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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hunger Games phenomenon and its roots in Greek mythology


 by Jamie Lutton.

I have been asked to remark on the Hunger Games phenomenon.

I'll talk about that, but I'd also like to address the mythological roots of the plot line for the book.

I have not read the book, or seen the movie, so I bring the sort of objectivity to the matter that our justice department seeks in jurors.

I own Twice Sold Tales, which is here on Capitol Hill, and have watched the interest in this title and it's sequels explode in the last few months.

I have been selling books since 1983, and have been fascinated when the desire for  a particular book goes viral, and a large part of the adult population is chasing after copies of it.

The first time I saw this was in 1983, when I worked in a bookstore as clerk in Bellingham, and The World According To Garp became incredibly popular. The movie of the book had just come out, and we had a steady stream of people trooping in to ask for it for several months.  They came in at the rate of at sometimes two people an hour.   We had people asking us to save it for them when it came in, and we ended up having to have a 'wait list' for this title.

Garp is an odd little book, pretty literary, and the popularity of the film drove people's interest in it. The film starred Robin Williams, so that people rushed out to buy a book with eccentric, complicated characters that otherwise might not attract interest. We had customers reading it who we knew usually read only science fiction, or romances, or westerns.   This title and others by this author still have a steady fan base, launched by the popularity of this one title.

Many more people go to a given movie than read a given book. So, when a book is turned into a movie, people who only read, say, 2 to 5 books a year will buy the book and see if the characters in the book are like what they saw on the movie screen. Some buy the book so that they can read it before they see the movie.  Some books go viral before the film comes out, like The Da Vinci Code, and the Harry Potter books, but it is usually movie adaptions that drive the frenzies of readers.

This creates a scarcity of used copies for me and other used booksellers. People give their used copies to friends rather than sell them, and many more people than usual are chasing after the few used copies available.  Sometimes, the book becomes the 'must read' of the season, and it seems as if everyone is looking for a copy. That is when a book has gone viral.

I have watched the last three months five or six people a day come in to Twice Sold Tales and ask for The Hunger Games, then march out when I did not have it (which was most of the time).  I finally put up a sign on my door saying "I DON'T HAVE THE HUNGER GAMES!! Go to Eliot Bay Books for it, it is only $8.99. Thank you.

When people want a book that has gone viral like this, they are not interested in any other title. It became sort of a joke, because I watched the intense look on their faces, as they wanted the book so badly, but did not want to pay retail
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Sometimes the publishers get wind of this, when the book is still in hardback. When the  The Da Vinci Code went viral - without the help of a movie, like the Harry Potter books did in the beginning - the publishers held back publishing a paperback version for a year, and old nasty beat up copies of The Da Vinci Code were selling for $10 in my shop. Everyone wanted a copy. Even my most cynical and intellectual brother called me up and wanted me to get a cheap copy for him.

No one ever wants to pay retail, if they can help it, for a book.

When The Silence of the Lambs came out as a movie, 15-plus years ago, I was a bookseller with my own store. The book became very popular, but after the movie had been out for a few years, some people refused to read the book because they "knew what happened." I protested with them about this, as Hannibal Lecter is even more interesting (or terrifying, take your pick) in the book. But  a good movie often satisfies most people's curiosity. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, many satisfied viewers felt no need to wade through a thousand page epic; they had their fill of ring-and-sword epic from three long films. This was a pity, because the book really was better than the film, in most parts. It had been voted best novel of the century by the people (not the critics).

A curious thing happened about 16 years ago. The Harry Potter books came out, and were embraced by adults as well as children. And this happened before any movies were made.  And it was the first time I recall that EVERYONE read series of books. Old, young, grumpy, everyone but me, it seems, read these books and clamored for the next one in the series.

My own mother, who was a children's librarian, bought copies for her five adult children.  I was the only one in the family who did not get the bug. I read part of the first book, and could tell who Rowling was stealing from, and lost interest.  It is no fun reading a novel when you can turn the pages, and see the theft clearly.

