LOGLINE: As she is thrust into the national spotlight under circumstances beyond her control, a tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks must choose between her tall, dark, and handsome best friend and the shy yet heroic rich boy who has loved her from afar for years.
For those not in the loop, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy of books that is one of the hottest things in YA lit right now. A movie version starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works (see this week’s Entertainment Weekly), and the brass are obviously hoping it becomes the next Twilight franchise.
Whereas Twilight was entrenched in the realm of fantasy (vampires and werewolves), The Hunger Games is futuristic sci-fi, set in a post-apocalyptic North American dictatorship known as Panem, which is made up of twelve districts and a Capitol. Originally there was a thirteenth district, but the Capitol destroyed it when the districts rebelled. As a result of the defeated rebellion, the Capitol instituted a televised gladiatorial event called The Hunger Games, held annually to remind the districts who’s in charge and to provide entertainment for all the residents of Panem. The conceit of the Games is that the gladiators are all teens drawn at random from each district (one boy and one girl, for a total of 24 competitors known as “tributes”), and they must fight to the death until only one is left standing. It’s part Survivor, part Roman coliseum. Entry into the lottery is compulsory between ages 12 and 18.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen becomes her district’s tribute when her younger sister’s name is drawn. Knowing that participating in the Hunger Games is certain death, Katniss volunteers to go in Prim’s place. She and Peeta Mellark, the district’s boy tribute, travel to the Capitol, where they are styled and given star treatment (so the audience can get to know them and possibly decide to “sponsor” them, i.e., send them helpful supplies once the Games are underway) as well as trained for the Games by a previous winner from their district (a forty-something alcoholic named Haymitch). Once the Games begin, Katniss must use all of her wits to stay alive…which she does, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a trilogy, would there?
The book is a page-turner, and while not exactly gory, it doesn’t shy away from the killing. What surprised me, though, was how “chick-lit” the book was once you stripped away the post-apocalyptic setting. I’ve read other sci-fi/action teen series (Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, both featuring teen female protagonists), and neither of them was remotely as egregious as The Hunger Games in the area of romantic female fantasy. (Then again, those series were written by men. Hmmmmmm…) For all the salacious “teens forced by the totalitarian government to kill each other” angle, the book’s emotional heart is pure chick lit. To wit:
- Peeta has been in love with Katniss since they were five years old yet has never had the guts to talk to her. [Women love longing stories.]
- Still, he has always looked out for her when he could. When they were eleven, Peeta, a baker’s son and therefore “rich” by the district’s standards, provided Katniss with some bread he intentionally burned on a day when she was hungry and rifling through their trash. For doing this, his mother beat him. [The woman does not have to do anything to earn the man's devotion and bravery. Her mere existence is inspiration enough.]
- Before the Games start, Peeta confesses to an interviewer on television that he is in love with Katniss. Katniss, of course, is skeptical because she thinks it might be a ploy to win viewers’ sympathy. Haymitch encourages the teens to play up the “star-crossed lovers” angle for the audience. [Playing pretend lovers is straight out of a Harlequin novel. Or Candace Cameron Bure's most recent TV movie.]
- During the Games, Peeta pretends to side with the tougher tributes as a means of protecting Katniss. [More devotion and bravery.]
- When Peeta is badly injured, Katniss tends to him. After the change to the rules is announced – both tributes from a district will be declared winners if they are the last two standing – Katniss realizes that she can get more aid from viewers if she pretends to be in love with Peeta. [See above re: Harlequin novel. Even better if plausible deniability can be invoked later.] Naturally, as they become more intimate with each other (at one point sharing a sleeping bag – he was ill, it was cold outside!), Katniss feels confused. But maybe that’s because….
- Prior to volunteering for the Games, Katniss spends most of her time hunting (illegally) with her best friend Gale, who just so happens to be two years older, tall, dark, handsome, and angry at the government. Katniss is better with a bow and arrow (no self-respecting heroine is worse than a man at anything important), but Gale is a good hunter and together they are able to help feed their families. Although Katniss spends much of her time believing that she and Gale are only friends, she also spends a lot of time thinking about Gale during the Games. Especially when she feels herself growing a little too close to Peeta. [Romantic heroines usually must choose between two guys. Even tough, not-particularly-feminine heroines.]
So…what we have here is a tomboy whose choices in men are a devoted rich boy and a hot loner. Or a best friend and the new boy in town. Or the beta she never noticed and the alpha who hasn’t declared his intentions. Haven’t we all seen this movie before? Did I mention that Katniss doesn’t want to get married, ever?
But that’s not all! Because the Hunger Games are televised, the tributes must all get makeovers. So the book devotes a significant amount of time to fashion and grooming. Yes, we are treated to Katniss getting her legs waxed and details about her outfits and even her fingernail polish. The tributes even get personal stylists. (Lenny Kravitz just got cast as Katniss’s.) The tributes get instant fame and must go through televised interviews that are like talk shows. Of course, that the tributes have no choice in the matter (and are about to go to their deaths anyway) is supposed to mitigate this most girly of plot points. But a perusal of YA lit aimed at teenage girls will reveal tons of books about being popular or famous or becoming popular or famous. When Katniss (and ::SPOILER:: Peeta) triumphs at the end, she is informed that she will have to do a victory tour – more forced fame! Quelle horreur! And she’s still going to have to pretend to be in love with Peeta! (Can you even stand it?) Even while her feelings for Gale are getting in the way! And she breaks Peeta’s heart! What’s a tomboy who just survived death to do?
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, but I was really shocked at just how stereotypical and conventional the book was underneath all the window dressing. Maybe the secret to The Hunger Games is that it’s Twilight for the people who think they’re too good for Twilight. But at least Twilight didn’t pretend to be some sort of social commentary about war, survival, and totalitarian government.
The hamster is strong.
(For further reading, check out Salon‘s article comparing the heroines of the two series. Celebuzz did a comparison of the two series also.)