Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When There's a Hunger Games Barbie Doll...

The sales pitch is literally "Feel well-rested and prepared for The Hunger Games with this Katniss pillowcase."
Yes, because teenagers regularly participate in BATTLE ROYALES!!!
The other day I got an email forwarded from my mom. It was one of those Barnes & Noble membership emails, and this one was about—what else?—The Hunger Games and all the various things you could buy (instead of, like, books). My mom’s note at the top was “I enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy but mugs?!?” Preach it, Mom.

This is sort of how I’ve been feeling for a while. Every time I see Hunger Games nail polish, Hunger Games T-shirts, Hunger Games flip flops, I think “I enjoyed The Hunger Games but…”

Commercialization of books is always something that’s rubbed me a bit wrong. Maybe it’s snobby (yeah, it’s definitely snobby), but I don’t like the idea of taking a book and turning it into a catchy phrase to be slapped on a bumper sticker or printed on a T-shirt (limited edition!!!). It’s such a ridiculous dumbing down of a book, and when the idea is as complex and, frankly, grim as Hunger Games, it makes me feel downright uncomfortable.

It’s one thing when books like Harry Potter jump onto the solid-gold merchandize bandwagon, and, as a writer, I earnestly hope all Suzanne Collins is getting buckets of cash for all this stuff, which will allow her the freedom and comfort to write many, many more excellent novels.

But Hunger Games has always been anti-excess, anti-consumption. The wealthy trend followers of the Capital are held up as objects of ridicule at best, morally-repugnant airheads at worst. The main characters lead desperate lives of poverty, starvation, and daily humiliation. It’s impossible to separate the message of the book from the stacks of merchandise that now bear its name and slogans. Even the name itself—the Hunger Games—describes a bitter fight to the death among 24 children shown on television for the benefit of the wealthy elite. So wrap up in your cozy “LOVE HUNGER GAMES” sweatshirt!!!

I get it. Big-hit books are important for the publishing industry. Dumb merchandise helps pay for quiet, literary books to be published. Fans should be able to show their love. Hunger Games craziness has led to a huge jump in its book sales, which means more readers interested in YA, which means more demand, period. This is all great. I just wish, in the middle of all this merchandise nonsense, that there was even a small acknowledgment of the tricky territory of marketing a book that, instead of featuring flying wizards or sparkly vamps, portrays graphic murders of innocent kids and the brutal realities of war and revolution.

Maybe (commence sanctimonious climb onto pedestal) the Hunger Games mania even could be used for good. Collins wrote that she got the idea when flipping between images of reality TV and reports on the Iraq War. She also has said she wanted to write about the loss and horror of war, especially in regards to young people. And, seriously, kudos on that. So why not use the Hunger Games as an opportunity to help young refugees? Or local food banks?* Or as a way to spotlight the injustice going on in the world right now? (okay, jumping off pedestal now)

I’m totally going to see the Hunger Games movie, and I’m excited that a book I enjoyed is getting so much attention and affection. But (you knew there was a “but” coming…), every time another piece of sparkly, useless, over-the-top merchandise goes out into the world, I can’t help but think: Damn, the Capital won.

*Pleased to discover that, as of last week, the movie is teaming up with the World Food Programme and Feeding America to solicit donations and raise awareness about world hunger. You can learn more here.

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