Posted on July 7, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Here be spoilers.
I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins after enjoying the 2012 science fiction movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. It's easy to see why both the novel and film were so popular. The story strikes a primal chord since people have always been fascinated by those things which also appall us – and what's more fascinatingly appalling than a gladiatorial competition which pits teenagers against each other? Collins has taken some criticism for her depiction of kids killing kids, regardless of the fact that this happens in our world all the time. These recriminations would be fair if Collins did anything to glamorize the ritual, but as protagonist Katness Everdeen makes clear through her narrative, the Hunger Games are pure brutality, designed to keep the people of this futuristic America passive by constantly reminding them that their lives are not their own.
The idea of young tributes being herded off to die in bizarre competitions hails all the way back to Bronze Age Greece with the story of Theseus. As you may recall, Theseus and other Athenian youths were trotted off to fight for their lives in a subterranean lair guarded by bull-headed monster called the Minotaur. Even more obvious are Collins's references to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome and some of our more loathsome reality television shows. Maybe the author even picked up a copy of the The Most Dangerous Game (1924), about a castaway trying to survive a murderous aristocrat who's stalking him for sport, a book considered by many to be the definitive man-hunting-man story?
The ever-widening gap between rich and poor in America is also reflected in the pages of The Hunger Games. Katness lives in District 12, located in modern-day Appalachia, where people eek out a rough living by mining coal. There's never enough food... or anything else for that matter. Most of what the district creates is shipped off to the country's capital which is lush, beautiful and deeply corrupt. The capital residents all speak with bizarre affectations and, reminiscent of the French Royal Court of old, try to outdo each other with flamboyant hairstyles and ostentatious fashion. The Hunger Games play a dual role in this society. For the idle rich, it's a guilty pleasure using people they consider inferior anyways. For the districts, it's a constant reminder of who's in charge.
Katness becomes the female tribute for District 12 when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister. She's unexpectedly qualified for the games, having spent years sneaking into the forest to hunt for wild game and collect medicinal plants for her family. Most of the book deals with the young woman's quest to stay alive as she navigates a treacherous outdoor arena and forms uneasy alliances with some of the other tributes, including a boy from her home town named Peeta Melark. Unlike most of the other combatants, Katness's experience as a hunter-gatherer have taught her to think of three-dimensionally. She sleeps tied to tree branches, knows how to find water, can hunt wild game and avoid poisonous plants. She has no desire to murder others and at first is content to avoid her competitors and allow them to pick each other off. It's not until she begins to care for Peeta that survival becomes much more complicated. Yes, in The Hunger Games, even affection can be used as a weapon.
Reading The Hunger Games was a joy. It's simple narrative style were a welcome relief from some of the other young adult authors I've read who seem to think pretentious prose amounts to high art. Katness is an intelligent and logical protagonist in a genre which often portrays young women as trifling. I won't go so far as to say The Hunger Games should be on a high school reading list about the nature of tyranny alongside the works of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley or Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but there's much more to the book than just teens killing teens. Anyone who says otherwise either hasn't read it or doesn't understand its literary lineage.