Dystopian fiction has been reborn with the popularity of Young Adult Dystopian works such as the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I read Hunger Games while basking on the beach in Mexico and I quite enjoyed it on a most superficial level. The novel sucked me in, got me turning pages, and entertained me. Shouldn’t that be enough?
I have loftier ambitions for the dystopia genre, though. The bar was set pretty high by Orwell, Huxley, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and many other classics. I have an expectation that I will see our own society reflected back in the dystopian fantasy world and during my page-turning journey I’d see the road signs that lead to such a horrific place.
Hunger Games entertained, and the concept was interesting, but it could have been so much more. Without being a spoiler, the book is about children taken from disadvantaged districts and sent to the opulent capitol to fight to the death. The “games” are televised for amusement. Unfortunately, the author never makes any connections back to our society. How did the games come to be? I would have loved it had the author taken the young reader to a place where they could examine their own culture.
Contemporary “Reality” TV shows such as Big Brother feature young adults emotionally tearing each other apart for the amusement of the viewers. The book made no such connections between contemporary culture and the dystopian culture. Wouldn’t it be great if young adults saw their own pop culture through a critical lens after reading the book? Perhaps they would end up wondering if we could go from Big Brother or Survivor type programming to Hunger Games. Would the readers become more critical consumers of popular culture if they did see a connection?
Had it been written in a way that would allow the young reader to see their own privilege in the global community and see the U.S. and Western Europe as the “Capitol” and laborers in the third world as being the tributes from the “Districts” I would have enjoyed it more. Sadly, the reflection of contemporary culture and hegemony was absent and an opportunity for the book to have social value was lost. The premise was good enough that it could have blown some young minds, but it blew the opportunity instead.
What if Animal Farm was merely about talking animals and the only message we got from it was that pigs are mean to horses. Fortunately Orwell wrote it in a way that we could see it was about totalitarianism and the corruption of power. We could easily make the connection between a fantasy barnyard and the Soviet Empire, or read in contemporary times you may end up seeing Washington corporatocracy. That's what makes Animal Farm a timeless classic!
What I love about the dystopian genre are the threads of social commentary that bind the story. From a dystopian thriller, I hope to gain some new insight into the human condition. I look for the road signs that lead us to some place we may not want to go. I love the cautionary tale component. In Hunger Games, those key ingredients were significantly diluted or absent altogether. Perhaps those connections are made in the other books in the series. I read the first book in the series and was entertained, but not motivated to read the others. I’m always on the look out for a book that entertains me, gets me turning pages, and make me think and reflect.
Hunger Games was a decent read and a best seller. I just wanted it to be so much more.