Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

I seldom read books that are trendy. At least, I don't read them while they're trending. But the hype around Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy sucked me in, somehow, and now I'm hooked.
It seems I'm reading more young adult fiction in my thirties than I ever did as a young adult. I think that's because editors, parents, and educators have finally stopped talking down to older teen readers. Gone are the days when a mere mention of menstruation or masturbation in a book can lead to school library bans and PTA scandals. Gone, too, are the days when authors could keep teen girls happy by churning out tales of horses and chaste cheerleaders. It's time for what teenagers really want in their fiction: Sex, angst, heroism, tragedy, magic, and gore. I found myself wishing this stuff came out when I was twelve, until I realized that some of it is highly readable at any age.

So, I gave the Hunger Games trilogy a chance, even though the books have a post-apocalyptic setting that normally wouldn't appeal to me much. A series of catastrophes has reduced the U.S. to twelve zones, governed by a fascistic central capitol ensconced in the Rocky Mountains. Three-quarters of a century before the story begins, some kind of armed rebellion so unnerved the Capitol that its leaders decided to introduce a terrible blood sport that will keep everyone in line: Every year, 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery, given some rudimentary training, then thrown into a wilderness "arena" to fight for survival against the elements and each other. The sole winner returns home a hero, and his/her home district is showered with gifts. The event, known as the Hunger Games, is televised.

Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old, narrates her own entry into the Games alongside a baker's son named Peeta. Each district offers up two "tributes" per year, one boy and one girl, and Katniss and Peeta are residents of the poorest, outermost district in the nation. Their chances of winning are slim to none, and their mentor/coach is a falling-down drunk (in the second book, Catching Fire, readers learn that many former winners have turned to drinking or drugs to cope with the emotional fallout of the Games).
Katniss has been her family's sole means of support since her father's death in a mining accident. Using a homemade bow and arrow, she illegally hunts for small game in the woods surrounding her district in order to feed her mother and delicate 12-year-old sister (in the film, Katniss is played by the same girl who starred in Winter's Bone. Is this girl ever going to get a role in which she doesn't have to kill squirrels to feed her siblings?).
My only real beef with the character of Katniss is that she's a little too capable and tough. Her vulnerabilities and flaws come out more in the second book of the series, Catching Fire, but throughout The Hunger Games we're dealing with a girl who can do no wrong. She's like the spawn of Joan of Arc and Robin Hood.

The outermost district, #12, is Appalachia. It's still Appalachia as we know it now, full of desperately impoverished coal miners, but its population has been reduced to that of a single small town. It is implied that the other 11 districts, while wealthier, don't have much to offer, either. The Capitol, on the other hand, is a futuristic playground where residents eat well, drive cars, and sport wacky Fifth Element-style fashions.
The author cites reality TV as one of the inspirations for these books, and that shows in the preparations for the Hunger Games. Each contestant gets an extreme makeover as soon as he/she reaches the Capital. Then stylists outfit them in extravagant costumes so they can be paraded and interviewed in high fashion before the blood sport begins. Project Runway meets The Road Warrior. Also, à la American Idol, TV viewers can boost their favourite player by sending gifts of food, medicine, or other supplies. So in addition to foraging for food and water and engaging in combat with the other tributes, players have to make themselves desirable to the TV audience. Peeta and Katniss boost their appeal considerably by pretending to be in love with each other, though Katniss can't be sure that Peeta is pretending, and her own feelings are far from clear.

The whole premise seems a little silly, until you remind yourself that it wasn't so long ago (relatively speaking) that gladiatorial combat was the entertainment.
What makes The Hunger Games different from Battle Royale, a similar teen-gladiator manga series and movie, is that the kids aren't juvenile delinquents. The Hunger Games also lacks the tongue-in-cheekiness of Battle Royale. It's bleak, bleak, bleak. In most stories of combat, we are given a side to champion. In this book, there are no good or bad sides. The arena is a lawless world without any criminals; there are only children.

Collins deftly prevents the bleakness of her characters' circumstances from taking over the story, though. She combines compelling outdoor survival scenes with well-paced action, hints at the events that will begin to unfold in the second book, and creates a unique world that blends Depression-era poverty with quirky sci-fi innovation.

Like reality TV, the world of The Hunger Games is reality exaggerated. We see a vast gulf between the super-wealthy and the nearly-starving, though both groups exist on the same landmass and theoretically could have access to the same resources. The lottery system used to select tributes hints at the draft. The delight Capitol residents express when an unfavoured tribute is slaughtered echoes our own glee when celebrities spiral into addiction or lunacy. And the survivors' ability to assert their humanity when so many people are trying to squash it? I like to think that is reflective of our reality, too.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I've been hearing the name The Hunger Games tossed about a fair bit lately, but didn't know anything about the premise. This does sound compelling though! I am actually fond (perhaps the wrong word) of post-apocalyptic fiction, and agree that young adult novels are infinitely better than they were when I occupied that demographic.

I may need to read these! Great review.

S.M. Elliott said...

They really are worth a read (even if you end up hating them, they're short). I'm saving the last book for a blizzardy day. said...

Merry x-mas guys.. hope you have a wonderful day if you see the kids tomorrow. Tell them we said hi.