Novel by: Suzanne Collins
When The Hunger Games hit the market in 2008, I was teaching English and Math at a private high school/enrichment center (very Portal-esque). No less than a dozen of my students told me that I had to read The Hunger Games. Of course, some of these students told me that I needed to keep up with a certain Armenian family whose name shall not sully my website. Needless to say, I was sceptical.
Still, I listened attentively to each review. At the end, I always asked the same question: Does Katniss Everdeen, the novel’s protagonist, beat the powers that control Panem? They all said yes. I would then roll my eyes and assign Nineteen Eighty-Four as mandatory reading. Only when the trailer for The Hunger Games’ upcoming cinematic adaptation held my attention did I think that I might have misjudged the novel. And while the book isn’t without some flaws, it turns out to be a reasonably interesting story.
Without a doubt the weakest part of the book is the beginning. It’s bloated with infodumps that could easily have been culled down to size and strategically inserted elsewhere. The essential details are as follows. In the near future North America folds in on itself due to environmental and political collapse. In its wake emerged the nation of Panem. Panem is a feudal nation comprised of a technologically advanced city-state called “The Capitol” at the core and twelve outlying districts. Each of the districts provides a certain type of good or service to the people of the Capitol, often at the expense the districts themselves. Katniss and Peeta, the two central characters of the story, live district twelve – an unremarkable place that specializes in coal mining.
The Capitol maintains its power through surveillance, military dominance, and psychological warfare in the form of the annual Hunger Games. Said games evolved in the aftermath of the districts’ failed rebellion against the Capitol. Every year each district must send one teenage male and female to compete in a no holds barred televised death match. It takes the novel fifty pages or so to cover all of this. Then, in what must be the world’s longest pre-game show, there’s eighty pages of Katniss and Peeta’s training/press junket in the Capitol. Nearly one third of the book is done before the eponymous Hunger Games actually start.
The very fact that Katniss would volunteer for a death match to protect her sister, the female initially drawn to represent district twelve in the Games, tells me and any teenage version of myself that might be reading this book in an alternate universe all we need to know about the quality of her character. Page upon page of exposition expounding Katniss’ virtue very quickly moves from useful to extraneous to abject naval gazing. In short, start the damn fight, I paid, quite literally, for blood.
Once Katniss and Peeta enter the arena, I couldn’t put the book down. Katniss survives the majority of the Games by her wits and years of experience hunting and foraging. In fact, it’s more than half way through the book before Katniss makes her first kill. All the while the narrative carefully crafts the Games as the epoch in Orwellian surveillance and Roman decadence. When TV ratings drop, the “Game Makers” firebomb the arena to herd the tributes together. Though Collins seems to go out of her way to avoid any direct reference to the tributes as gladiators, the comparison is palpable. Winning the Games is not about being the best fighter; it’s about winning a crowd who can sponsor tributes with gifts of food, medicine, and equipment. Though completely absent from the actual narrative while in the arena, the role of the crowd, their lust for violence, is at the core of every action that Katniss takes. This becomes all the more interesting when midway through the Games the rules change to allow two tributes from the same district to claim joint victory. Peeta’s previous declarations of unrequited love for Katniss during the press junket motivate her to find and protect him, knowing that as a couple, even a fake one, the crowd will be that much more inclined to help them survive.
Despite the Game Makers revoking the joint victory rule when Peeta and Katniss are the last tributes left standing, the duo end up leaving the arena in triumph. I was apt to call shenanigans on this move, but it came with a very interesting twist. Katniss and Peeta’s attempt to subvert the spirit of the Games through mutual suicide challenges the authority of the Capitol. When they return to the Capitol their coach warns them their only hope of coming out of the post-game press circuit alive is playing up the unrequited love angle. For those brief pages The Hunger Games is a brilliant tableau of blood sport psychology. No dictator/oligarchy/ape overlord who uses death matches as a social control can ever rise above the will of the mob. Katniss and Peeta used said will in the finest fashion of Maximus Decimus Meridius. But instead of building that crescendo and leaving the fate of the champions in doubt for the second book, The Hunger Games seems content to resolve the issue as a matter of fact. Katniss and Peeta acted out of love for each other, the crowd ate it up, and the Game Makers managed to save face despite being subverted by a pair of teens from the boonies. Such a waste.
What’s left at the end of the book is a broken hearted Peeta finding out that Katniss’ affections for him were part of the show…or were they? Granted alternate universe teenage Adam probably ate up a will they/won’t they cliff-hanger as a motivation to read the next book, the black lifeclock in my palm says that I have better things to do than indulge in any such schmaltz.
Still, it’s not a bad book. Had I a time machine I would certainly use it to tell a 2005ish version of Suzanne Collins that the most boring parts of a sporting event are the pre and post game shows; that’s why everybody tailgates before a football match. If the romantic side plot were more a subtext and the majority of the book focused on the events of the teenage death match, The Hunger Games would rate for me as an outstanding novel. That said, I still think I’ll be going to see the movie, if only to see how the two compare.