Attendance at early showings of the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, suggests that it will be a blockbuster. People at Marysville’s Regal Cinema correctly anticipated that it was likely to play to a full house on the first night of its run and the enthusiasm continues. Its content seems to have touched a nerve.
There’s a lot of good fiction like Hunger Games being written. Probably more than ever before. Fast keyboards or use of Dragon software that changes speech into written text make writing flow at a pace never before achieved. It seems that speed of writing helps create intensity, something that infused both Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Critics are united in rating Collins’ second book, Catching Fire, as better than her first and the third, Mockingjay, as even better.
Aside from good writing, is there another reason that the reading public has gone nuts over Collins’ books? The explanation can be found by understanding plot themes as metaphor. Super-rich people of the capitol are distanced from common citizens by wealth. A ruling elite sends young people into the games to kill and be killed. Society is structured to keep all but a favored few in serfdom. Does any of that ring a bell?
The movie, Catching Fire, has critics applauding its dramatic appeal and technical polish. Of course audiences have to be willing to accept the impossible becoming possible, as when the heroine, Katniss, lofts a whole spool of high-amperage electrical cable into the sky with nothing more than a bow and arrow.
Critics have complained that Collins writes of a life that is nasty, brutish and short. The roughness of content led one critic to say that whoever slapped her series with a Young Adult rating should be fired. But if that critic had checked, she would have found that Young Adult is a literary category, not a movie rating and that it serves only to describe the target audience for certain writers’ projects.
But they have a point. Catching Fire is too disturbingly dark and menacing for the faint of heart — but with reason. Collins is big on hyperbole. The government’s mouthpieces and agents are portrayed as snarky take-offs on the likes of Lady Gaga and Willy Wonka on drugs. In fact, the entire population of the capitol is presented as grotesque caricatures. No subtlety here. The contrast between entrenched wealth and poverty is exaggerated almost as much as when brute power is set against powerlessness.
Readers who don’t accept certain plot elements as trends of our times can’t help but resonate a little bit to the similarities. It’s what writers call The Hook, the provocative content that gets under our skins. It’s what separates good fiction from cheap made-up stuff. Collins must have read David Hare’s first rule for writing fiction which is, “Write only when you have something to say.”
What Collins points out is that society is becoming “dystopian,” in other words, a society in which imperfect relationships go from bad to worse. The opposite of Utopian. Any Sno-Isle librarian can dish up long lists of Dystopian literature from ages when sections or levels of societies undercut the rights or welfare of others. When lumped together, dystopian literature serves as prophetic warnings that things had better change or they’ll get worse.
Upsurges in dystopian fiction should be taken as alarms going off. Though our day-to-day affairs might seem to be dancing along quite nicely, our society might be harboring terminal diseases that haven’t yet been taken seriously. Take your pick. The world’s full of them; deforestation, overfishing, air pollution, overflowing prisons, a dysfunctional congress, Wall Street greed, drugs.
Author Gary Shteyngart writes dystopian novels about these things. In Super Sad True Love Story he exposed how Media and Retail could come to dominate society even more than they have. Like an Old Testament prophet he gushed on, imagining that the United States was involved in a war in Venezuela, a national debt so high that China was threatening to pull the plug, National Guard checkpoints on thoroughfares, riots in public parks and young peoples’ disregard for books as papery-smelling anachronisms that can’t be text-scanned for data. And privacy was a thing of the past.
Because good dystopian fiction offers necessary and timeless messages, it often gets elevated to stand among classics, works that appeal to grandparents and grandchildren alike. Familiar dystopian writers who have figured heavily in high-school literature are George Orwell, Franz Kafka Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, Ayn Rand, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula LeGuin. It would take this entire newspaper to complete the list.
After reading or watching Hunger Games, Catching Fire or Mockingjay, think beyond their entertainment value to ask what the author was saying. If you find a message embedded there, it will likely stand the test of time.
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