Don’t tell Joel Stein I like The Hunger Games

I was taken aback when I read Joel Stein’s essay in The New York Times, “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” He writes that the only thing more embarrassing than seeing an adult looking at pornography on his computer is catching him reading The Hunger Games.

How dare a grown-up read a “children’s book” in public! The least he can do is read it in the privacy of his own home!

Not that Stein has actually read The Hunger Games, mind you. This Stanford-educated guy doesn’t read “children’s books,” and he’s making no exception in this case, at least not until he’s read his way through the 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Let’s hope that will keep him so busy he won’t have time to write more inane essays.

It’s not clear to me if Stein actually believes what he’s written or if he’s trying to be provocative. It’s also not clear to me why an essay of this sort deserves to be in The New York Times unless, like many newspapers, they’re desperate for readers and looking to generate plenty of buzz.

I see nothing insightful about Stein’s comments, no fine sensibility or subtlety of thought, though Stein expects as much from adult literature. “Children’s books,” just aren’t up to the challenge of satisfying discriminating grown-up readers. (Stein appears to be unaware of the genre of Young Adult literature, or perhaps discounts it as bogus.)

Stein’s viewpoint (if it is genuine) surprises me because it demands that literature adhere to strictly defined boundaries when, in fact, its boundaries are shifting dramatically in terms of physical form, delivery, and content. That is something to be celebrated.

Hundreds of readers did, indeed, respond to Stein’s viewpoint, most of them defending the value of children’s and YA literature for everyone, young and old.  The other essays in “The Power of Young Adult Fiction,” written by a teen blogger, a librarian, a book reviewer, and three authors, are worth reading.

It seems as though extreme or obnoxious or edgy, in the manner of Stein’s essay, is now the way to rise above the crowd and be heard. Which brings me to the movie, The Hunger Games.

As violent and dramatic as the plot is, I found the style and tone of the movie to be understated. That, in my view, made it all the more powerful. One critic found Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) to be detached, but I felt that, without carrying on or becoming hysterical, Lawrence radiated terror, courage, and determination. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) delivered equally strong performances without going over the top.

The blood and gore were mostly offstage, which disappointed some, but I thought it kept the focus on the psychological terror (and made the movie palatable for younger audiences).

John Garder said that in great fiction the writer creates the illusion of a dream world. The reader enters that dream, but with just one false or inauthentic moment the dream vanishes and the connection to the reader is lost. I easily entered The Hunger Games dream and didn’t leave until (reluctantly) the closing credits.

Joel Stein doesn’t know what he’s missing.