_ The snow is trickling back into the bottomless volcanic soils of the Palouse, and I’m anticipating a return to the studio this weekend. Mixed emotions, to say the least- that was some wonderful, glide-worthy power for a couple of days.

Since I’m bereft of my clay time, I’m going to indulge in some remarks about ‘The Hunger Games’ series, by Suzanne Collins.
_ The three books (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) are teetering on the edge of becoming a cultural juggernaut on the level of Harry Potter, or 

(here I swallow a half liter of liquid Dramamine)


 They certainly passed the ‘white-knuckle’ test with my 12-year old stepson. There’s a major film adaptation lurking in the wings, starring the splendid Jennifer Lawrence (please see ‘Winter’s Bone’ as soon as possible if you haven’t already).

_ I totally get the hype (more on that in a minute) and I confess that I devoured the series, often fighting my family members over an increasingly dog-eared copy of each book.

But… I was left with a pretty sour taste in my mouth.

There’s actually a lot to like in the trilogy. Katniss (the protagonist) is a courageous, complex heroine in a desperate setting. It’s a wildly imaginative, dystopian world with revolutionary undertones. The characters are richly drawn, often flawed, dynamic and prickly. There’s some devilishly nasty social commentary as well.

(I’m about to move into spoiler territory here- Caveat Lector)

_ Here’s the thing….  I simply can’t get past the level of cruelty in the book. In my opinion, it crosses the line into sadism.

Let me throw out a few qualifiers here.

First, I have no interest in censoring literature- including children’s literature. Leave that to The State of Arizona.

 Second- I don’t object to violence, despair, sexuality, or other mature themes in books written for children. Kids are savvier than we often realize… and literature provides context, even catharsis.  Many of the best in the genre- from C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman, treat with despair, mortality, and cruelty in their writing… but there’s a moral center- a sense of providence.

_ So when Suzanne Collins starts destroying some of her gentler characters, or torments her protagonists, I have to ask why?

Make no mistake- these books are being marketed at thirteen year-olds and younger (although I’ve seen them in weekly readers aimed at a younger demographic)… but in many ways, they’re thematically more aligned with George R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series or Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’… both noteworthy for ruthless fate, virtue dragged through the gutter, and an cosmology that’s cold, almost bloodthirsty.

Mind you- I like both ‘Thrones’ and ‘Tower’. I even know a couple of pre-teens who have read ‘Thrones’, although I’d personally want to have a few pow-wows with our 12-year old as he digested that one.

_ ‘The Hunger Games’ is captivating in part because the events and character arcs are so brutal. The book evokes ‘Lord of the Flies’ on some levels. Innocent children slaughter each other with spears. The protagonist is forced to pantomime suicide, to ape a sexual relationship with another adolescent. I’m not sure if we should ever be ‘easy’ with presenting children with themes like these. I know that it’s a bleak, shrill world out there… but there’s a certain creeping normalcy in effect when we stop filtering how it reaches our kids.

The ‘Hunger Games’ series ends with ‘Mockingjay’, and that’s where it lost me. The climax involves the horrorific death of one tangential but beloved character, and the utter moral degradation of another. Katniss- indeed the entire network of humanity that anchors her- fades out in an unsatisfying, gray-shaded dénouement that fails to justify or redeem the ugliness that preceded it.

_ So- am I off base here? I’d like to field a challenge or two on this one… because I know a lot of good people who love these books.

One thing I know for sure, though- just because a book is addictive to kids (or anyone) doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I don’t know how many people remember ‘Flowers in the Attic’ a truly sickening goulash of incest, debasement and cruelty that was all the rage when I was a kid.  (Link to a slightly less negative review of Flowers). ‘Twilight’ isn’t quite in that ugly league, but in many ways, it’s more pernicious, with its passive, acquiescent ‘heroine’ (every copy of ‘Twilight’ ought to come with a complimentary burkah).

Note- I’m not implying that ‘Games’ is in the same rarified league of shame as ‘Flowers’ or ‘Twilight’. Collins has infinitely better chops as a writer… but more importantly, I truly feel that her intentions were honorable.

_ In the end, I suspect that Collins really wanted to write an adult novel, somewhere in the weird but fertile no-man’s land between horror, sci-fi, and dystopian realism, one that serves as a cautionary parable. The fact that she succeeds on so many levels makes me all the more frustrated that she targeted her work at the wrong audience.

Anyhow, let me know what you think.

_ P.S. Can we at least all agree that a marketing machine that spins off Hunger Games themed Nail Polish is a little depraved? I mean… did they even read the book?