The popular media item I was most wrong about was The Pirates of the Caribbean movie. When I heard that Disney was going to make a movie based on a ride at one of its theme parks, I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard. Even when I found out that Johnny Depp, whom I love love LOVE, was going to star, still, I was not a believer. But when I actually watched the movie, I thought it was GREAT for the kind of film it was. Fun, fantastic, swashbuckling action, and interesting, larger-than-life characters, most especially the one-of-a-kind Captain Jack Sparrow that Depp created. But it has some interesting meat as well--some valuable lessons amongst all the ghosts and pirates and young lovers and such. It was a perfect summer blockbuster film, and I admit I was completely wrong in my pre-judgements.
But my second most egregious error may be my previous dismissal of The Hunger Game series.
The premise of the book--that is, a bunch of teenagers who have to fight to the death for the amusement of the TV audience--sounded like yet another grim, post-apocalyptic YA novel filled with senseless violence (which to me, a perennially upbeat person my entire life, seems inexplicably popular to today’s teenagers). But I was wrong. Well, it is a grim, post-apocalyptic novel...now that I’ve read the whole series, I’m not convinced it should be classified for Young Adults, unless by that they mean college students. Most of all, however, it is violent--more violent as the books proceed--but the violence is not senseless at all. The violence teaches us a lot. It teaches us about war, and about power, and about coercion. It teaches us about human nature, and how really horrible people can be to one another...but also how wonderful and loving and heroic they can be as well.
Because as it turns out, the fighting between the teenagers is really just the appetizer. The entire series is more of a meditation on totalitarianism, a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, it incorporates more modern aspects to it, such as the rise of reality television and the latest devices for warfare.
The series also kind of made me think of Harry Potter for grown-ups. Only instead of magical Hogwarts castles where the four houses competed in Quidditch and the House Cup, here we have the dystopic nation of Panen, where the citizens of the 12 Districts that remain of the United States compete simply to survive. And Voldemort, mean dude that he is for children’s literature, really can’t compare with the political leaders in the Hunger Games, who wipe out entire villages, schools, hospitals, or even a whole District, seemingly without a qualm. Because in the Hunger Games, they aren’t just messing around, trying to get rid of an elderly wizard and “the boy who lived.” In the Hunger Games, they are in all-out war.
So the Hunger Games books get high marks for realistically depicting what happens in war. And I think it is a valuable thing for young people to read. Again, I wouldn’t advise it for middle schoolers; that is, I think they could read it, but I don’t think they would GET it. But teenagers, college students, young graduates whose lives have basically been untouched by the multiple “wars” we are in and have been over the past 10-20 years, but where all the pain and suffering and destruction occurs only in foreign countries and among our paid military--this is a great wake-up call to how awful war really is. And one of the greatest questions raised, which runs through all the books, is who your enemy really is. That is not always an easy question to answer in a war.
HOWEVER....there is another side to the books.
War, and political coercion, and when and how to fight back, are definitely major themes of the series. But there is another backbone to the stories, and that (just like Harry Potter) is love. Yes, there is the love triangle, a la Twilight, except about ONE THOUSAND times better, since the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, and they demonstrate their love through their actions, not sitting around moony-eyed whining about how they can’t live (or not live....well, you know what I mean) without the other, like the dippy lovers in the current soap opera that is Mary Worth..
OK, sorry about that. I just had to get that out of my system.
So there is a love triangle, but the choice is much more realistic (vampire versus werewolf...come on). Do I choose the one who loves me irrationally and unconditionally, even though I don’t think s/he really knows me? Or do I choose the one who knows all about me, particularly my dark side, to which s/he seems to draw me? Actually choosing a partner not just by how s/he makes you feel (ESPECIALLY when you are awash in adolescent hormones), but by the way s/he acts and by the kind of person you are when you are with that person--now THAT is a lesson about love. Again, I’m not sure even teenagers are ready to think that way, but I’m pretty sure middle schoolers aren’t.
And the wonderful thing of the book is that is not the only type of love explored. There is love for family and love for friends and love for team mates and love for colleagues that maybe even should be thought of as enemies. There is love for the earth and love for the animals. There is all kinds of love. And that, again, lifts this series above the many dystopic YA series there are out there.
So in this series, there is war, and there is love. And because it is war, and because it is NOT Harry Potter (as much as I loved that series), if you make it through the end of the series, characters that you love will die. Because that is the reality of war. And you will be shocked, and you will miss them, and you may even cry, but you will go on to finish the book, and continue to appreciate them even after they have disappeared from the text. Because that is the reality of love.
So if you are up to experience all that--I don’t know a better current YA series to read.
PS--If you want to see my responses to the first two books in the series, visit: