The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Pages: 384 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: 09/14/08
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.
Ah, good review. I enjoyed the series a lot, but I had a few of the same issues as you and I had to overlook them…
However,…the thing you should take from your experience. All the complaints you had about believability across the board are non-existent in BATTLE ROYALE (film and book, and Manga for that matter).
-In BR The gov’t somewhat randomly selects a grade 8 class to participate due to the crowding overpopulation in future Japan. It’s meant as a culling and is usually the class that is the most discipline-problematic.
-In BR The student’s don’t require a “desire” or “mean streak” to kill one another. They are all fitted with exploding digital collars, the rules are if more than one person is alive at the end of three days, the gov’t blows the colllars. There can only be one winner, and for me that addresses the “why would students randomly turn into killers?” question as in BR they have to or they die. Where the story really truly is affecting is when students who are good, decent human beings are forced to kill, at times it’s absolutely heartbreaking. This also solves the “why won’t they unite in revolt” problem as well.
-It is not televised, nor reported on radio, and though it is reported on in the newspapers, the public really doesn’t know the outcome until the whole thing is over and the winner is declared. This is a way of keeping the gruesomeness from the public who might revolt if they truly knew what was going on. The survivor gets nothing more than being allowed to live their life afterwards, no prizes, wealth or power.
-There is no love story, because frankly in a society where kids are forced to kill one another, who the hell would you trust?
Anyways, I liked HUNGER GAMES (books), but I don’t believe Collins for a second when she says that BR didn’t influence her. I’m pretty sure it did.
All that said, though HG is a different beast than BR, I find BR to be the entirely more believable of the two when ti comes down to story points making sense. It also has a line I randomly yell just for fun.
I agree with almost your entire review and just have two points to add:
Personally, I don’t see 24 teenagers becoming vicious murderers. I see 4 or so (the “careers”) who have trained for this their whole lives and already have that mentality. The other tributes seem to have more of a “kill if I have to” attitude. That made it a lot more believable to me.
Also, as far as 74 years of games, I think it can believable. Districts 1 & 2 are the richest districts with the most resources and the ones that would have had the highest chance of succeeding in a rebellion. Instead, these districts have embraced the games and even celebrate and train for them. The rest of the districts are very, very poor and basically brainwashed by the fact that the Capitol watches their every move. They are afraid to even think the word rebellion for fear that the Capitol has some new technology that can read thoughts.
Your review was great. A lot of people look for reasons to rip into these books because they are so popular. I like that you had an open mind. :)
Remember that a very small percentage of those children actually turn into killers. Other than being killed by teams 1 and 2 who were raised to be gladiators, everyone else dies at the hands of the traps built into the stadium for the uncooperative. As for how could people let such violence reign, we’ve done it before (Rome, Slavery, lynch mobs all of 50 years ago in the US) and we do it right now (child soldiers, ignoring genocides).
Great review Aidan! I finally read it this week after it being crushed somewhere in the middle of my to-read pile since Catching Fire came out and made me aware of the series. I know you kept out spoilers, but I have a few for book 1 (that’s all I’ve read) as I proceed in my quick analysis, so beware people!
My biggest flaw with the novel was one you addressed right away, why the heck these kids don’t just all stand in a group when the games begin and say, “no…we’re not playing.” Maybe they will revolt in future books? Maybe as the central character, it’s important for Katniss to go through this experience. Will revolution against the Capital happen in the next 2 novels? And maybe there is a good reason why they cannot band together and refuse to fight. Not sure, and I don’t feel Collins gave a good explanation of why they couldn’t. Yes the districts are poor, everyone is a slave to the Capitol, they will not be screwed with, etc. But c’mon, 74 years and not one problem with the kids playing the game?
Also, and here is a big spoiler for those who have not read!
Even though it’s a teen novel, there was a little too much deus ex machima for me. I suppose those of us who don’t have A Song of Ice and Fire on the mind expecteted Katniss to win from the beginning. And not turning into an evil murderer in the process. And….that’s what happened…she won. Okay that’s fine, this book is for kids right? It needs a happy ending…with a lot of blood shed mixed in too I guess. Did I say this book is for kids?
