Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Two of my friends wanted me to read The Hunger Games, one of the big hits in the YA genre at the moment. It is currently the second most reviewed book on Librarything behind, you've guessed it, Twilight. I understand it is going to hit the big screen soon too, which will no doubt will do wonders for Collins' sales figures. I try to avoid books that are surrounded by this much hype but somehow end up reading them anyway. Both these friends usually have excellent taste but it doesn't aways overlap with mine, so I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. After reading it, I guess you could say I have conflicted feelings about this novel.

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.

Book Details
Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 374
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-439-02350-1
First published: 2009


  1. I read The Hunger Games after hearing it was all the rage at a Con I attended. It's not a bad book, very reminiscent of the excellent Japanese Battle Royale in concept, and it has a bit of The Running Man in there as well. I read the whole trilogy, but really felt that it would have been better if Collins had stopped after one book. The other two really didn't go on with the promise shown by this.

  2. With the first book such a big hit not many people would be able to withstand the temptation anyway.

  3. I actually enjoyed the second and third novels more than the first. I also had a problem with how easily Katniss's actions in the arena are justified, and how little physical and pyschological consequences there seemed to be for her experiences. I felt like the following novels dealt with these issues much better.

    I'd also agree that the Hunger Games were nonsensical as a method of keeping the districts under control. It seems like annually murdering their children would actually have the opposite effect-- people would start to feel they had nothing to lose, and they may as well try to rebel again. I don't think I ever bought that this situation could actually exist for 75 years.

  4. You are the first one I've spoken to, it seems I am the last one the read this book, who likes the second and third one better. Jodi will no doubt bully me into reading the second one so I guess we'll see if I agree. ;)

  5. I wanted to react to your discussion of the muted reaction the tributes had to the murders they had to commit. I agree that this is one element of the book that could have been improved, but there after thinking about it I think there is some reason for it: first, on a story level, the tributes have spent their entire lives watching the games, so that might play a big role in desensitizing them to the violence and death (although that is speculation as this aspect could have been played up more if that was the case). The second reason I came up with is audience based: too much dwelling on this might make the book seem much, much darker, limiting her readership to older readers (although the catch 22 is that by not dwelling on it as much the characters just seem psychotic).

  6. I'm not sure how much TV violence desensitizes someone to real violence. Katniss saw more than a bit of sufferening and cruelty but I don't think she encountered much outright violence in her life. It's pretty hard to pin down but there is something contradictory there.

    I think you are probably right in that she took her target audience into account. It might have been interesting to make it more of a satirical take on reality TV but that would probably not have worked well for a younger audience.

  7. I agree with Allie in that the second and third books are infinitely better than the first, especially Mockingjay which I thought was absolutely brilliant. If you were concerned with the lack of post-hunger games scarring, Mockingjay really delivers in a beautifully tragic way.

  8. *eyes the to read stack* Maybe later in the year, I guess I should see this series through.

  9. I also saw the movie before I read the book, so you're not the only one ;) I'm not a big fan of Peeta, actually, but I can see that a lot of girls like him :)

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  10. This is probably the easiest book in the trilogy to adapt to a movie, and am looking forward to how they do it.

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