Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some notes on The Hunger Games

Since the movie is coming out, I am going to jot down some of my thoughts on the series.  I didn't actually finish it.  I got partially through the last book and realized that it wasn't going to be worth my time to finish it.  If you're a fan of the series, you might want to skip the rest of what I'm going to say.  It's not real pretty.

Why?  Well, uh, because it the books are basically stupid.  There, I said it.  It's not the violence.  Please.  Compared to Darren Shan's Demonata, where bloody dismemberments happen nigh constantly, or the average run of many, many comic books, the violence of the Hunger Games books is pretty low key.  On the other hand, the books are really stupid.

They also represent the continued transformation of the publishing industry to the blockbuster model - where book publishers decide what series of books they're going to promote and then do so.  So, first you had Harry Potter, then you had Twilight and now you've got the Hunger Games.  It's all manufactured.  There are better young adult fiction out there, ranging from the aforementioned Darren Shan to Pam Munoz Ryan.  And while all this interest and attention is being focused on these series, a lot of very, very good writers are being left behind  - even moreso than in the music and film industry.  There is functionally zero local fiction press in the US.  We read what a small group of largely white, Ivy League educated rich New Yorkers decide we'll read.  If we have disgust with the publishing industry, there isn't really an alternative.  (Don't say the Internet; the Internet has made this problem worse, not better.  While theoretically allowing all fiction to be distributed easily, it also allows more focused and comprehensive advertising; while more choices are theoretically available, in practice we're all reading the same things.  Even during my youth, the way people found books to read was largely word of mouth and experimentation.  Now, we're told what to read and that's what we do and the Internet has been instrumental in this.)  I don't think this transformation of the industry into the blockbuster model is good for writers or audiences - like with Hollywood's blockbuster system, it panders to the lowest common denominator.

But the real problem is that they're stupid.  When I first started reading the first novel, Hunger Games, for a while I kept looking for the point the writer was trying to make.  There had to be one, right?  Some sort of critique of reality show television and how it leads to tyranny, maybe?

However, the books get it wrong.  The stunning thing about reality TV is that it's entirely voluntary.  You make a show that humiliates the participants and people will fight to be publicly humiliated.  So it can't really be a critique of reality TV, because voluntary participation is essential.  The people in the show want to be there.  Even in the most violent reality TV shows (and I watch both The Ultimate Fighter and Full Metal Jousting), the participants are fully involved.  They know the risks and they want to be there.  One of the most compelling arguments I use to justify my taste for violent entertainment is that it's pretty clear that fighters love their jobs.  They really want to be in that cage beating the hell out of each other.  It's all voluntary.

There is no modern parallel that I can think of for the forced participation in the actual Hunger Games.  So I initially concluded that the Games were a paper thin justification for adventure.  There was no point to the novels.  I could accept that.  A fun little romp.  Oh, terribly predictable, but whatever.

But then I was reading the first novel and I was, like, "This is a poorly produced TV show."  The author did not research into combat-based reality TV shows.  The structure of violent competition reality TV shows is one of escalating competition.  There's a tournament structure where the winning fighters fight each other with the stakes rising with every fight.  Ideally, the last fight is the best fight with the most investment.  It has paid off for the UFC.  The finale of the Ultimate Fighter seasons fairly routinely produces some of the best fights in the UFC, and the first season set the theme: the fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar is considered one of the top three MMA fights period by pretty much everyone.

In the novel's reality show, however, well, most of it is pretty boring.  The contestants largely keep away from each other because there are no structured teams - they could turn on each other at any time, so most spend their time hiding.  And as the games wear on, the contestants grow weaker, not stronger.  So, at the beginning of the Games, there's a big melee over a cache of equipment.  But at the end, and this is straight out of the first novel, the heroes win largely by hiding until the stronger contestant is torn apart by genetically modified animals.  Seriously. 

As TV, that sucks.  That is not going to hold the audience's attention.

I do not believe this is a superficial criticism, either.  The first two novels are centered around participation in the Games.  That the structure of the games is designed to plod at the end is fairly important.

The setting is also just incomprehensible.  I suppose I understand the reason why the districts exist - to make rebellion more difficult.  Every district needs something that some other district makes in order to survive.  Okay.  I get that.  But the Capitol is pretty high tech, fairly futuristic.  Why are their coal miners using 19th century technology?  And, really, there are easier ways to do hydraulic dictatorship, such as, uh, controlling the water.  Nothing bolsters a tyrant quite so much as being able to turn off the water.  Thirst takes the fight right out of people.

