Oh, The Hunger Games. The first volume of Suzanne Collins’ world-beating trilogy first dropped onto my radar a few years ago, when the online sphere was abuzz with the release of Mockingjay. I battled the tide of popular influence for years, but with the recent release of the film, and needing a quick divergence from the doldrums of my current reading habits (do Robert Jordan’s books ever end?), I figured it was time to join the masses. I’m a slavering Harry Potter fan and can’t resist a good YA book, especially when they’re a national phenomenon (and don’t involve sparkling vampires), for long. I started The Hunger Games on a Saturday morning and, after a few grudging distractions and a night of sleep, I finished it Sunday afternoon. I turned the final page feeling thrilled and confused, satisfied and emotionally drained. And, ultimately, conflicted.
First off, I haven’t read Battle Royale, the 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, or watched the film, which shares strong similarities with The Hunger Games, so I can’t make comparisons there or suppose on how Collins might have been influenced. She says she had not read the novel or seen the film before beginning work on the series and I will take her word for it.
The whole concept of throwing two dozen teenagers into a ring together in a fight to the death is far-fetched and I often found myself questioning the motives of the Gamemakers, the Capitol, the Tributes and, sometimes, Collins herself. First off, I’m not sure I buy the fact that, for 74 straight years, at random, 24 teenagers were chosen that had the capability to turn off empathy and become ravenous, capable murders. These aren’t hand-picked sociopaths. These aren’t trained fighters or brain-washed zealots. They’re kids. And, at the drop of a hat, they kill each other, often viciously? I suppose, though, that you only need one who is desperate or depraved enough to slaughter the others and put them into fight or flight mode. Throughout The Hunger Games we see several of the Tributes team up in loose alliances for mutual benefit, and I wonder that none of these banded-together groups never took a stand against the Capitol’s viciousness and refused to fight each other, no matter what the Gamemakers threw at them to convince them otherwise. In a society as fragile as the one presented by Collins, 74 years seems like a hell of a long time for a socially repressed people to bend over again-and-again as the capitol steals their children and forces them to watch. Its the stuff of nightmares.
The Hunger Games presents a future where western society (and perhaps eastern society, too, thought that is never mentioned) where children forced into murdering each other has become televised sport, where sadism and hedonism are so rampant that one can’t help but grow curious about Collins’ intentions and political agenda. It’s difficult not to see the clear anti-establishmentarianism message in The Hunger Games, what is more difficult is the idea that young readers are being spoon fed these messages without a clear and fair counter-opinion. These socio-political undertones and themes are worth exploring, especially for a sports fan like myself, who sometimes questions the morality behind the brutality seen in my sport of choice, hockey, and the joy and fervor that other fans experience while they watch 16-17 year olds pummel each other to bloody bits at a local WHL game; but, then, they have chosen that life for themselves and are often paid generously to compensate, unlike Katniss, Rue and the other tributes competing in The Hunger Games. I just hope that the young readers to whom the novel is marketed — and adult readers, for that matter — are reading of these bloody games and considering they say about our society, rather than simply revelling in the bloodshed.
On a simple storytelling level, this book just demands to be read. Besides the semi-horror I found myself facing at the idea that this book was written for young readers (which, like driving by a car crash, I couldn’t help but continue to stare at), I became, very quickly enthralled by the characters and found myself respecting the actions of the heroes and often surprised by the breadth and growth of their relationships.
The star of the show, of course, is Katniss Everdeen, narrator and heroine. She is a strong and complex character, constantly fighting with her own moral compass as she struggles to survive the games without succumbing to the Gamemakers and becoming exactly what they expect of her. Katniss manages to be physically and mentally capable, able to pull off some fantastic things under hard circumstances, and just tiptoes outside the line of becoming a Mary Sue. She makes mistakes and others pay for those mistakes. She fails and is rescued.
Of the secondary characters, Peeta is genuinely likable and has an aloofness that fits well with Katniss. Collins does a good job of making the reader understand that Peeta as seen through Katniss’ eyes isn’t necessarily a true reflection of his true character, which makes him more mysterious and gives Collins room to manoeuvre through his relationship with Katniss. Other standouts include Rue, the youngest contestant in the games and the drunkard, Haymitch, who are both flawed and believable.