But my biggest problem was the during the first half of the book I actually thought, who will Collins let live? Peeta or Katniss? No matter what happens, it will be a conflicted ending, not tied up with a bow on it. Then the announcer comes out of nowhere with a rule change. Seriously?! As the reader, I want the author to make the hard decisions, come up with a realistic, tragic ending for someone. That’s how it’s been for 74 years! Don’t cop out and say…eh, let ’em both live.
Otherwise, it was a great novel, enjoyable to read, good little cliffhanger endings to chapters, and the novel did give an ending with enough closure that did overall leave me satisfied with the book as a standalone, but leaves the world, government, and relationships wide open for the sequels to explore more.
Wow. I read The Hunger Games last Saturday and while I agree its well paced and easy to read, I found it to be so shallow that an earthworm couldn’t drown in it admist many other problems.
-You’re correct in that the world shouldn’t work. At least not without violent reprisals that are suggested in the novel but never seen.
-Katniss is NOT a strong female character in anyway. She spends the majority of The Hunger Games in a passive role while things happen around her to eliminate character after character. She also uses sex/sexuality to get what she wants since there is obviously no other way she could fend for herself.Rue is a much stronger female character in the book.
-Collins basically deus ex machinas her way out of every situation to excuse Katniss from getting her hands dirty. I mean things drop out of the freaking sky when she needs them.
-Muttations? The less said about them the better.
All in all, the was some to like about The Hunger Games – the simple story, the fast pace, the easy read – but I found nothing to make it memorable or worth the tremendous popularity it has earned.
I think the main reason that the 24 teens don’t stand together and refuse to fight is simple. 1) There’s 24 of them. Getting that many teens to agree on anything is nearly impossible, plus, they really didn’t have that much contact with each other prior to the arena to discuss their beliefs and come up with that strategy.
2) Even if they did, each individual would have to be willing and able to trust 23 other people that they don’t know. And it would only take one person to blow the alliance.
3) I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that Katniss is aware that if she defies the system too strongly, there will be stiff penalties and consequences for her family and her District – her loved ones could be tortured or killed based on her own behavior. That’s a powerful motivator, and coupled with the Career Tributes who glory in the experience and are anxious to win at all costs, results in a circumstance that would make it nearly impossible to just toss down your weapon and say “I think I’ll pass on fighting today.” (Just my own opinion).
There are two reasons they don’t refuse to fight. First, if they don’t the game has built-in killers that the government can set on them, and secondly if they don’t fight (and win) the government will cut off food and water to their district. In the poorer districts especially, the tributes are not fighting just for themselves but also to get supplies for the whole district. If they win, the whole district benefits with better food and water.
I think part of the frustration that colours this review stems from this issue. I do believe that Katniss is a strong female character, despite all of the convenience and deus ex machinas that Collins throws at her. At every turn she is groomed and trained and manipulated by those around her (from the gamemakers, to Haymitch/Cinna and even Gale/Peeta in an indirect way, never giving her room to operate on her own. I felt it did a disservice to her character, which I tried to express in this review, but I may not have done a good enough job.
I’ll agree with you that Rue was a well drawn character, vulnerable and capable in equal measure.
I really liked Battle Royale (though I thought the book addressed the irony of the game–Japan was actually facing a problem of an aging population so why were they killing kids!! but maybe I misread it’s been awhile) and there’s a part in that book where some of the kids try to get everyone to stop and then they just get killed. The psychology of such a fight is explored in more depth. It’s really worth reading even if horrific.
But I do think the two books are different. Anyway I really enjoyed your reading your review, it’s great to have a book make you think so much at least!
(also yes the love story saves Katniss’s life, but it also saves Peeta’s)
interesting take on the books, Aidan. I think you are naive about the world in thinking it’s unrealistic. If you can put together an actual rebellion plan for these kids and those districts, go for it. I don’t see it. See Lynn and Sunny’s comments.
Also, calling Katniss even “almost” a Mary Sue just makes me sad. Or at least, since I’m assuming you haven’t, read this first: (http://thezoe-trope.blogspot.com/2011/08/you-can-stuff-your-mary-sue-where-sun.html) The whole concept is super problematic.
She’s an incredible girl, but, in the end, she’s saved by being in love with the strong, handsome man.
I think this is just a straight misreading of the book. She is NOT in love with Peeta, she tells him she was faking at the end. and that is absolutely NOT how she was saved. She is saved by being smart enough to figure out how to manipulate the impossible system while still saving herself from murdering Peeta and saving her family and her district.
