REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Dear Ms. Collins,
I have no doubt that many people will compare this book to the Japanese novel, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. How can they not? Both books take place in dystopian futures and feature oppressive governments that require children to compete in a last man standing survival game. And while it’s true there are similarities in premise and plot, I think your book brings enough new to the table that it’s easily one of the must read young adult novels of the year.
Set in the future, The Hunger Games takes place long after natural disasters, war, disease, and famine destroyed society as we know it. From the ruins of North America rose the nation of Panem, which consisted of a powerful Capitol ruling over thirteen surrounding Districts. The Districts didn’t like the Capitol’s oppressive rule very much and soon rose up together in a rebellion.
The results were disastrous. The Capitol quelled the uprising in twelve Districts and completely annihilated the thirteenth. As punishment, the Capitol created the Hunger Games. Each year, every District must send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve to eighteen as tributes. The tributes then fight each other to the death in an arena until only one person is left. These are not normal arenas. Armed with immense technology, the Capitol creates natural terrains that are enormous and range from forests to deserts to arctic landscapes. They can control the weather, climate, and even alter the terrain while the Games are in play. All this while the Games are televised across Panem, for the entertainment of the Capitol and for the sorrow of the Districts. This is the Capitol’s ultimate tool of fear, to keep the Districts in check so they can never rise up in rebellion again. It says, “Look at what we can do. We can take your children and make them kill each other while you watch. And you can’t stop us.”
The book opens on the day of reaping for the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is a coal miner’s daughter whose father died five years ago in an explosion and has taken care of her family ever since. Hunting and foraging illegally in the forest just outside District 12’s electrified borders, Katniss sells and trades game, fruit, and vegetables to the town’s black market, officials, and tradespeople like bakers and butchers. It’s just enough for her family to get by.
The reaping’s lottery system is weighted so that the older the child the greater the chance of being selected. In addition, children can receive a year’s ration of grain and oil in exchange for another entry into the lottery, and that is also cumulative. At sixteen, Katniss is entered twenty times — the normal 5 times for her age and 15 more for the annual rations she receives for her, her mother, and her younger sister. But even though the number of entries increases your chances of selection, luck doesn’t work that way and it is Primrose, Katniss’s twelve-year-old sister, whose name is drawn even though she’s only entered once.
Katniss’s choice is automatic:
There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tesserae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands. The odds had been entirely in her favor. But it hadn’t mattered.
Somewhere far away, I can hear the crowd murmuring unhappily as they always do when a twelve-year-old gets chosen because no one thinks this is fair. And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her sides, walking with stiff, small steps up toward the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.
“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.
“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”
There’s some confusion on the stage. District 12 hasn’t had a volunteer in decades and the protocol has become rusty. The rule is that once a tribute’s name has been pulled from the ball, another eligible boy, if a boy’s name has been read, or girl, if a girl’s name has been read, can step forward to take his or her place. In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated. But in District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse, volunteers are all but extinct.
District 12 is the laughingstock of Panem. They are the poorest, the hungriest, the most beaten down of all the nation. In the history of the Games, only two of their tributes have won, and only one of those is still living and he’s the town drunk. No one expects the District 12 tributes to have a chance, but I don’t think anyone outside of District 12 fully understands Katniss’s will to survive.
This is a gripping story. With twists, turns, and lots of action, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Not only that, there’s no denying the power of its themes. War and violence leave scars on the next generation. Haymitch may be the town’s middle-aged drunk but can you blame him? Not did he survive a brutal battle to the death, now as a victor he must mentor future tributes. That hurts. Imagine getting to know these children, coaching them, hoping for their victory… and then watching them die. Year after year, that has been Haymitch’s fate. Of all the things he could have resorted to in order to cope, drinking might be one of the least destructive options available.
There’s also the gulf of experience between the highest social elite and the dirt poor. Life in District 12, which supplies coal to the Capitol (District 12 is located in what was once Appalachia), starkly contrasts against the excesses of the Capitol. Katniss’s stylist, the quietly subversive Cinna, says upon meeting her over dinner: “How despicable we must seem to you.” And it’s easy to see why. Katniss has lived a life being hungry, subsisting on a diet of squirrels, pine bark, and roots. Even Katniss’s fellow tribute, the baker’s son Peeta grew up on a diet of stale bread. Meanwhile in the Capitol, you can get any kind of food you wish by pushing a button.
There are also other things. How voyeuristic reality tv is. How perverse it is that we enjoy watching other people suffer. I think everyone has watched at least one episode of a reality tv show for the trainwreck factor. The Hunger Games is that ramped up to the extreme, with the added complication that the Gamemasters will spice things up to keep things interesting for its audience. If it means throwing fireballs at the tributes to drive them together or rigging the game so that two lovers will have to face each other in the end, they will do it.
Katniss is one of the strongest heroines I’ve encountered in YA fiction. She’s smart and clever. Her skills in illegal hunting and foraging gives her an advantage in this year’s Games. She can hunt her own food. She knows which plants are safe to eat. She knows what she needs to do to survive. I admit I have a fondness of half-feral girls and Katniss is definitely that. She’s not soft. She can be hard. But I don’t think her life’s allowed much for it. She does what she must to survive, so that she can return home to her sister, even if it means taking another life, even if it means pretending to be in love. I thought the romantic subplot in which Katniss pretends to love Peeta in order to gain the audience’s sympathy was very clever, even if it becomes rapidly apparent that it was never an act for Peeta.
But despite it all, not once does Katniss lose her humanity. I could feel her hunger to return home. Her love for her younger sister, how it drove her to take Primrose’s place, how it drives her to make an alliance with another District’s tribute because that girl resembles Primrose. Katniss’s desire to never marry and have children because she can’t bear the thought of subjecting a child to this fate. She doesn’t enjoy the Game. She still knows what it means to have mercy. It makes her struggle all the moire poignant.
I’m not sure if this is the first in a series. I think it could be, but readers who are series-phobic can be assured that it ends in a good place and stands well alone. But I do hope there will be more books because I can’t help but feel that this is only the beginning in the Capitol’s downfall. Katniss’s ultimate actions only support that. The Capitol’s totalitarian regime is so oppressive and overt displays of political dissent have been all but crushed that it is through subtlety that the Districts show their disapproval:
“Come on, everybody! Let’s give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!” trills Effie Trinket.
To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Not even the ones holding betting slips, the ones who are usually beyond caring. Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, who no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.
I’ve looked at this book from multiple angles, trying to find flaws. But I can’t and honestly, if I have to work that hard to find some, I probably won’t. This is not a book for everyone. It does not flinch. There are parts which are unsettling and uncomfortable. I realize the comparisons to Battle Royale are unavoidable but I think this is a book all on its own. A