The Romeo-and-Juliette-in-reverse lovestory between Katniss and Peeta caught me off-kilter. When thrown into harsh circumstances, as Katniss and Peeta are, it’s not unusual for romance to bloom, out a need to find comfort in another soul who understands the trauma being faced. To see the adults in the story manipulating this adolescent love, taking advantage of these teenagers thrust into an emotionally harrowing experience, is frustrating and I often had trouble understanding the point that Collins was trying to make. The simple fact that Katniss is forced to rely on a doey-eyed love for Peeta, despite her incredible competence, seems to undermine a lot of the strength that Collins poured into crafting Katniss into a female character that can be admired by male and female readers alike. She’s an incredible girl, but, in the end, she’s saved by being in love with the strong, handsome man. I expect this issue to be further explored in the final two volumes of the series, though, so I will reserve final judgement until my review of Mockingjay.
A lot of death happens in this novel, and our heroes are not exempt from the killing. It happens in self-defense, and in the defense of others. It happens through dumb luck, mercy, and in a second-hand kind way. But never with maliciousness. They never fall victim to the black heart that the Gamemakers hope that have and, in this way, they can be proactive in the games, while still remain the ‘Good Guys,’ despite the heinous nature of their circumstances and, some might argue, their actions.
This passage, in particular, captures the conflict I felt while reading the novel, and so aptly displays the themes of the novel:
I slump down on the floor, my face against the door, staring uncomprehendingly at the crystal glass in my hand. Icy cold, filled with orange juice, a straw with a frilly white collar. How wrong it looks in my bloody, filthy hand with its dirt-caked nails and scars. My mouth waters at the smell, but I place it carefully on the floor, not trusting anything so clean and pretty. (p. 347)
The Hunger Games is a thrill ride from beginning to end. Collins masterfully paces the novel, weaving character- and world-building in with the action so easily that words just fly by on the page and its easy to lose yourself alongside Katniss. You’ll fall in love with her friends and hate her enemies. Katniss narrates and, like any good first-person protagonist, puts her own stamp on the story that helps the reader instantly connect with her. By the time you’re done, you’ll find it difficult not to dive into the next volume of the series. It may be a sometimes difficult novel in terms of subject matter, but the writing itself is silky smooth.
I mentioned earlier that I was conflicted when I finished The Hunger Games and writing this review has not helped the matter. Thinking back on the novel, I remember both the breathless anticipation as I started each chapter, the thrill of Katniss’ escapes and the sadness that filled me at the death of her friends. But I also remember the frustration at the core concept of the novel, that Collins chose to expose this dark future and the bad people who are responsible for it. But, am I frustrated with Collins, or am I frustrated with the facet of human nature that she’s chosen to explore? The Hunger Games are like nothing if not the Gladiators of ancient Rome. Or, more appropriately, the slaves and criminals who might have unwillingly taken their places. Throw them into a pit against their will, with insurmountable odds and murderous opponents, and watch what happens. For simple enjoyment. To pass a Sunday afternoon. By thrusting children into the role of these gladiators, Collins played with my anger. While reading, I directed that anger at Collins, but perhaps its source isn’t her, but the fact that I know that worse than this happens to children every day in this world and I don’t like Collins to remind me of that. Perhaps that anger would be better directed at my own ignorance and unwillingness to accept the realities and darkness of human nature.
The Hunger Games surprised me and thrilled me. In an age where YA can’t get a shot with most adults because it’s supposed to be for kids, it has also produced on of the bloodiest, meanest and most ruthless novels I’ve read in years. But amongst all that bloodshed, there’s a story about family and perseverance, about sticking to your guns and standing up against an authority you don’t believe in. I’ll gladly stick around for the next two volumes, not only to see Collins’ vision of the future crumble, but also because I like Katniss and her friends. The Hunger Games had me enthralled for two straight days and for that, I’m grateful. And also a little disturbed.