Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teen love triangles: seen one, seen ’em all—or not?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Midlist writers like me and many of my friends tend to have a love-hate relationship with wildly successful authors. The ignoble feeling that creeps in when they get rich and famous and we don’t is envy, which I believe is an amalgam of self-pity and resentment. Do they deserve it? Are they such good writers? Why not us? Sad to relate, some of those with the most extreme opinions have not in fact read the books that arouse this hostility.

Let’s talk about Young Adult novels, which are going great guns these days. The Harry Potter series led to an outpouring of fantasy, the Twilight books to a craze for vampires, and the Hunger Games trilogy to a robust subgenre of dystopian speculative fiction.

Full disclosure here: I’ve read J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Potter series more than once and seen all the movies. I’ve read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and both sequels and seen the movie. I confess the high school angst of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight irritated me enough to skip the sequels, though I’ve seen all of the movies so far in the privacy of my bedroom, thanks to Movies on Demand. I want to talk about love triangles, so we’ll skip Harry Potter. These are middle grade books, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron a trio of friends. In fact, I give Harry and Hermione (or Rowling) credit for not spoiling their friendship with an adolescent romance.

But Meyer’s and Collins’s work is about and aimed at teens, and I think there’s an enormous difference between them. It’s the difference between shallow characterization and characterization of depth and complexity. It’s the difference between two-dimensional relationships and relationships with nuance and ambiguity, like those in real life. In short, it’s the difference between bad writing and good, and I think it’s why I bet a lot more adults read all three of the Hunger Games books than the whole Twilight saga.

Can anyone out there tell me what Bella Swan is like? I can’t. She’s a generic high school girl. In the beginning, she’s interested in prototypical high school things. But then she hooks up with this vampire. Why? Because he’s cute. There’s this other guy, the werewolf, who’s also cute, especially in the movie, where he runs around without a shirt. She loves him as a friend, but she loves the vampire more. Why? Well, she fell for him first. What’s he like? Hard to say—but he must be nice, because unlike other vampires, he doesn’t eat people. Why do they both fall for her so hard? It baffles me. They must think she’s cute too. If the two guys weren’t a vampire and a werewolf, this trio would be dead boring.

It’s quite otherwise with Katniss in The Hunger Games and her two swains, Gale and Peeta. The movie did pretty well with the book, but it missed a lot of the richness and subtlety of the relationships, motivations, and ideas in the novels. First of all, Katniss is a very interesting young woman. She’s resourceful, protective, loving, brave, and willing to question the conditions of the society she’s grown up in. At the beginning, Gale is not her boyfriend, but a true friend, someone she can be honest with, someone she knows has her back. It hasn’t occurred to her, or perhaps is just beginning to occur to her, that she could feel deeper emotions for him—age appropriate for a sixteen-year-old who is struggling to survive.

The relationship with Peeta, who is catapulted into her life by being chosen with her for the Games, is complicated too. They have to rely on each other, but according to the premise of the Games, they may have to kill each other. She remembers an old act of kindness, but they’ve never been friends, never even spoken. Can she trust him? The answer can’t possibly be a simple yes or no, and it’s not. In the book, an important aspect of Peeta’s character is that he has a gift for public relations, for telling people what they want to hear. So when he says he’s in love with her, she doesn’t know whether it’s true or whether he’s manipulating her and all the people who have the power of life and death over them and everyone they love.

As for Gale, when she goes back home (and without committing any egregious spoilers for those who’ve only read the first book or seen the movie), it’s not a simple matter of which of them she thinks is cuter. Gale changes as he is drawn into the rebellion, while she feels ambivalent. He’s responding to a cause, while she’s trying to survive and protect the people she loves. Now, that’s not boring

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