Saturday, September 29, 2012

The BFG and The Hunger Games, Locke and Hobbes

In the last few weeks I've read several books, all of which I intend to review.

But I keep circling around these two children's books: The BFG (by Roald Dahl) and The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins).

A strange combination, I suppose. I didn't intend to read them in succession, and I'd never read them before. I didn't know a thing about BFG until my wife brought it along as an audio book for one of our road trips. On the other hand, I'd heard all about The Hunger Games. Expectations are funny things. Friends of mine, people who know me but must not really know what I read (and why), kept recommending Hunger Games. And I kept resisting. I know myself.

I enjoyed Harry Potter, but I didn't read it until all the books had been published, and I came very close to not finishing the series. I blew through the first 3 books and promised myself that if the fourth book didn't pick up considerably, I was finished. Thankfully, the fourth book improved in the complexity of its plot, the depth of its characters, and its tenor. But Harry Potter was an exception to this simple rule: Young Adult books are too simple.

And Hunger Games was. Of course, I see (or think I see) all the injustices the author wants us to see: the brutality of wealth, the disenfranchisement of the oppressed, the divisions within the oppressed that prevent an overthrow of the system.

BFG traffics in many of the same themes: we meet monsters who force us to admit that our "civilization" is barbaric in its own ways, we see how hard it really is for someone who perceives him or herself as weak to stand up to thuggery.

Both protagonists are young girls snatched from their homes and put in a hostile environment. Food is central to both books (the hunger games tournament revolves around the threat of starvation, while the giants of BFG show their evilness by guzzling humans). 

But where the prose of Hunger Games felt static and lifeless (in fairness, largely because the bulk of the book was exposition by a character who is profoundly isolated from the people around her; it would be interesting to see how similar internal books fared in movie adaptations), BFG was brimming with dialogue. The voice of the giant who is the focus of BFG is unique, in the same fractured syntactical way that so many of Lewis Carrol's characters are.

In the denouement of both Hunger Games and BFG, our protagonists realize how their previous view of the world was too simple, that the real world is more complex than they had considered. But where Katniss raises her guard and begins to see enemies everywhere, Sophie finds friends. Maybe its wishfulness, the mix of nostalgia and childishness, that makes me prefer Sophie's ending.

The people of Sophie's world are, ultimately, good people. They are competent and capable. Though they need help to see past differences, with a little guidance from a young girl, they can. Katniss' world is darker, more filled with people willing to sacrifice each other. Thinking about the political science distinction between Locke and Hobbes, whether we are social creatures who come into conflict only when we delude ourselves into thinking that force is justified by the scarcity of resources, or whether we are individualists only bound together by the strictures of society.

I've always come down in favor of Locke- just as I prefer Dahl to Collins.

Books 35 and 36 of my book-a-week challenge.

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