Patrick, sorry but your summary of Katniss’ character and actions is just ultra-WTF-ery (“She also uses sex/sexuality to get what she wants since there is obviously no other way she could fend for herself” – I cannot even see where you are getting this.)
but your idea about strong female characters is super problematic. NK Jemisin was just talking about this oddly enough: http://nkjemisin.com/2012/03/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-good-stereotype/.
If you’re curious how a poor, repressed society might rise up against their corrupt government, perhaps you should do a bit of reading on the recent uprisings/revolutions in both Syria and Egypt. When people have had enough, they will find the means to rise against their oppressors.
I do, however, admit to being naive about the world in the text of my review, so I won’t argue there, Kathleen.
That’s exactly my point. She’s not in love with Peeta and constantly fights against the idea that she’s supposed to be. Yet, in the final chapters, she, and her district, are saved by her holding up the charade that they’re star-crossed lovers. She is explicitly told that if she doesn’t fawn over Peeta and act like she’s head-over-heels for him, things will go very badly. This steals away from the admirable things that Katniss was able to achieve on her own. As Patrick mentions, Katniss can often be a passive character and a lot of the overall plot points are manipulated and caused by the influence of the gamemakers, the Capitol and Haymitch. Katniss does some proactive things, like blowing up the food supply (helped and directed, of course, by Haymitch, and able to do so because she’s knocked Peeta out) and the stunt with the berries, which is great (and, also, the type of stand that I expect would have been taken by one of the other 1,752 contestants of the Hunger Games that played before Katniss), but even the celebratory recap video at the closing ceremonies features mostly Peeta and only involves Katniss as a device to promote the ‘love’ that blossomed on the battlefield. This does her a disservice.
This is an excellent point – but this was accomplished by a large portion of a population. While the Districts could rise up if they chose – and District 11 seems to be well on it’s way – I don’t think you can apply that logic to the 24 kids in the arena. My point was only directed at the kids themselves – one can only guess at the reasons that the Districts haven’t risen up in 74 years.
My guess is that the punishment was so extreme that giving up their children seems not as bad in comparison, although I myself wondered while reading the book how that could ever be palatable to the parents collectively.
Honestly I don’t find the notion of an oppressive government getting away with throwing the kids in the games at all. When you look at some of the regimes that have murdered millions, just in the last hundred years, you get a sense of what people will tolerate when they’re scared. How many of those societies would have traded 24 deaths annually to preserve the majority of the population?
In the larger context of the book you get a sense that a certain culture has grown out of the games as well; a gladiatorial-games/reality-television kind of vibe. When presented this way it’s normalized and when people have experienced this their entire lives, it becomes normal.
I haven’t read it myself as yet, but amazingly, my genre-adverse Supervisor has and found it “okay”.
The End Times might be nigh.
I do have it on Kindle, having grabbed it during a sale a few months back. At some point I should try it.
I think being disturbed, as you say, is a feature not a bug.
I don’t disagree with this, actually. I hope that came across in the review.
It did, no worries.
.thanks for responding, Aidan. I guess I am not understanding your argument very well. Why isn’t Katniss’ victory over President Snow and the Gamemakers at the end something she “was able to achieve on her own”? how is that not “pro-active”?
As for the recap video, you’re talking about something made by the Gamemakers and the government to minimize Katniss in the context of the power struggle and the politics of Panem, and then you are complaining that is an authorial choice Collins is making that does Katniss the character a disservice to us as readers?? But the whole point is that the government is making that focus on Peeta and the “love story” deliberately to take away Katniss’ power and to keep control of the districts.
I just do not understand your objection.
Arg. My post made no sense. Must proofread next time. I meant to say that I didn’t find the oppressive-government aspect of the story to be unbelievable.
@Kathleen — Like Paul said, perhaps this frustration is not a bug, but a feature. If Collins was deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable by writing a female lead that has to hide behind a male to ‘win’, then it worked.
@SQT — No worries, I understood your argument. I don’t think a government could find long-term success by bullying the backbone of their society, spitting in their faces, kicking them while they’re down, and then forcing them to relive it every year. Brutal totalitarian and authoritarian governments don’t exactly having a sparkling track record for long lives, do they?
