The final installment of The Hunger Games is expected to fill movie theater seats starting a few weeks from today. While I don’t explore every pop culture phenomenon – there are too many and more than a few of them are off-putting anyway – this one to date has been relatively painless. So, in order to give it a closer look, a few days ago I picked up the trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins on which the movies are based. More on that in a moment.
It is hard to miss just how many recent movies have been based on Young Adult (YA) fiction. There is good reason. Teens are a prime movie demographic and YA is the one part of the fiction market that remains strong; if teens buy a book they’ll probably see the movie adaptation. The rest of the book market is suffering. Per capita sales of adult-oriented books – fiction in particular – continue the decline that began half a century ago. According to a Huffington Post survey, 42% of adult Americans didn’t read a single novel last year. 28% read no books of any kind and another 25% read between 1 and 5 – including such stuff as diet books. Since people notoriously lie to pollsters to make themselves seem more praiseworthy (we know from liquor taxes collected that they understate their alcohol consumption by 50% for example) it is likely the real figures are more dismal yet. Sales of novels aimed at “young adults” (tweens and teenagers), however, are not only holding their own but rising. So are modern teens avid readers? Not exactly. They remain a healthy market, to be sure, but the increase in sales comes from older readers: 55% of YA book readers are not “young adults” but actual adults. So, have adults not only cut back on their reading but dumbed down their selections? Fortunately no, because YA novels are not what they used to be.
Up until the 1960s the category usually was called “Juvenile Fiction,” but that was when “juvenile” was a word that still had an edge to it. “Juvenile delinquent” in the 1950s evoked a scary image of a 17-y.o. mugger or gang member. By the mid-60s the term had softened enough to evoke a 10-y.o. toilet-papering a neighbor’s bushes. Teens, accordingly, disdained “juvenile” and the publishing industry obliged by adopting the more flattering “young adult” label. Whatever you call it, it has a long pedigree that includes the Nancy Drew mysteries of the 1930s and Robert Heinlein’s scifi novels of the 1950s. Even early on, a few examples were recognized as quality-lit, e.g. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and for that matter Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But these were the exceptions. In general novels in the category were widely regarded by adults as kids’ stuff, and few people past high school bothered with them. This changed in the 90s, and Harry Potter had a lot to do with it. Critics and adult readers took notice that some of the most imaginative and remarkable stories being published were YA. To be sure, much in the category, such as the Twilight series, remains unreadable for many past the age of 18, but the best material is very good indeed. Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Libba Bray’s satirical Beauty Queens, F. Paul Wilson’s Jack trilogy, among others, all have literary merit.
What distinguishes YA from adult fiction? YA, naturally enough, has teen heroes and heroines – college-age 20-somethings at a stretch. The vocabulary and grammar tend to be clear, straightforward, and simple; if there is a semicolon anywhere in The Hunger Games I missed it. (Kurt Vonnegut, who in his novels had an idiosyncratic but simple style, groused that the only reason to use a semicolon is “to show you’ve been to college,” so I imagine he would have approved.) There are plenty of hormones, but the sex is usually (in movie terms) PG-13. There are some examples of R though. The hero/heroine faces some challenge and typically there is some oppressive authority to be overcome with derring-do. Each individual novel tends to be short, though a full series can be lengthy. Most importantly, the novels deal with the peculiar mindset of teens who are in the last stages of forming their adult selves. We’ve all been there. If we have any memory at all we all can relate. Besides, beginnings and endings are usually more interesting than middles, and endings tend to be depressing, so tales set in that age range retain a special appeal.
There is more to the adult appeal than just a peculiar kind of nostalgia, however. Adults always have envied teens their youth while being alarmed by their behavior. All of us still have a surly rebellious teenager inside. A tale in which that rebellion prevails remains satisfying on some level, and also a bit unsettling.
I don’t suggest that YA should dominate the reading lists of adults. I wouldn’t recommend anyone give up Fielding, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Nabokov. Authors who write for adults in adult prose are the heart of literature. But not all our recreational reading need be as deep as all that. One shouldn’t be embarrassed to include YA in the mix.
As for The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins deserves her success with this series. It is well-crafted, never loses sight of its teen viewpoint, and is cynical without being hopeless. I won’t recap the plot, which the movies follow pretty closely, but the political message is anti-authoritarian, which is a natural parallel to teen rebellion against adults. Before catching the last installment of the movie series, I recommend reading the novels; they definitely will enhance the experience.
My Chemical Romance: Teenagers