When I (Ben) was in seventh grade, I read what I was certain was the greatest short story ever written: “The Most Dangerous Game.” A man named Sanger Rainsford falls off a yacht and swims to an island which happens to be named ‘Ship-Trap Island.’ There he meets a refined philosopher-type named General Zaroff. General Zaroff, it turns out, loves to hunt. Humans.
This struck young me as possibly the most brilliant idea of all time. An island where humans hunt each other! I had not yet read Lord of the Flies or “The Lottery,” both of which offered similar, slightly more sophisticated shocks. (William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig, which I read in elementary school, was a sort of warm-up for “The Most Dangerous Game” but on a galactic scale.) Convinced there could never be a more promising literary premise, I preceded to write the same story — humans hunting one another — ten to twelve different ways for the remainder of my adolescent life. In one story it was a jungle. In another it was a giant terradome. One took place immediately after a nuclear winter. The time period jumped from modern day to the distant future back to the middle ages. Sometimes the humans were actually vampires, and frequently the climax took place in a castle in the middle of an apocalyptic thunderstorm. I envisioned them all bound in one volume as a sort of masterwork about human brutality and the survival instinct. I might get these published before I even go to college, I remember thinking.
My point is that there’s something grimly fascinating about any sudden death competition where the stakes really are life and death. (Even sudden death sporting scenarios — the NHL playoffs, soccer matches, the PGA tour — are life and death to many observers.) I suppose this goes back to gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome. Are we not entertained by life and death turned into a game of sport?
The book that I really wanted to write when I was thirteen years old is basically The Hunger Games. It takes place in the indefinite future when North America is now a nation called Panem split into twelve districts. Once a year the powers that be in the Capitol use a lottery system to pick a boy and a girl from each district to compete in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. There you have Shirley Jackson, The Running Man, Lord of the Flies, Gladiator and “The Most Dangerous Game” all rolled into one.
If it sounds especially violent, it is and it isn’t. When I heard the premise my first thought was, They won’t really all kill each other. The main characters will find some way to subvert the game so that some die but most survive. I believed that pretty much up until the Hunger Games actually begin and Katniss Everdeen, the unfortunately named heroine, tries to outrun a competitor for an orange backpack. (The games begin like dodgeball, with supplies, weapons and food in the middle of an arena for the taking.) Katniss and her rival reach the backpack at the same time and
grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed and confused by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.
So that clears that up.
The book — and here I should disclose that it is officially a YA (young adult) novel, giving a rough approximation of its boundaries, even as it pushes some of them — is the first in a trilogy, and by the end it reminded me most of Lois Lowry’s The Giver with a love triangle added. The games are central, but they’re only part of a larger dystopia run by a Big Brother-type fascist state. Even in winning the games (for there is little doubt she’ll win them, though how she does is the surprise), Katniss realizes there is a much bigger game at hand. Will she, like Jonas in The Giver, accept her role in a society that she sees beyond?
While I wish the actual games had been slightly more realistic — there are poisonous wasp-like creatures called Tracker Jackers and helpful gifts mysteriously parachute out of the sky at opportune moments, plus how this is being broadcast live when it takes place across a sprawling outdoor arena with lakes and forests while all of Panem watches is left to the reader to fill in — I’m rather certain my thirteen-year-old self would have had no complaints. Nor do I think the violence would have bothered young me, or that I wouldn’t have been able to understand the novel’s subversiveness. Why did I approach the book today underestimating it the way I never would have as a teenager? Maybe this is why I need to read more “kid’s” books.