Hunger Games Fever

Everyone’s talking about The Hunger Games

I admit, I read Suzanne Collin’s bestselling novel with some reluctance.  First of all, I rarely read young adult fiction.  I prefer stories that deal with adult problems and feature decidedly adult protagonists.  Second, contemporary YA fiction trends towards edgy themes and a strong narrative voice—neither of which I like.  For today’s teens, those “edgy” themes include everything from eating disorders and destructive, addictive behaviors like cutting or choking games, to problematic sexual encounters, teen pregnancy, abortion, abuse, and parental divorce.  By strong voice, I mean the kind of sarcastic, bad-talking, too-wise-for-their-years teen personalities that started appearing in TV shows like Dawson’s Creek in the 90s and continued in the past decade in popular movies like Juno.  In addition, The Hunger Games is written entirely in the present tense.  When I open a book, read the first page, and realize the author has written in the present tense, I usually put it right back on the shelf.  Present-tense narration is a nice trick that draws a reader into the action, but as a reader, I often feel manipulated and bored.  The limits of tense can prevent a narrator from developing aspects of the story in a more subtle way.

 So why did I decide to read The Hunger Games?  The movie trailer.  Yes, there was something about the heroine Katniss Everdeen (played by a gorgeous, athletic Jennifer Lawrence) darting through the woods, bow and arrow in hand, that caught my interest.  Here was no pale, pining Bella of Twilight fame.  Here was a different kind of heroine.

I found the book under the tree on Christmas morning (thanks to the ESM—Evil Step-Mother), and I began reading it on the eve before good friends were set to arrive from the corn fields of Indiana for the New Year.  I had one night to take down the Christmas tree, clean the house, make up the guest bed, and cook a few casseroles in advance—but there I was, standing in the middle of the kitchen, devouring The Hunger Games while the chili boiled over on the stove and the house remained in an inhabitable state of clutter.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the Philosopher might want to read the book.  Certainly most of his students would have read it, or seen the movie, and he is always looking for examples from popular culture to lighten up the dry topics of critical thinking and logic.  Moreover, I argued, articles about the book continue to pop up in print and electronic media, as devotees of different political, social, and religious agendas have adopted it as a morality tale illustrating their particular ideologies.  In an article in Forbes Magazine, John Tammy argues from the libertarian/conservative position:  the ruthless Capitol overseeing the brutal hunger games represents the evils of big government.  Bob Burnett’s blog on the left-leaning Huffington Post asserts that Katniss and her fellow sufferers of District 12 represent the beleaguered 99%.  Even the Christian Evangelicals have weighed in, with Amy Simpson’s article in Christianity Today, titled “Jesus in The Hunger Games,” which sees a sacrificial Christ figure in the character of Peeta.  My favorite analysis of the book, and by far the most practical for someone involved in education, is posted by Robert Crosby on the religion blog Patheos and examines why the book appeals so much to the millennial generation.

The Philosopher asked for my copy of the book a few nights before Spring Break—probably not because he really wanted to read it, but because he was suffering from mid-semester burn-out, needed a break, and nothing looked appealing on Netflix.  While I went to bed early, he headed up to his study to read for a while.  When I woke at 2:30 a.m., he had not yet come to bed, and the light was still on upstairs.  The following morning, he went into the bathroom and stayed for a very long time (what is it about men and serious reading in the bathroom?).  At different points over the next three days, I found him sneaking a read when he would normally be grading papers, or doing research.  Once, he looked up misty eyed, cleared his throat, and headed upstairs before I could see he was upset.  I glanced at the page where he had left the bookmark.  Rue had just met her demise.  The Philosopher finished the book moments before we left on a date to see the movie.      

It turns out that the book was useful in helping him relate difficult concepts to his students.  Evidently the following exchange took place as he attempted to explain something called “conditional compound statements”:

Philosopher:  We can illustrate conditional compound statements in this way:  Suppose that for any two statements, ‘p’ and ‘q’, in which ‘p’ is the antecedent and ‘q’ is the consequent in a conditional compound statement. The truth conditions for the conditional statement, “If p then q” does not depend upon the truth of the antecedent p for compound statement to be true. The statement:  “If p then q” can be true even if p is false. So if p is “it rained last night” and q is “the streets are wet,” and the compound conditional statement, is “if it rained last night then the streets are wet,” is true, even if it didn’t rain last night, but there was instead a broken main that flooded the streets.

 Student:  Huh?  [Student looks confused and distressed]. 

Philosopher:  Let’s take another example:  Suppose ‘p’ is “Katniss’s number is called,” and ‘q’ is “Katniss is going to the Hunger Games.” Then the statement:  if “p then q” has the value of true, even though Katniss’s number was not called. After all, her sister’s name was called, but Katniss volunteered.

Student:  Oh! I get it now!

 If you didn’t understand that exchange, don’t worry.  I’m not sure I did either.

We have ordered the next two books in Collins’s trilogy:  Catching Fire and Mockingjay

If only Amazon delivered faster.  No Kindles around here.  We like the feel of real paper, the sturdy and colorfully drawn hardcovers, and the sound and smell of cracking that binding open for the first time. 

So what makes a book hard to put down?  What magic ingredients come together to make a bestseller that captures the imaginations of millions of readers, young and old alike?  Is it twists and turns of plot?  A specific type of character?  A setting, mood, or tone?  Shock value? 

I’d love to know.

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