Brutal totalitarian and authoritarian governments don’t exactly having a sparkling track record for long lives, do they?
human history is full of inequitable societies with a longer track record than 74 years. Look at US slavery. Or the feudal system in Europe, which has many similarities to Panem. The Pharoahs lasted a long time.
Of course people rebel, I wasn’t trying to say that. But a 2011 Egyptian-style revolution isn’t going to work in Panem. And the Syrians haven’t even overthrown their government yet, and a lot more than 1702 people have been killed trying.
I think the economics of the Panem world are a lot more questionable than the politics.
I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, Kathleen, otherwise we’ll argue in circles until the cows come home. For now, I will hope that Collins explores these concepts and in the future novels.
I won’t go round-and-round on the point, but I think Kathleen is right in that totalitarian governments can survive for a good while before the populace revolts. They typically don’t survive the long run- but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
I haven’t read the next two books yet, though I have read some reviews, and it does appear that Collins does explore the inevitable revolt you would have in such a society.
Funny, perhaps, to think that simply changing these games from the “74th Hunger Games” to the “27th Hunger Games” might have helped me invest in and better believe in the world Collins created.
I rarely post comments on blogs, but this review, and the central premise of it, called out to me.
It appears that you formed your central issue with this novel, revolving around “why do these Hunger Games happen, or why don’t these tributes simply not play along”, based on your personal experiences living in a free and open society in present-day North America. While that is not a problem in and of itself, you allow that perspective to color this review to such an extent that the basis for your argument is so one-sided as to be painful.
I would encourage you to read the middle book of the 3-book series on the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans, or a good history of Soviet Russia under Stalin; maybe even an introductory treatise on totalitarian government. I am certain that after delving into any one of these history lessons, your questions on how and why this happens as it does in this novel will be cleared up – sadly, using illustrations of actual human pain and suffering, as opposed to a work of fiction.
Hey Gottfried, thanks for dropping by.
You’re right that I’m approaching this from a North American perspective (where the novel is set, don’t forget), and you’re also right that there is precedent in our human history for some very horrible behaviour from governments. The more I think about the book, and my issues with it, I’m not sure that my problems lie with the heart of the philosophies and politics explored by Collins, but rather with the fact that I don’t think she did an adequate job exploring/explaining how the harsh politics/economy of this world (which is central to the plot) has managed to build and sustain a society without civil unrest and has done so for six times longer than the Third Reich held power. Maybe that was outside of the scope of the novel and I’m reading too far into things that Collins had no intention of exploring. However, too many signs (in my mind) point to the society being an unsustainable style of governance, and not enough justification was given for how it works. I just couldn’t connect the dots between the North America I live in and the one that Collins envisions. The fault for that might lay equally on me and Collins. You’ll notice that I began to reach this conclusion near the end of my review:
Soviet Russia is an interesting comparison that I’ll need to think about. I also think there are some interesting parallels to the First Nations of North America and the treatment of their people since the first European settlers landed on the shores of North America, the residential schools, and the horrible methods used in attempt to oppress their society and grind them under the heel of Eurocentrism. The districts are, in a way, a combination of the treatments of non-Europeans in North America, from Reservations and Reserves, to slavery, during the majority of the twentieth century and now, still lingering, in the twenty-first century.
Thanks for your input and for getting me to think of the issue from another perspective.
While the worldbuilding never got to me, I can see where you’re coming from on the rebellion standpoint. However, the book (and the film, which gets this across much better) does point out that a lot of the nearer and wealthier districts do hand-pick and train their Tributes, and that they and their families consider it a great honor to fight in the Hunger Games. They have been brainwashed pure and simple. It’s the poorer and farther districts that don’t buy into it, but because they’re not trained for it, they’re usually picked off by the career Tributes. (And in Haymitch’s case, turn to drink and absorbing themselves into the system.) The Capitol doesn’t just brutally oppress its people; it manipulates them as well.
[…] follow up on my recent review of The Hunger Games, I wanted to point out a handful of articles that touch on some of the issues that I juggled about, […]
Nice review. Not seen it yet but looks interesting. I watched Battle Royale the other week (someone put it on youtube) as I’ve heard they’re similar, right down to several individual scenes, however I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve seen the movie.