There is no question: The Hunger Games is a wild success both in publishing and at the box office. My Facebook and Twitter streams were both full of people raving about how they “couldn’t put the book down,” and how “addictive” the novels were. The book sold through an initial print run of 200,000, was turned into an audio book, an eBook, and was translated into 26 languages with rights of production in 38 countries. The movie garnered a largely positive fan reaction, held the #1 spot for several weeks, and has made over $600 million so far. The sequel film, based on the novel Catching Fire, received the green light while the first film was still in production. The trilogy of novels, and at least the first film, have found an audience that spans deep political and ideological divides: The reason for this, is that they aren’t very good.
Before continuing, some caveats about myself, the reviewer. I have only read the first two books, and only saw the movie once. I really enjoyed the first book and couldn’t wait to see the movie, which I also enjoyed thoroughly. However, I disliked the second book so much that I’m not entirely sure I’m going to read the third. That said, I am the kind of person who thoroughly dissects pop culture for deeper meanings, even if it doesn't necessarily merit it.
By saying that the books are not very good, I do not mean the books are poorly plotted, obviously contrived, and badly written messes. Those types of books can still become blockbusters and are optioned for movies (see The Da Vinci Code for an example). But Suzanne Collins knows how to put a story together. What she doesn’t know how to do is deal with the themes her books raise.
Collins explains that the idea for the book came from juxtaposing images of the Iraq War on a news channel with a reality television show on another. That’s fertile ground, except the first book and movie stir up a lot of philosophical and ideological dust that never settles into a coherent shape.
The story is clearly classist and the Occupy movement has claimed it. But Libertarians see the books mainly as a cautionary tale about authoritarian governments.
The movie is the only action film in the top 200 box office hits to have a female lead, which causes many to see it as a feminist rallying point. Yet a romantic subplot has the otherwise active and courageous heroine dithering over two boys who are largely ciphers. This draws comparisons with Twilight’s Bella Swan, who is possibly the exact antithesis of a feminist hero.
There is even confusion over the religious imagery. Collins compares Katniss to Theseus of Greek mythology. I’m no professor of classical literature, but I have been known to wax literary on the comparison of classical mythology to pop culture. Even with that, I do not see the Theseus angle at all. It honestly confuses me.
But not as confused as I get when the book is turned into a Christian metaphor. Katniss as subsitutionary sacrifice for her sister. Peeta as a wounded figure of goodness left for dead, taken into a cave for three days, then coming out with renewed vigor and purpose. Even the younger sister, who is an emotional plot contrivance, becomes a symbol of hope. These things are there, more or less, but are mostly ridden past on the way to other things. They certainly aren’t given a spotlight.
One key the success of The Hunger Games is that they are fast-paced, exciting reads, the first of which became a fast-paced exciting movie. But another, probably much more influential, key is an almost schizophrenic ability to see whatever philosophy or ideology you brought with you to the work. Unintended or accidental themes that are no less legitimate are things all artists have in their work. But when you have something as malleable as The Hunger Games, you have to wonder if it might be so apparently full of meanings that it is starved of any actual significance.