Here’s your hot take for the week: We don’t understand The Hunger Games.
“But Maggie,” I hear you say, “How could we not understand The Hunger Games? It was the biggest teen movie franchise since Twilight! Don’t you remember reading about how well the movies performed commercially? Didn’t you give a presentation on the cultural impact of dystopian fiction on young adults?”
I did indeed give such a presentation, but that doesn’t debunk my claim right off the bat. There are plenty of readers and viewers of The Hunger Games who looked beyond the hype and saw the message of the story – we wouldn’t still be talking about it otherwise. But in general, our society has missed the point.
Let’s get one other thing out of the way: The Hunger Games is not my favorite book or film series, not by a long shot. If you asked me to name my top ten books of all time, I doubt it would make the list. That’s not to say it’s a bad book though! I think it’s an excellent read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to better understand young adult literature. Personally though, I’m more interested in how The Hunger Games is (or maybe was) a cultural phenomenon.
For those reading this who missed out on The Hunger Games or just did not care, here’s the premise: a futuristic and dystopian nation known as Panem holds an annual “Hunger Games” in which 24 “tributes” between the ages of 12-18 are selected to participate in a televised fight to the death. The heroine, Katniss, volunteers for the Games to take the place of her younger sister Prim. Fair warning, there will be plenty of spoilers as we keep going!
It’s autumn. Leaves are falling, the nights are getting longer, and there’s a chill in the air. It’s the perfect weather for a roaring bonfire. And you know what we do with bonfires?
We roast things.
Look, we’ve all been there. A close, trusted friend (or – gasp – a family member) recommends a book to us. They claim it’s the best use of ink since the first Bibles rolled off of Gutenberg’s printing press. And you trust them, so you decide to give it a try.
And you don’t like it.
Maybe you don’t hate it – maybe you’re just apathetic about it. And then when your friend/family member asks you what you thought, you’re caught in an awkward position. Do you risk your relationship by telling them the truth, or do you lie to spare their feelings?
I’ve read more than my fair share of what I would call “overrated” books. Not all of them are bad books – in fact, in many cases, I think they’re pretty decent works of literature. But the more I think about them, the less I like them. And mostly, I just think they need to be taken down a peg or two.
So gather around the campfire, readers. I’m about to roast some books.
If you handed me a young adult novel and gave me thirty seconds to look at it, I could probably tell you a bit about the cast of characters. There’s a pretty good chance the cast consists of a dark and mysterious guy, an insecure girl, and a vaguely attractive childhood friend.
Not all YA books would be like that, of course, but a majority of them do contain these basic character archetypes. They’re like pages in a coloring book – an outline for the writer to fill in with whatever colors or patterns they see fit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some of these archetypes have become tropes. In other words, all of the writers are coloring in the picture the exact same way.
These tropes make stories predictable, which gets boring for the audience. But are all tropes really that bad? Can any of them be salvaged? I’ve picked ten of the most common character tropes in YA fiction to try and answer which tropes are really worth saving (and how to save them), and which ones should be tossed aside.