The use of technology is just awful, generally.  The heroine of series becomes the inadvertent symbol of resistance and the second book's first part is largely about the Capitol using her to stop rebellion.  Well, with the kind of technology the Capitol had at their disposal, and their control of communications, this would be superficially easy to do.  Kill the heroes and replace them with duplicates that undermine the resistance.  Done! 

This isn't even really science-fiction.  False broadcasts to undermine morale date to the early 20th century and are still popular.  The US military and intelligence communities put considerable effort into psywar efforts, part of which are always transmissions designed to make their target's leaders look ridiculous and ineffective.  But the futuristic tyranny of Panem doesn't use this effective technique, made even more effective because they control all communications channels and means of transportation.  If they display a show where the heroes of the series have descended into drug addition and infidelity, how will anyone be able to tell it's not real?  It's even plausible.  It is made very clear that many of the survivors of the Games are alcoholics and drug addicts.  The Games are incredibly traumatic, after all.

For me, where it really started coming off the rails in a big way was during the second novel and the introduction of President Snow, the dictator of the whole shebang.  Now, here was a chance to really make an interesting villain.  Why did he support this horrible tyranny that sacrifices children to demonstrate the Capitol's power over the districts?  But the author chose to have him literally reek of blood.  While he mouthed the most obvious platitudes - that the tyranny was necessary because of the precarious existence of the whole human species - he did them in an incredibly uninspired way and because he reeked of blood the signs were clear: he's just evil.

IMO, this is the biggest problem with these blockbuster YA novel series.  Their villains suck.  You see it in Voldemort and the various villains in Twilight, too.  They're just rotten.  That's lazy writing, if you ask me.  The best bad guys have a good reason for doing what they do - not a superficially good reason, an actual good reason.  Sure, the author hampered herself by having part of the tyranny be something so ridiculously evil that there is no real justification for it.  (Having kids kill each other for entertainment is pretty fucked up.  It's a moral black hole, an act so indefensible there can be no defense.  Even Rome had the justification that the gladiators were all infames - people condemned of crimes so severe they were not allowed to be buried on hallowed ground.  There is a huge moral difference between Iron Age Romans forcing condemned criminals to fight and a sci-fi society making innocent children fight.)  But she should have thought of something.  Instead, she just has the guy reek of blood and offer idiotic, and unnecessary, threats.  He's stupid and evil.  Not precisely a gripping bad guy.

(Which is the heart of the stupidity, really.  The Games, themselves, are so odious, so toxic, it is difficult to imagine any justification for them to exist.  As a mechanism of control, they're downright idiotic.  It would be evident from the onset that forcing a population watch their children murder each other would provoke rebellion.  Sure, history has tyrants doing a whole lot of profoundly stupid things, but in the whole brutal history of tyranny no tyrant ever did this.  It would be over the line for Caligula and Stalin's love child and both of them were literally insane.)

The third book tied it all up.  As rebellion predictably grows, the only district to successfully break away from Panem creates our heroine into a symbol of resistance.  What pushed it over the line is when they give her a Green Arrow bow.  No, seriously, gadget arrows and everything. 

It was the last straw.  I mean, not just the gadget bow and turning her into a superhero.  But the way the rebellion was going to go down.  Because the books are predictable, I'm sure things end hopefully.  That's a particularly American view of violent revolution.  Because our own Revolutionary War ended with the most progressive government that the earth had yet seen, at that time, we like the idea of violent revolution to overthrow tyranny.  This ignores the basic facts about revolution: they almost never work.  If a person did research into revolution, that's what they'd find.  The almost inevitable end of revolution is tyranny.  Americans got really, really lucky that George Washington honestly didn't want power - he could have easily been a monarch.  Indeed, many people wanted him to take a crown.  Fortunately for us, he mostly wanted to go home.  Most places subject to revolution aren't so lucky.  They end up with dictators.  Even if the revolutionary leaders don't survive, the revolution, itself, is organized in a particular way - a very authoritarian way.  The second in command, who inevitably shares the values of the revolutionary leader, steps up . . . or there is a civil war as the revolution's leaders fight among themselves.  Either way, it's not pretty.

But by the time I stopped reading, I had trouble imagining that the author had done any research at all.  She didn't understand reality TV or despotism, why would she understand the consequences of revolution?  I could see no way to tie up the story in a neat little knot, and I knew a neat little knot was coming, and I couldn't bear to face it.  (I checked the Internet.  Yep, there was a neat little knot.)

I just think there isn't a reason for young adult novels to be so stupid.  And, indeed, there are plenty out there that are really good, from The Jungle Book to Watership Down to the Demonata.  But the blockbuster system doesn't require quality.  It just requires advertising.  With enough advertising, mediocre books can be transformed into lucrative franchises and that's what happened, here.

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