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What I loved about ‘The Hunger Games’

I have a cold. It’s not the worst cold I’ve ever had — I think that honor goes to the one I got right before going to NYC with other Smith seniors during my last year of college, when I was dizzy for days and couldn’t hear correctly out of either ear for about a week. This one’s just your average bad cold. But it’s been about two years since I had a cold, and I forgot how dopey they make me. Wednesday I finally gave up on trying to work and read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games on my Kindle.

Short version: postapocalyptic dystopian SF YA televised Battle Royale with a gloss of the Minotaur myth (kids given as sacrificial tribute to the powerful central city). Here’s what Collins says about her inspiration for the book, in this interview (PDF):

A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.

Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: “Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.” And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.

In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment. The world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references. Panem itself comes from the expression “Panem et Circenses” which translates into “Bread and Circuses.”

The audiences for both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination.

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.

Unsurprisingly, I’m fascinated by the way Collins adapted the Labyrinth myth to suit a futuristic SF setting. But I also have to compliment this book for being possibly the best book ever to read while muzzy-headed. I don’t mean that as any kind of slam on the book at all — it’s marvelously cleanly written and the balance Collins achieves between suspense and necessary exposition is perfect. And then, of course, there’s the inescapable drama of the A-plot. I know I keep talking about readerly pleasure, but it’s kind of hard to underestimate the narrative drive inherent in a Battle Royale plot, particularly a Battle Royale plot with a romantic subplot. The romance is the only part of the book that seemed at all predictable to me — the plot machinery is less well camouflaged. (Still Team Peeta all the way, though.)

Speaking of readerly pleasure: The Hunger Games has three recalls on it in the UT library system. It came out nearly a year and a half ago.

… and speaking of readerly pleasure deferred, UPS just delivered Catching Fire (book two in the series, not on Kindle). But I really, really need to get back to work. Sigh.

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