There are thirteen incomplete sentences on the first two pages
of "The Hunger Games," the young-adult novel that inspired the film
of the same name, which itself has inspired enough people to head
to their local movie theaters to break a few box-office records
recently. I counted - the sentence fragments, not the box-office
I don't accuse the book's author, Suzanne Collins, of not knowing
about subjects and predicates; obviously, she's trying to affect
the sort of blunt, misfortune-hardened voice that might belong to a
tough teenager like her protagonist, and doubtless she's also
decided to keep things short because short is easier to read.
Still, thirteen is a number to reckon with, and even after one
page, the gimmick seems tired and the prose tin-eared.
I quit reading before I'd learned the heroine's name.
Fortunately, the movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games," which I
saw last week, quickly imparts this information: her name is
Katniss Everdeen, and she's played by Jennifer Lawrence (doing a
slightly glamorized retake on her "Winter's Bone" character) in the
film, which may be all you need to experience to know the lameness
of this unavoidable phenomenon.
The story takes place in a dystopian future in which, every year,
24 adolescents are to chosen to take part in a televised
fight-to-the-death inside a "Truman Show"-like arena. At the end of
the show, only one kid will remain: it's kind of like Nickelodeon's
"GUTS," only with more actual guts being spilled.
Katniss hails from the hardscrabble coal country of District 12,
and like every young heroine with True Grit, she has a dead father
- though she also has a living little sister, whose role is first
to reveal stony Katniss's tender side and then (because Katniss has
to take care of her) to give her a higher purpose than all the
other Hunger Games participants, who presumably just want to
survive this ordeal so they can head back to the mall.
leading up to the big event are engaging enough, with colorful
appearances by Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, but when the film
switches to action-mode, it fails almost completely - which is to
say that the film itself, considering the paltry treatment it gives
to its Serious Themes (the voyeurism of reality TV, the
senselessness of war, class, government oppression), is a
Its cowardice is appalling: after putting its protagonist in a
gruesome situation, it spends its running time contriving ways for
her not to have to do anything gruesome.
For Katniss to win the contest, 23 other people have to die, yet
(no spoiler) she manages to survive without committing any act that
might be considered objectionable by even the most moralistic
parent. A bow-and-arrow expert, she encounters situations in which,
cloaked by trees, she could easily dispatch her rivals, yet she
chooses to enact milder strategies, like blowing up their food
supplies - making sure, of course, that no one is harmed in the
explosion. Never does she have to kill anyone who hasn't directly
threatened her or a friend; never does she kill anyone remotely
sympathetic. Even in the movie's opening scene, when Katniss is
hunting for food, she's conveniently interrupted just before she
can shoot a deer - someone must have feared that the young audience
would have "Bambi" flashbacks.
This is a family-friendly "Die Hard," and if that premise sounds
ridiculous to you, it is. Everything's a cliché, yet nothing makes
In the Hunger Games, as in every Hollywood high school, there
exists an absurdly sadistic clique of mocking preppies, who strut
about with the sole purpose of being jerks - only, here, instead of
making a cruel bet that one of them can turn Katniss into a prom
queen, they wield knives and chase her up a tree, where she's left
defenseless. Yet, rather than shooting her down, they decide, very
logically, simply to wait there on the ground till she starves to
death - so, a few weeks, maybe? (Katniss is saved by a black girl
named Rue: there are two black characters in the Games, and you
know as soon as you see them that their roles will be to save
Katniss's life and then, promptly, to die.)
You might argue that, given my (technical) adulthood, I had no
business watching "The Hunger Games" in the first place - except
that adults are buying tickets for it in droves. And in the wake of
its across-the-board success both in print and on screen,
commentators have been wringing their hands a little: why are all
of the most successful entertainments of our time geared toward
kids? Why do even grownups prefer the young-adult genre?
Indeed, the three most successful movies of 2011 were all teen
fare: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2,"
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On
Stranger Tides." And 2010's top grossers were completely
family-friendly: "Toy Story 3," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Harry
Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1." Meanwhile, the most
prominent authors of our time are, arguably, J.K. Rowling,
Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. When did we lose the appetite
for mature entertainment, for grown-up art?
The answer: I dunno, probably at the moment when Hollywood studios
and publishing companies realized that teenagers have more
disposable cash and free time than anyone else.
What I will say, though, is that the ability to care about art at
all is, in my view, dependent on one's ability to remain a teenager
forever - it's the ability to get caught up in stuff that doesn't
actually matter in the practical way that going to work or taking
out the trash does.
Hormonal youngsters, who concoct intense emotional dramas from
lives composed of video games and soccer practice, are best at
Artists themselves usually are stuck somewhere in adolescence; real
grownups become businessmen or scientists. To me, "Crime and
Punishment" is no less a teen novel than "Twilight" or "The Hunger
Games." It just happens to be a good one.