The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I saw that The Hunger Games had finally come in at the library, I was ecstatic–what a nice way to leave the library I use in Decatur before heading home for the summer! And what a stroke of luck–I didn’t want to have to go to the bottom of the waiting list for The Hunger Games at my local library. I’ve heard so many good things about this novel that I couldn’t wait to dig in.
The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future, where America has transformed into the oppressive Panem, which consists of a rich and cosmopolitan Capitol surrounded by twelve increasingly poorer districts. Each year, to remind their citizens of their place, the government selects one boy and one girl from each district to compete in the bloodthirsty Hunger Games–the last person alive wins. When Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve volunteers to compete in the Games in the place of her little sister, Prim, her life turns upside down. Formerly a hunter scraping to get by and support her family, Katniss finds herself in the bloody glamour of the Capitol and the Games. It will take every ounce of her cunning and hunting instincts to stay alive… and to win.
The writing itself is nothing special–it delivers what it needs to deliver, nothing more, which usually works with brusque Katniss as our narrator, but occasionally feels a little simplistic. There’s also a few stumbles in diction towards the beginning–Katniss puts on her boots before putting on her pants, and weirdly calls carnivores “flesheaters”, which sounds like nothing so much as zombies. (Alas, my hopes were dashed.) Collins’ pacing, however, is a marvel. I read this in a day, between other concerns. The tension really builds as the various competitors drop off one by one, and we watch Katniss turn more and more desperate in the arena. Especially unnerving are the actions of the Gamemakers, who, if the Games aren’t entertaining enough, send in increasingly worse natural disasters and beasts after the competitors to force them together. The last battle in the arena is especially thrilling and horrifying, as is a short scene where Katniss hallucinates after being bitten by mutated wasps.
Katniss is, at best, a practical survivor who does what needs to be done and represses all else, resenting help as a debt. At worst, she can be a bit bland and take things a little too personally. She reminds me of a poor man’s Katsa from Graceling, in a way, right down to the childfreedom and distaste for marriage. (Their names are even similar!) There’s a supposed love triangle, as Katniss and her fellow District Twelve competitor, Peeta, must rely on a star-crossed lovers narrative to win sponsorship and support, but Katniss often thinks of her old hunting partner, Gale. I have to admit, I’m not quite sure what’s going on there. The love triangle feels a forced. Katniss, I have to say, reads almost violently asexual to me, considering her diatribe on how she can’t love Peeta as a wife or mother, her violent reaction to being considered romantically, and her lack of interest in her first kiss. Katniss’ focus is on survival, and I appreciate that greatly–so I felt a little cheated that Katniss starts having confused feelings towards both boys with little explanation despite her earlier certainty of nothing romantic at all between her and them. Her confusion doesn’t add much to the narrative or the ploy, and Peeta’s thoughts on the matter could have been retained without it. Sigh. is there any YA novel starring young women that doesn’t have romance in it? (And am I going to have to write a proper ace romance myself?)
I suppose most of my ire at this forced love triangle is that there are characters Katniss makes honest and organic connections with, instead of these sudden and unbelievable romantic ones. If I had to pair her off romantically, it would be with her stylist, Cinna, who helps her through her first interviews but remains a product of the Capitol. Most particular is Katniss’ relationship with Rue, the youngest competitor, who reminds her of her wonderfully innocent and kind little sister. Rue’s inevitable death is heartbreaking, as is Katniss’ grieving as a act of rebellion at these horrific Games. It’s hard to see these relationships so well-done juxtaposed against the poorly done romantic angle. Katniss is at her best as a lone (and lonely) hunter, one girl against the machine, instead of a player in an unconvincing romantic triangle.
The worldbuilding is pretty accessible–all you truly need to know is that there are twelve oppressed districts in a dystopian future. The contrast between District Twelve, where life is a struggle and starvation is a regular occurrence, and the glamorous and bloodthirsty Capitol is quite stark. There are hints of things underneath the surface–the Bob Costa of the Hunger Games hasn’t aged in forty years, and the Capitol residents seem to spend their time watching these games and modifying their bodies. As this is a trilogy (and considering the ending), I know that Collins will expand the world further. The class tension between Katniss, who is never more than a few days away from starvation, and Peeta, whose family is part of the merchant class, is, I felt, well-done, as is Katniss’ anger towards the wealthy competitors that have been training all their lives for this. In fact, I really enjoyed the sort of evil Olympics feel to The Hunger Games, from the opening ceremonies to the carefully done interviews with a sympathetic host. Collins says she was inspired to write The Hunger Games after flipping from a reality show to war coverage too fast. I think she nailed it.
I think I am going to follow this series, to see where it leads, but it’s no longer a priority. Maybe the hype hurt The Hunger Games for me; I was expecting something more (in the same irritatingly vague way of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, I suppose). Still, it was both enjoyable and a little disappointing.
Bottom line: While it’s an accessible dystopian tale of teenage gladiators with a practical hunter as its heroine, The Hunger Games is mildly derailed by an unconvincing romantic triangle that looks poorly next to genuine connection and occasionally simplistic writing. Still, worth it a read if it sounds interesting (and doesn’t it just?).
I rented this book from the public library.