicious coffee, tea and chocolate, our designer sneakers and luxury electronic goods. The book gets straight to the heart of this poisonous, symbiotic relationship in a compelling, utterly believable and extremely confronting way.
That’s the problem with The Hunger Games. While it’s got a powerful point to make, it doesn’t make it quite as powerfully as Galax-Arena. And it doesn’t make its point quite as powerfully as a book by Japanese author Koushun Takami, Battle Royale, makes its points. The trouble is, Battle Royale is making exactly the same point as The Hunger Games. And it was written nearly 10 years earlier.
Like The Hunger Games, Battle Royale is about a grisly fight to the death among teenagers used to keep the population of a totalitarian society (in this case an alternative version of Japan) in check. Unlike the televised Hunger Games, however, the Program in Battle Royale involves randomly-selected classes of junior high school students fighting their classmates.
This straight away gives Battle Royale a more confronting and sinister edge than The Hunger Games: the contestants in this modern-day gladiatorial contest have to fight and murder people they know, in some cases, their best friends. But what really gives Battle Royale the edge over The Hunger Games is Takami’s willingness to seriously unsettle his readers.
This ability to unsettle stems mainly from the fact that the book maintains a sense of menace and unpredictability throughout. In The Hunger Games, I was never seriously concerned that Katniss would not survive, and I was pretty certain that Peeta would survive too. While reading Battle Royale, I was unsure which characters to trust, who would kill whom, and even whether or not the protagonist would even survive. I left The Hunger Games feeling a mild sense of interest in the timely nature of its themes; I left Battle Royale feeling thoroughly unnerved and extremely creeped out.
This might be unfair of me: Battle Royale is aimed at adults, while The Hunger Games is aimed at adolescents. However, I have never believed that a young-adult target demographic lets an author off the hook as far as exploring the darker side of human nature goes. To put it bluntly, I think that Suzanne Collins pulls too many punches, and I think her book suffers for that.
Please note that I am not intending in this post to accuse Collins of plagiarising the works of either Rubinstein or Takami. Australian books rarely cross into the international market, and Battle Royale was only translated into English in 2003, which is probably after Collins began working on The Hunger Games. My aim in this post is merely to point out that while The Hunger Games is still a good read, there are a lot of books out there that do what it is trying to do, and do it better.