The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
I admit it. I saw the film adaptation first. I’d not given much time of day to Suzanne Collins or her books – not maliciously, but because I felt I was above the age of her intended audience. I saw the film on a whim with a friend and was surprised at the gravity of it.
Following on from that, I debated whether or not to buy the book itself. The font’s rather large and for someone like me with no steady income at present, it seemed a bit of a waste.
Then a friend of my housemate leant me her copy and all was put right.
The general gist is that Katniss and Peeta, two kids from the coal mining section of a dystopian former-America named Panem (Latin for ‘bread’, part of the mob-calming formula ‘panem et circensus’), get involved in annual every-man-for-himself gladiatorial bloodbath, the Hunger Games. Arrow-firing, tree-climbing Katniss is there because she’d rather take the place of her little sister Prim, who would definitely die in the arena. The twenty-four Tributes (two from each resource-producing district) must fight to the death, leaving one victor.
The Games are thrilling entertainment for the haves, who are classically unaware of the plights of the have-nots. The book explores the intriguing/terrifying concept of reviving violence for entertainment’s sake, and when it is taken to professional heights. The arena in which these kids compete is digitally constructed by Gamesmakers, giving the whole thing an air of despicable profitability and calculation.
It is typical YA fiction in that the main character is different to her contemporaries and predecessors. Of course she is, otherwise there’d be no story. Collins is neat and cunning with her presentation of Katniss as a guarded, barbed young woman who believably rejects the affection of anyone except her little sister. She never comes off as affectedly cool or apathetic: she’s just been hurt too many times. Peeta’s a contrast, in that he’s largely pathetic, but again believably so.
It is atypical, however, in most other aspects. For instance, you know from the start that Katniss is going to survive. Why else would the book be from her perspective? But Collins’s real trick here does not lie with the preservation of Katniss. She knows that you will know. Instead, she makes the reader care about the survival of Peeta and the perpetuation of the triumphant public image the pair of fighters present. In short, Collins plays the reader right along with the audiences watching the Games. If you enjoy the romance between the two, are you just as bad as the cooing, clueless aristocrats in the Capitol? Perhaps you are. Perhaps it’s better to be like that than to consider an alternate future for the pair.
Collins’s minor characters are just as good. The key to their brilliance is that no one is straightforwardly likeable or dislikeable (apart from maybe Rue, the littlest Tribute, and the book’s real heartstring-tugger). Standouts include the plump green-skinned make up artist Octavia, spoiled from living in the Capitol but who is revealed to be a social minor, and Foxface, an elusive Tribute who spends much of the book hiding offscreen, and who tightens the tension when least expected.
As for the structure – I basically finished the thing in two 1 hour 50 minute train journeys. The present tense and the bloodiness of content keep the suspense up, so you do actually get a real live page-turner. It’s frustrating that the book finishes on such a cliffhanger, because it feels like you’ve run off the railroads at breakneck speed and stopping is almost unbearable. It’s an obvious ploy to keep you reading. It’s a good selling tactic, though.
Though sometimes troubling (and possibly completely unsuitable for anyone younger than thirteen), The Hunger Games is what dystopian and YA fiction should try and be: thought-provoking, vividly written, colourfully populated. There is genuinely nothing I can fault in the text. A full five stars to this bravest of Brave New Worlds.
**I’m currently midway through the third installment in the series; unfortunately, the second and third books are nowhere near as good. I may review them to have a full collection, however.**