Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
In a future dystopian America, twelve districts are ruthlessly suppressed by a central government known as the Capital. Each year, the Capital demands two tributes, boys and girls between the age of twelve and eighteen, to take part in the Hunger Games. This brutal, televised contest does not end until only one contestant is left alive. It is but one of the reminders of the power the Capital wields over the districts. The tributes are chosen in a lottery and every teen has a chance to be chosen. You can enter your name more than once to earn extra rations of grain and oil however, something that severly skews the odds and favours the wealthy. When Katniss' twelve year old sister Prim is unfortunate enough to draw the short straw, she does something drastic and volunteers to take Prim's place. Katniss, who has never left her district, is off to the Capital to fight to the death in the Hunger Games.
The novel is written in an unusual style. Collins uses the first person and writes in the present tense to tell her story. It is a style that takes some getting used to. I usually like first person narratives and the present tense gives the action scenes in particular a sense of urgency I very much enjoyed. For the more quiet or introspective passages it didn't work quite so well but that is not where the focus of the novel is. There were some interesting literary influences in the book as well. Katniss as Ariadne sent into the Minotaur's labyrinth. I understand there's also a bit of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) in the novel. I don't share the English speaking world's obsession with his works so I must admit I missed it until it was pointed out to me. It is a novel with lots of potential and written by someone who knows a thing or two about the craft.
There is something deeply disturbing about the concept of the Hunger Games. The government that organizes it is of the Orwellian kind. One that wants control of every aspect of life in the districts. It made me wonder if Collins is playing on the distrust of a strong federal government in the US by making it such a totalitarian regime. Cruelty such as described in this novel is certainly not strange to humanity but there is something very counterproductive about suppressing a rebellion by demanding a tribute in blood. I'm not sure how realistic it is to expect this to go on for three quarters of a century without a second revolt.
The Games are televised in a way that is clearly inspired by reality TV, where, if the show becomes too boring, the makers intervene to spice things up. Collins has turned it into a sickening mix of entertainment and punishment, in which the participants are well aware of the fact they are being watched and that popularity with the audience makes them more likely to survive the ordeal. The way Katniss deals with this constant exposure to the public is one of the aspects of the novel that worked very well to me. On the one hand she tried to play her part as well as possible, on the other, she is hopelessly confused by the blurring lines between what are honest emotions and what is acting for the benefit of the audience. Katniss thinks she has a good idea of when she is being manipulated (hard to tell for the reader when the entire story is told from her perspective) but doubts clearly sets in once she realizes she isn't too sure of how much of her behavior is acting.
What is even worse is the reaction of the children to what they are being asked to do. Fight to the death and kill others of their age is not something that comes easy to a normal human being. What absolutely appalled me is not the fact that these children kill, but the ease with which they do so. Katniss is used to suffering and death but not outright murder, yet the idea doesn't seem to horrify her to the level that it should. The deaths affect her but the emotion is muted, not at all the trauma one would expect. I also thought the televised bloodbath was a bit of a missed opportunity. Collins goes though great lengths to show us just how manipulated the Games are but she doesn't really make the most out of Katniss experiences actually taking part in the Games. I guess I felt she was too ready to play, too accepting of her fate and not nearly as disgusted with it as her treatment would have justified.
All in all, I thought The Hunger Games a well-written novel but I can't say I really like it. I don't think we needed quite that much carnage and killing. The deaths in this novel are too easy, too free of consequences and too easily accepted as necessary or justified. I guess your average thirteen year old might be swept away by Katniss' adventures but the underlying story is very dark indeed. Instead of a girl who ought to be severely traumatized by her experiences, we end up with one wondering if one of her fellow contestants had genuine feelings for her. Image and perception are what occupies a large part of this book. It would have been nice if we had at least one character who has their priorities straight. Still, it kept me turning pages. Compared to some of the other have-to-read bestsellers I've read recently, this one doesn't do too badly. I might even read the second book.
Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
First published: 2009