Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hungry Hungry Hunger Games: For the Love/Hate of Paperback Sensations and Their Blockbusting Counterparts

Hoopla. I believe it is created by a secret cache of 12 to 14-year-old teeny boppers and their 40-year-old mothers whenever a new, romance-driven YA series hits the shelves. Alternatively, it is the product of anybody who has ever ridden an airplane and devoured a paperback copy of The Da Vinci Code, or Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and then feels the need to prove their worldliness by asking of their friends, family, and co-workers, "Have you read --insert any recent and relatively popular novel title here-- yet?" A question inevitably followed by expressions of shock and dismay when the answer is no.

Best case scenario: 1000 years from now, when distant civilizations search for insight into our lives, they will unearth Harry Potter.

Worst case scenario: they unearth Twilight.

This year, the three books from Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series were under the Christmas tree. OK, I thought, I'll give them a go. I had heard that, while the inevitable love-triangle persists, it remains peripheral to a much more interesting post-apocalyptic reality. With the first book (The Hunger Games) I was  riveted. With the second (Catching Fire), I was not, mostly because the love-triangle took over more than I would have liked. The third (Mockingjay) left me  confused more than anything else.

The Hunger Games, I think, capitalizes on some really provocative themes; political oppression and revolution, the cost of war, the roles and responsibilities of the individual in the modern world, etc. And it does so with just enough fluffy love stuff to attract readers who enjoy fluffy love stuff, without triggering the gag reflex of those like myself, who are against fluffy love stuff. At least gratuitous fluffy love stuff. And I can see why it didn't take long for the screenplay to get scooped up. The story is terrifying and glamorous in all the right ways, and, I'll admit, the trailer that's come out is pretty darn good. After seeing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, I'm optimistic about how she'll perform. And I'll see almost anything with Stanley Tucci in it.

My first impulse after finishing the series was appreciation for Collins, as I have to assume that only an author refusing to concede to the demands of the Hollywood blockbuster could have turned out something like Mockingjay. Yes, there are weak points, and loose ends. Some reviewers attribute the loose ends to Collins's greater plan to leave the reader with feelings of emptiness at the end of the series, and demonstrate something greater about the horrifying consequences of war. While I'm hesitant to give her quite so much credit, I do think that Collins's overall decision to leave the end sort of misty and unsatisfying results in a book that, despite its fantastical plot, achieves something like realism. Yes, we want the satisfaction of death for every villain, and we want a virtuous hero/heroine to carry out the sentence. But that's not often the way the world works, as the messiness of Mockingjay's ending reminds us. Again, it's far from perfect, and there are parts where I think sloppiness is just, well, sloppiness. But it does something I haven't seen a YA book do in a while; leave the reader unsettled, and, with its closing, allow us to reconsider right and wrong, our place between them, and all the world's grey areas that can be cleanly filtered neither here nor there.

I'll be very interested to see what Hollywood does with the final book's strange ending.

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