Selling books for years, and reading constantly,  has spoiled some of the pleasure in reading derivative fiction. 

The same thing happened with the book Twilight and it's many sequels, which is really a gushy girl teen romance series (with vampires). But when "everyone" is reading a book, the word of mouth makes even mediocre books popular. And the films helped push the viral nature of the book, amplified it.  These books heavily stole from Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, even to the point of using some of the same names for the characters. The author's innovation was in placing the movie in Forks, and using the endless rain as a gimmick for the vampire colony in the book.

I think The Hunger Games popularity is driven by an exciting and well made movie being made from it (according to the critics). The movie amplifies the text nicely.

But  the essential plot is nearly 3,000 years old. .

 It is the story of a very old feud between the Greeks and the people of Crete, 3,000 or more years ago, in an ancient Greek Myth. It was probably inspired by Crete's dominance of the Mediterranean about 3000 years ago, and the ancient custom of 'bull dancing' the people of Crete had, when acrobats, men and women, would vault over bulls horns, dancing over and around them. (this may be the origin of bull fighting).

Here is a brief version, I found online, of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

     
The son of Minos, Androgeus, went to Athens to participate to the Panathenaic Games, but he was killed during the games by  the Marathonian Bull. In other versions, he was killed by the Athenians after winning all the prizes.

Minos, the King of Crete, was infuriated and demanded Aegeus, the king of Athens, send seven men and women every year to the Minotaur as a living sacrifice.

The third year, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete, in order to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster. King Aegeus tried to make him change his mind but Theseus was determined to slay the Minotaur.

Theseus promised his father that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.

The Minotaur was kept in a huge, dark maze, which the young men were stuffed into as food and sport for him.

This seems to be the basis for the plot of The Hunger Games, in a future time, and with both girls and boys sent, instead of being fed to a half-man, half bull, they are sent to fight each other to the death.  But the there also is a Japanese science fiction novel from a few years back, that seems to be a source, where children had to fight to the death as a major plot element.

So, like the Harry Potter books, the author of The Hunger Games used several sources to put together a new version of the story, and has captured the public's imagination.

The zeitgeist, or spirit of our present time, is very pessimistic about the future.  The world of the  The Hunger Games, there is a fascist government where children fight to the death to amuse the elites,and to punish their parents for rebelling in the past against that government

These books capture our present-day distrust of the government, and our fears for the future and the fate of our nation.
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Children's books like The Hunger Games trilogy, the Harry Potter books, and the Twilight novels are popular because they are easy to red, they retell old myths and stories for a new generation, and use familiar archetypes, made new.

Many very popular books are really children's books. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Oz books, are all collected and read by adults. So this is not a new phenomenon.

I would like it if, after reading The Hunger Games, some people might want to read up on the Greek myths and see where this plot came from. Greek myth collections have many, many excellent stories in them, and there are several good collections available cheaply or in your local library.

I had the same thought when I looked into  the Harry Potter books. They are derived from a 19th century novel called Tom Brown's School Days, and The Sword in the Stone, (published in a different version as The Once and Future King) among other sources. These two source books are quite good, and the Wizard Merlin in the Sword in the Stone is as interesting as Gandalf and Dumbeldore, and and even more witty and melancholy a nature.  Also, the writing is better in The Sword in the Stone; it has stood the test of time for 60+ years now, never going out of print.

So, when you are looking for good children's books, or fantasy, or a Greek mythology, you might stop by. I have been selling books for 28 years now, and I think I know some of the good titles.  I will have to go and read The Hunger Games, and go to the movie, so I can experience this for myself. I will try to suspend my critical eye, and enjoy the spectacle.

1 comment:

  1. Come on, how can you judge the Hunger Games,while the end was rushed and terrible it was one of the few books that I read that I had little criticism about. And you can't be an avid reader and NOT have read Harry Potter. It is a timeless classic. I have to agree about Twilight though, I cannot believe people would like such a helpless heroine.Every story needs an inspiration. If you think you can come up with a story that has no roots anywhere else I would love to read it.

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