I suppose it says something about contemporary American culture that some of the most popular works of fiction among adults in recent years are book written for children and young adults. First there was Harry Potter. Then there was Katniss Everdeen. Between the two I would guess they’ve outsold all the serious adult fiction that was published over the same period. It would be a lot easier to find an adult who has read The Hunger Games than one who has even heard of, let alone read A Visit From the Goon Squad. With the motion picture version of the first of the books in the Suzanne Collins’ trilogy ready to fill the gap left by the retirement of the Harry Potter franchise sometime in March, The Hunger Games is about to find an even broader audience. After all there are always those who wait for the movie.
The time then, it would seem, would be ripe to take another look at this particular manifestation of the phenomenon — a look perhaps a bit askew. And who better to take that look than the authors who have previously done the job for Harry Potter, the staff of the The Harvard Lampoon? It may be that parody is not the sincerest form of flattery, but it surely is the sincerest recognition of popularity. Why bother writing a parody of something nobody is familiar with? Parody only works when readers know what is being parodied. Harvard Lampooners know a target when they see it: thus The Hunger Pains.
Like The Hunger Games, The Hunger Pains is the story of a teenage girl, Kantkiss Neverclean, who replaces her younger sister as one of her district’s combatants in an annual duel to the death between youngsters from all regions of a dystopian future world ironically called Peaceland. Unlike Katniss, who is both smart and resourceful, Kantkiss is both silly and clueless. She stumbles from one absurdity to another, in an environment where the absurd is the norm, and she stumbles her way to victory, all the time playing up to the cameras that are, in typical reality show fashion, following the contestants around.
Most of the cast of The Hunger Games is here to be ridiculed as well. Peeta Mellark, the son of the local baker and her partner in the games, becomes Pita Malarkey, a tubby dependent glutton. Haymitch Abernathy, the last winner of the Games from her district and her mentor, becomes Buttitch Totalapathy, a compulsive gambler. Effie Trinket, her liaison with the games organization becomes Effu Poorpeople. There’s no point giving away all the jokes. You get the idea, and if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like The Hunger Pains. It is filled with puns, one liners and non sequiturs.
Unquestionably there is a lot of funny material in this book, but parody works best in small doses. At 157 pages, it loses some of its zest. Still, fans of The Hunger Games, with a sense of humor, will probably gulp the whole thing down in a couple of hours, just as they romped from cliff hanging chapter to cliff hanging chapter in the original. One thing for sure, The Harvard Lampoon has captured and skewered all of the tics that have endeared Suzanne Collins’ trilogy to adults young and not so young. So let the games begin, or as the Notalks might say: “Ah se, leh ah Gaes bega!”