Thursday, May 24, 2012

My international Hunger Games experience: disturbed but very impressed

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
My experience of The Hunger Games begins in Waterbury, Connecticut, USA, the town where i grew up. My best friend there told me he had recently read and very much liked The Hunger Games. i was impressed because this friend had, in the past year, acquired a wife, a daughter, and bought his first home, a house that he was remodelling. With all that on his plate he had still found time to enjoy this book! He told me that it was a very quick read and that he thought i'd like it.

In the Tampa International Airport, on my way back from 3months in the States here to Rome, i saw The Hunger Games in the airport bookstore. i didn't know anything about it except my friend's recommendation, but i went for it.

Reading it on the plane, i was enthralled. The pacing, and the author's ability to convey amazing amounts of informational about complex situations and relationships in a small number of pages was dazzling.

i was confused for the first couple of chapters as it is written in the first person point of view, and there is a male character of some unclear status of romantic interest or buddy that is the one significant friend of the main character. It wasn't until the 3rd chapter i realized (humblingly) that i was confused because the main character, whose point of view we get, is female, and i hadn't been able to imagine that. That character, Katniss Everdeen, is definitely among the most powerful and well developed female characters i can think of.

Here's the basic premise:

In post-United States North America, there is a country called Panem. The capital is in or near the Rocky Mountains. 74years before the beginning of the story, the 13 districts that, with the capital, make up Panem, had all revolted against the capital but were defeated. The capital destroyed district 13 completely and exercised tight control over each of the other remaining 12 remaining districts. They were fenced in, the citizens not allowed to leave the perimeter of their own district, and had no contact with the other districts, were pushed to work and be productive to the needs of the capital while themselves being kept in a state of constant near-crushing poverty for the majority of the citizens. Most of the story takes place in District 12, which is where Appalachia is now.

In order to remind the districts of their defeat in the revolt, the capital holds an annual event called The Hunger Games, for which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen from each of the districts to go to the capital and be put in an enormous faux-wilderness arena in a highly televised competition of mortal combat, from which only 1 person is allowed to emerge alive. This victor then will be showered with wealth for themselves and their district as well.

During that flight from Tampa to Rome, i read about 2/3 of the 374page first book of the trilogy. The next morning in Rome i popped up ridiculously early at like 7am and couldn't sleep anymore. So i decided to go out to the grocery store. But it wouldn't be open yet, so i went to a little cafe across the street from the grocery store and figured i would read for the 45minutes or so until the grocery store opened. 3hours later, still there in that cafe, i finished the book.

i have never read a non fiction work so quickly. Just two sittings!!

i was amazed (if repulsed) by the action of the story, and entirely gripped by the romantic, emotional, and political relationships that developed among the characters! The effect of the setting and plot was deliciously subversive.

Catching Fire, 2nd book of The Hunger Games Trilogy,
by Suzanne Collins
A few weeks later i had a gig as a traveling tour guide around Italy with a group of high school kids from Texas, so i bought the 2nd book, Catching Fire, here in Rome to bring along and read in the evenings before bed. i did this for a couple of nights, but found that the story was giving me very uncomfortable nightmares of the personal insecurity, political intrigue, and physical hunter/prey feelings of the story in this second book. i found this to be the most interesting book in many ways (being careful not to give any real spoilers here..)

 In gigs like this, there are sometimes long, multi-hour bus rides. Wanting to get more of the story, but not wanting to ruin my sleep, i decided to try to read a little during one of these long bus transfers. This is the first time i have ever read like that while working, instead always finding some way to be productive, either by interacting with the clients, taking care of chores that needed to be done, or even simply planning or thinking about upcoming events and activities. That's how remarkably hooked i was to the storyline! But the experiment went badly - i read just one chapter and was so psychologically disturbed by it that it ruined my mood and made me feel uncomfortable. i was really feeling the events of the book along with the characters! So, i ended up stopping to read for the entire rest of the 10day tour.

i told the teacher of this group about my difficulty reading the book, though i really liked it. i was surprised to find that not only had she already read the whole trilogy, but that she had done so because all of her kids had done so and were talking about it. i find it a bit horrifying to learn that this book had been marketed to teenagers! The level of violence, of the first book especially, is beyond anything i'd ever seen. It really set a new standard for how violent we allow our pop culture to be - and it had all been aimed at still-developing minds. i think the violence works in the books because nearly all of the main characters basically hate the violence, and partake in it only grudgingly, as the lesser of 2 awfuls. But because it is easy to miss that subtle point, i found the amount and nature of the violence significantly disturbing.

After that tour, back home in Rome again, i read the rest of the book and was again impressed. The ending was unbelievable, really pretty well shocking and crazy, i sure never saw it coming!

Mockingjay, 3rd book of the The Hunger Games Trilogy,
by Suzanne Collins
The third book, Mockingjay, i bought in Milan for a train ride from there to Rome. It is really fascinating in its themes of right and wrong in rebellion, and how these shift with time. i read maybe the first third of this book pretty quickly, but then found myself putting the book down for days at a time. i realized i didn't want to finish it, i didn't want it to be over! In the end, the day before the movie was to be released here in Italy (3months or so after it had been running in the States), i finished it in hopes of immediately going to see the film.

i can't say too much here without giving things away, but what i can tell you is that the story turned out basically as i'd have hoped - which might tip off some of you that know me well, but maybe not too.

