Review: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Young adult, thriller

May the blog hits be ever in your favour.

I read this book quickly for two reasons – the first was because the film was due to come out soon, and I wanted to be able to complete at least the first book of the trilogy without having the actors’ faces in my head throughout, and the second was rather more straightforward: I was so engrossed in the characters and the universe that I was devouring chapters at an alarming rate. It made for an interesting parallel – the characters’ hunger and desperation to survive played right into my need to squeeze in just one more chapter before getting to the office, even if that meant walking down the road with my head still stuck in the pages, which is a behaviour I absolutely despise in other people.

For those of you who are somehow still unfamiliar with the plot in spite of all the film’s publicity, I’ll quickly whizz through it: The Hunger Games is an annual televised event in which 24 adolescents (a boy and a girl from each of the country’s 12 districts) are randomly entered and forced to fight for their lives until only one remains, with the victor being entitled to a life of wealth, privilege and of course untold amounts of emotional scarring. Katniss Everdeen has been raising her little sister Prim ever since her father was killed in a mining accident and her mother developed what appears to be clinical depression. To Katniss’s horror, sweet, goodnatured and generally feeble Prim is drawn as the “tribute” for District 12 that year, and knowing that there’s absolutely no way her tiny sister will survive the grim trials of The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son whom Katniss knows vaguely from a time he sneaked her some bread against his mother’s wishes. We don’t see a lot of Peeta’s mother in the book, but the general impression that Collins gives us is that Mrs Mellark is to neighbourly charity what the Digital Spy forums are to reasoned debate. Although Katniss has plenty of experience hunting animals to feed her family, she doesn’t believe she stands a chance of winning the Games – but determined to make good on her promise to Prim that she’ll try to win, Katniss does everything in her power to survive, including playing her part in one of the stagiest showmances since Big Brother 5.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is Katniss herself; compared to, say, Bella from Twilight, who’s a drab canvas for the reader to project their own personality onto and who has little interest in life other than getting laid by something sparkly, Katniss is a complex and flawed lead character – she’s old beyond her years, angry and reserved, but also in many ways emotionally immature; having been forced prematurely into the role of caregiver to both her mother and her sister, she’s become socially maladjusted and finds it difficult to bond with people, or indeed to read them, which is something that she develops over the course of the story. She’s also a character very much in control of her own destiny – although the Games are, by their very nature, a situation designed to rob Katniss of all power of self-determination, she’s resourceful and tactical and plays not only the other contestants, but ultimately the game itself. She doesn’t just sit there and allow things to happen to her – she fights back, she outwits, and she ultimately rebels.

That’s not to say that Collins doesn’t make it easy for her – one criticism I had while reading is that Collins rather conveniently avoids involving Katniss in the demise of many of the other competitors. While this may well be realistic, there are times where the unseen death of one of the other tributes feels slightly cheap, and the only people we actually witness Katniss murdering are people who’ve been set-up in the narrative as deserving of their fate. Arguably it’s an important trait of Katniss’s that she doesn’t allow the Games to rob her of her own identity and turn her into a cold-blooded killer, but it would’ve been nice to see that resolve tested a little more directly at times. That aside, it really was refreshing to see a strong female lead character in a Young Adult series, especially here where Peeta – while obviously smart and capable himself – is very much the more passive figure of the story, and spends most of the last quarter of the book dependent on Katniss to survive.

I tend to avoid books with a general theme of “this is the sort of monstrosity that reality TV will eventually lead to” as their theme, because they tend to be written by people who do not watch reality TV and therefore do not understand it. I don’t know if Suzanne Collins watches a lot of reality TV, but one thing I appreciated in this book was that she has a very good understanding of how it works. The structure of The Hunger Games – the show within the book, jsut to clarify – is very recognisable, to the extent that on more than one occasion I found myself picturing the sarcastic blog I might write about it if it were real. The very nature of the show is barbaric, but Collins doesn’t go for the cheap, easily strike of suggesting that reality TV is inherently evil, instead making the argument that it’s a very potent tool in the hands of evil people. Even the heroic characters are aware of the importance of genre-awareness: Katniss’s advisors are all keen to ensure that she has a good storyline to go in with, and once the Games begin, Katniss herself is frequently concerned with her edit, taking care to present herself in such a way that both compliments and develops the way she was first presented to the viewers. Crucially, Collins makes us aware that this is as much a part of the game as the hunting and the killing – Katniss needs screentime to keep sponsors interested in order to stay alive longer. While the society within the books is clearly presented as diabolical for forcing children to go through this, little judgement is made on the competitors and the viewers – that’s for us to decide, which is how it should be.

Fitting in with all of this, Collins’ own handling of the narrative is exceptionally well-crafted – as soon as Katniss is selected for the Games, the pace doesn’t let up, and Collins repeatedly drops cliffhangers at the end of every chapter to make us regret the instinct to reach for the bookmark. The big, emotional moments of the plot – and there are a lot of them – are deftly handled too, with one character’s death, however much you could see it coming, really delivering a punch to the gut. What I also found refreshing is the way that, while some of the plot twists are slightly predictable, they’re rarely the final result – it’s as if Collins has anticipated you guessing where she’s going with this one, and has kept a second, much harder to anticipate twist up her sleeve for just such an occasion. Best of all, there’s no neat, tidy resolution – the end makes it clear that Katniss’s actions in the Games will have serious repercussions – but that’s a matter for me to discuss when I’ve finished the sequel.

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