The Hunger Games trilogy bears about the same relationship to its publisher, Scholastic, as Downton Abbey does to PBS. (Full disclosure: I mainlined the whole dystopic kit n’ caboodle in under two weeks, and I read as fast as a centenarian drives.) It’s plotted like a first-person shooter, but it’s got its safety on: Even the most tsk-trolling P.T.A. will accept a story about kids killing kids if the kids’ martyrdom keeps publishing houses from croaking. In Suzanne Collins’s glass-half-empty vision, the United States’s successor is an empire called Panem. The ruling class of its Capitol maintains its sybaritic lifestyle by subjugating a dozen districts, and forcing two randomly selected adolescent “tributes” from each to compete in their yearly Hunger Games—literal must-see TV in this fascist mediaocracy. From this gladiatorial smackdown only one victor can emerge, and it’s usually one of the city-slicker jocks who’s been reared ’roided up and raring for combat. I’m not sure whether we’re meant to see the logic as shaky, but the theory is that the oppressed will hold onto the shred of hope that maybe, this year, one of their conscripts will win—and that’s enough to keep a lid on insurrection. But one glance at the faces of District 12’s proles—who make the oiks in Metropolis look like One Direction—and you know they ain’t buyin’ it.
However, one doesn’t make one’s way to grammar-school reading lists through fisticuffs alone. The Games are a nightmare lampoon of celebrity culture, media culture, sport culture, government overreach, and technocracy, executed smoothly enough to offend everyone except each individual reader—who’s given a place of privilege beyond the bounds of his or her society. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Collins pulls a Fountainhead, but the same manipulative technique—which, to be fair, is a hard one to avoid—is afoot. She’s saying to impressionable young readers, via an extremely accessible mass medium, that they’re a step ahead of mass culture. (Not that she doesn’t slip this in through the back door, and do so compellingly. Tributes get fêtes, feasts, and paraded around like show dogs, primped and permed and branded like race cars that the investors intend to see crash. This is all packaged and broadcast; the better your story is framed, the better your chances of getting goodies in the ring. In short, it’s survival of the most telegenic. Tributes—by having their lives put wantonly at stake—get exactly what everyone my age and younger is reported to desire more than anything else: sudden super-stardom.) This may not be what she set out to do, but it’s problematic in an era when the media is increasingly participatory. As Landon Palmer elegantly puts it, “We are all simultaneously consumers and critics of mass culture.” Ergo: All us talking heads, yakking away about this on blogs and in bars, are implicated. But Collins doesn’t take the crucial step back that Orwell and Huxley did to explain the psychology of the suckered. We’re meant to identify with the hayseed heroine, Katniss, but aren’t we more like the club kids of the Capitol, gussied up like ghosts of beheaded French courtesans, indulgent in their decadent “media-savvy”—which an outsider turns against them?
The slippery-slope critique is both ingenious and inevitable; but there’s a relentlessness to Collins’s violence, both in its description and escalation—and in how each point that’s raised is promptly buried by a counterpoint—that roils beneath the plot, and even the ideas. Not to prolong any comparisons to Ayn Rand, but there’s a borderline sadomasochistic tug to the way things get bleaker and bleaker, as if the author were storing up her literary mojo for the Grand Guignol; and in these inspired passages, she’s both exact and bloodcurdling, like pictures from a war zone. (She didn’t spare much energy for her sense of humor. The only evidence that she has one is in that the baker’s son’s name sounds like “pita.”) I don’t think she gets off on it; I do think she beat herself up with it. But she gloms onto the present-day obsession with design—most notably in the person of Katniss’s appointed stylist Cinna, who crafts an opening-ceremonies costume for the unkempt heroine that goes on to spark revolutionary fervor—without delving deeply into the aesthetics with which the game-makers would justify their sadism. As narrator, Katniss evokes Mattie Ross; we see the gap between us and her and her and her feelings. The burden of introspection is shouldered by Peeta, the male lead, so the reader experiences love as a tragicomic inconvenience. Collins has it both ways with him, too: He’s the exemplar of honor and sensitivity, and he’s also the most skillful manipulator. The series stresses the importance of gaming the system, and the value of perception over reality; but by the third book, it’s contemptuous of that reality—a Y-A poem of force about futility and resignation.