So i loved the whole story and was looking forward to seeing the movie. But then the opening day in Italy arrived and it turned out that no theater here was running the original English version of it! They were all playing the dubbed version. Italy has the (quite provincial) habit of watching mostly non-Italian films with an Italian-language voice over. i find this amazingly irritating - it is simply not the same work of art. And the voice actors are terrible. Italians often say the opposite - but really they just have three voices: silly, melodramatic, and very melodramatic.

There are occasionally original language version of foreigner films shown here, usually the big hits, but for reasons i have not figured out, The Hunger Games is not being shown here in English. It is all over the city in Italian, as American films here are usually a vast majority of the top selling films, but nobody here is hearing it in its original language.

Italian advertisement for Hunger Games, the movie.
But i really wanted to see what the film adaptation of this great trilogy. So i broke down and went to go see it dubbed into Italian.

i guess it's a bit trite to mention that the book was better, but i actually thought the movie was crap. It looked like Fellini had read the cliff notes of the book and then, while working through a mute translator and rolling on acid and speed, made a movie that was then repackaged, adjusted and Hollywoodized by a studio. The incredible density of story that Suzanne Collins managed to put into the books just does not come through well in Hollywood format. The devents follow the book pretty closely, with some exception, but character development, social commentary and even story development all fell victim to the director's editing.

Overall i found the story (speaking of the book now, as it remains to be seen if the film trilogy will develop into much), to be powerful, fascinating and even beautiful. Katniss Everdeen will go down as a classic character, but also Peeta, Dale, Haymitch, President Snow and other characters went through real, genuine development and/or transformation.

i completely do not think that The Hunger Games is appropriate reading pre-high school, and it even seems to me a difficult fit for high school students, as it would be easy to lose all of the powerful and beautiful aspects and simply relish the disturbing violence.

Perhaps most pungent reaction, is a fascination with the fact that it takes place post-United States and deals so intimately with rebellion of the people against the capital., especially because i saw the same themes (post-United States, problems of social inequality, etc.) in Justin Timberlake's recent movie In The Nick of Time. These portrayals of the post shit-hits-the-fan-scenarios that i found being discussed so widely in America this winter are intriguing even just in their existence, but also then in their pro-people bent and, more importantly, in their subversive, relativistic and love-of-life themes.


  1. This is very interesting because I felt opposite of you when it comes to this story, now, I haven't read the books yet, but I did watch the movie, and I felt like there wasn't nearly enough violence! I was expecting a blood bath like "Battle Royale", or something at least similar to BR. I liked it though, now I just need to read the books, but my book list is so long it will be a while before I get to them, and speaking of that, right now I am reading this book called "Pure" so far it's really good. It also takes place in a post apocalyptic America where the kids get taken away at 16, the rich live in domes, it's interesting.

    I also find it incredibly annoying about the lack of original language movies. Italian voice actors are terrible, and I also just hate wanting dubbed movies, I prefer subtitles over dub, and I am a little surprised that isn't more available in the theaters here.

  2. Yea, as with everything else, the quantity, ferocity, intimacy and sickness of the violence did not come through in the movie as it did in the book.

  3. I have to disagree with you as well, Ryan. We both know that the violence level is no greater than the movies that were popular when we went to high school. Jason, Freddy, Pinhead, were all regular discussions to be heard about through the "Wildcat's" hall. That is, when the jocks weren't boasting about who laid who. I find it wonderful that authors are beginning to key in to the fact that the old standards aren't appealing to the teenage mass exodus. As a parent, I would much rather have my child read this series and be entralled, rather than balking at reading all together.

    1. We do not both know that - those are not movies i've ever gotten into. And i think that is part of what makes the violence of the Hunger Games worse - it is a not a horror story. The characters in the Hunger Games are dealing with their every day lives, not some unusual horrific attack or character.

      Plus the *child on child* violence for the *purpose of public spectacle*, that we see in the Hunger Games, is more horrific than anything i've ever seen. Where would you find anything like that type of violence in other books or movies?

  4. Indeed! The move came off as a little flat to me. Tristan is reading the books right now, i'll pick them up when he is done I guess. :) And to answer your question above about where you would find that type of violence, Battle Royale. It's an excellent story, better than the Hunger Games. But, the violence and brutality of it is through the roof! You may want to avoid it, but I am really into it, you can check out the wiki for it and decide for yourself. :)

  5. Where in Rome did you buy the English versions of the books? Thanks!

    1. i'm pretty sure that every book store in Rome is carrying them, even the Italian ones. So, for example, i'd try the Anglo-American Book store on via della vite, the Lion's Bookshop which was on via dei Greci but may have moved, The Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere..near a corner, or Fetrinelli on Largo Argentina.


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