Monday, November 29, 2010

The Hunger Games and King David

The Hunger Games
The story goes that the prophet Nathan came to King David and told him about two men from the same city. One was rich, and the other poor. The poor man had little except a lamb he had raised. He shared his food with the lamb, slept with it at night. It was more, even, than just a pet. He loved it like a child.

One day, the rich man had a visitor for whom he wanted to prepare a feast. Instead of taking a lamb from his own large flock, he took the poor man's precious lamb, slaughtered it, cooked it, and fed it to his visitor.

King David was outraged by the tale and swore that the poor man's loss would be repaid fourfold—and that the rich man would die. Nathan told him, "Thou art the man."

Nathan didn't walk up to the king and berate him for taking another man's wife. He didn't accuse him of murder for sending that man to his death in battle. He told a story, got David ticked off at the antagonist, and then in four words turned it around so David couldn't deny his own guilt.

The Hunger Games is an excellent piece of storytelling. It's compelling, crisp, and I learned some things from it that I think will help my own writing. Collins spends a lot of time developing Katniss as a character, both through her past as well as her thoughts in the present. I know—I'm one of the last people to read this book, and I'm sure it's all been said before. Bear with me.

A couple things didn't sit well—but they were just nit-picky little things. There was one big thing that really, really bugged me, and I can sum it up in one word that describes the entire book: horrific. From the premise to the last death, the characters are put through an ordeal that's just about the worst thing imaginable. To make it even more terrible, there's a live TV audience watching the entire thing, rapt. 

I'm not against dark themes and terrible events in books or movies. But in The Mission, no one wins. Heart of Darkness leaves you feeling dark. 1984 gives no cause whatsoever to stand up and cheer. The Hunger Games is like Lord of the Flies made gloriously entertaining.

And that's the problem. But it's my problem.

I will never forget the moment it hit me that it wasn't just a fictional TV audience getting pleasure from watching kids suffer and die—it was me. Katniss could have turned to me and said, "Thou art the audience," and it wouldn't have hit any harder.

Oh, sure, Katniss and all the other tributes aren't even slightly real. They're the products of Collins's imagination, the result of a late night in front of the TV.

But you know what? Non-fiction outsells fiction. I've read true stories about people dying, freezing to death on Mt. Everest, for example. Why did I read them if not for fun?

Death is not now and never has been entertaining when you're actually there. Does seeing a fireworks stand crush a man leave you with anything but a sick feeling? Does seeing a man break his back and die feel any more heroic because he managed to spare other people? No! In my experience, death is infallibly gut-wrenching.

Capturing a death in pictures, sounds, or words strips it of qualia, the intangible things that make it real. It allows us to experience something terrible without the pain, allows us to find pleasure in the excitement of a moment that should only make us sick. Couched in a good story, safely ensconced behind a pane of glowing glass, there's nothing so awful it can't be made entertaining. (I suspected that's exactly what Collins had in mind and found it confirmed in this interview.)

I've never watched reality TV. But can I be entertained by the horrific? Thanks to The Hunger Games, I now see the answer is yes. The whole "gladiator games are bad" theme has been done a million times. (Star Trek did it at least half a dozen times.) Only now will I think twice about every death that I watch, read, and write, and ask myself why.

My only concern is that a whole lot of people will read the book, watch the inevitable movie, and completely miss the forest for the trees. What do you think? How did you feel after reading The Hunger Games?

6 comments:

  1. THANK YOU BEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am SOO glad to hear that someone else's opinion is congruent with my own--I have not read the book, nor do I ever wish to-- After hearing ENDLESS women say how they are so into the series and it's such a great book, ladeeda and when I ask them what it's about, and they tell me it's about a bunch of people killing each other, but how it's so sweet--!!????? I tell ya, there's something not right about that picture. I don't care if there's a cheesy love plot in it that makes it all fine and good. Death should never be made into entertainment, as you said, it is a horrible thing, and we should never become desensitized to it. I realize that I really don't have any right to criticize a book I've never read, but it just seems really warped to me.

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  2. Not sure if this was intended, but I feel like I really need to read this book.

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  3. @Shess: Sweet? People really think that? Dang. I thought the romantic aspect was just really, really sad. It's completely one-sided. Maybe some people think it's fun to be loved and not return it. I never have.

    @Spendlove the younger: Yes. Read it. It's a great book. You can borrow my copy. And when you find yourself unable to put it down, realize just how much power a good narrative has on your mind.

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  4. Oh, I didn't know it was a one sided thing! But yah, people would say how they loved the love story in it--that's weird. Another reason for me not to read it. I don't think I'd like it. Have you read 'memoirs of a geisha'? It's been recommended to me.

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  5. No, I haven't. And there are two more books in the Hunger Games series that I haven't read, so there's plenty of room for the love story to go somewhere else.

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  6. Hurry, read the next two and then report back (I am profoundly changed by having reading all three, along with other outstanding books).

    I love seeing how your gears spin. Can I borrow your brain for the day?

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