hunger games book coverEscapism comes in many forms, but reading fantasy stories has always been at the top of my list. I love to suspend my disbelief as new worlds emerge through literature, and hold in high regard those authors who so flawlessly create imaginary worlds that we can still relate to. Think of the far-fetched lives of Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins, yet how these protagonists were able to elicit such sympathy from readers and movie goers alike. And you can’t mention fantasy or teen lit without thinking of J.K. Rowling’s hit series Harry Potter, whose final book appeared on movie screens this November.

New to the growing list of fantasy series is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I’ll admit it – I’m hooked. A small part of me feels I should be embarrassed because it’s teen lit, but I’m not. I realized long ago that no matter what the genre, a well-written story that brings to light the complexities of the human condition will hold its own. Besides, after seeing so many adults at the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows premiere weekend, I know I’m not alone.

Similar to its predecessors, The Hunger Games series tells a dark tale about the battle of good versus evil. However, what makes this series more bleak and disturbing is the setting. Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings take place in worlds unknown to us, while Harry Potter, though partly set in the United Kingdom, is kept separate from our culture by the magical and somewhat impossible lives of wizards.

Meanwhile, The Hunger Games is set in a future North America, where extreme climate change has destroyed our society (an idea that is derivative of current concerns), and a new one has emerged: Panem. It consists of the Capitol and 12 Districts, each with its own industry. People in many of the districts live in complete poverty and food is scarce; families must make great sacrifices to survive. It is an all too real depiction of the conditions in third-world countries today.

There once was a District 13, but it was annihilated to set an example after the uprisings of the Dark Days, when people revolted against the totalitarian ways of the Capitol. Every year, the districts must put forward two tributes, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 to 18 to participate in The Hunger Games, as a reminder of the Dark Days and of the ultimate power of the Capitol. These games only have one victor, who must survive the dangerous elements concocted by the Capitol, in addition to killing off the other twenty-three tributes.

Does this gruesome scenario sound like your average teen novel? The theme is one we’ve seen before: totalitarian dictatorship in a post-apocalyptic world; it strikes me as an updated, if watered-down version of 1984, but with much more violence. The entire premise is disturbing, and although this has been visited in other teen lit such as Ender’s Game, Collins’ series achieves a more all-encompassing loss of innocence, as the protagonist Katniss and her loved ones not only fight for their individual lives, but become responsible for the fate of the entire country.

Perhaps these novels are just indicative of the generation gap emerging between Generation Y and Z. On the one hand, this novel seems overly violent, but is it much different than the video games teenagers play, such as Assassin’s Creed, Halo and Borderlands? Mike Tyson’s Punch Out for original Nintendo seems like a Disney movie by comparison. On the other hand, our teenagers appear to have a new social awareness, with the success of such charities as Free the Children. This awareness leads to a more tragic understanding of the world, but never without the hope for a better future. And it is life’s tragedies that Collins’ series explores; despite the overwhelming gloom and futility that is present throughout, she never fails to incite hope when the reader really craves it.

It’s heavy stuff, but it’s very good. I’m drawn to it for several reasons. First, the prose is concisely written and the plot moves quickly with action, drama and surprise twists. In addition, Collins’ weaves strong symbolism throughout the text that is meaningful and contributes to character development well. Her characters make mistakes and must deal with the complexities of identity, relationships, love and loss, just as we all do, and I believe this is what makes her novels appealing to even adult audiences.

In the end, despite my initial misgivings, I view this series as a well-constructed allegory that reflects a more realistic portrayal of our world. Because don’t we, indeed, live in a world where violence and torture exists, and tyrannical rule leads to poverty and suffering? Isn’t there often an extreme gap between the rich and the poor? Don’t we urge our youth to take a stand? Isn’t much of our hope dependent on future generations?

The Hunger Games series highlights all of these questions and more, and reminds the reader to never take anything for granted. Collins weaves a compelling tale, and even though it’s categorized as teen lit, don’t be embarrassed to pick up a copy, grab a cup of coffee, and settle in for an afternoon of pure, unadulterated escape.

(Author’s note: this article was written after reading Books One and Two of the series. The third book leaves a little to be desired, and there are places where the violence seems overly gratuitous. I would still highly recommend the first two books, however, and if you’re like me, you’ll just read the third because you want to see how it ends. It does have a decent twist ending, but there are parts of it that are not as well calculated and composed as the other books.)