The Long Walk – Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, 1979

The Hunger Games led me to re-read this early King novel with a very similar plot: adolescents (all boys of course, given the time period) compete to last longest in a death march, with the winner getting anything he asks for during the rest of his life. But at least here the kids aren’t trying to off each other – it’s the military who sets the rules and enforces them. Although the setup is given some cursory rationale (“the Major,” a shadowy figure who inspires awe and hatred, has taken over the government after riots wrecked the US), and there’s even a paragraph to address why on earth these kids would volunteer (poverty, propaganda, the risk of public shame), it’s got the classic horror feel of a situation created without much purpose beyond freaking out the reader.

In an essay on King, Algis Budrys criticized him for inaccuracies in most of his work (like the Ford Pinto in Cujo breaking down because of a weakness that engine didn’t have) and concluded: “He seems to have the feeling… that the reader demands circumstantial detail, and supplies the detail, but doesn’t bother to research the detail.”  Some of the specifics felt off in this too, like the way the highways ramps gather thick crowds of spectators.

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins, 2010

I read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire this year after having them recommended a number of times. (I might have been the one to order #1 for the library – as I believe I did Harry Potter way back when!) All 3 are very much of a piece, about equally good. Good, but not great. There’s a teeny bit of telling-not-showing, actually reminiscent of the slow bits in the Harry Potter books when Rowling needs part of the semester to pass. Katniss is a full-bore heroine in the Buffy mode (without the occasional whining), but considering the narration is first-person, there’s something curiously opaque about her. It’s true she’s not very self-aware, and that’s believable, but there’s sometimes a lack of affect in her descriptions, even when the words themselves are powerful.

I’m very glad I read these books, though. The most thought-provoking aspect to me was the omnipresence of TV cameras, which persists during the revolutionary uprising (and afterward, we’re led to believe). Both sides see the cameras and crews as indispensable, and in large part it’s Katniss’ stylist and his helpers, as well as her mentor’s care for her visual and emotional image, that enables her to succeed. Everyone in this dystopia takes the media interpretation of life as a given, on a par with reality itself.