Cover image (courtesy Wikipedia)
Yes, I’ve never read it before! **Spoilers for The Hunger Games, and oddly enough, Children of Men.**
I’m lucky enough to live in a golden age of young adult speculative fiction. I’ve read – and loved – a lot of it, but The Hunger Games is a near-perfect example of the type. The pacing is perfect, the characters strong, the plot fantastic, the world-building exquisite, and the connections to the real world downright unsettling.
I was sold on the premise from the page Katniss mentions the tesserae. The physical world of The Hunger Games is average, perhaps deliberately so. But Collins’ plotting of Panem’s political system is extraordinary. Someone on Wikipedia (how’s that for referencing?) comments that they think it’s unrealistic that a society would turn people into celebrities as punishment. But, even putting aside the historical cases of gladiatorial games, it seems plausible that a government might basically say, “Ha ha, we have soooo much, but the only way you can get anything like it is by risking your life for our entertainment.” Of course this would have its drawbacks and exploiters – the emergence of Career tributes being one. But the fact that a killer reality show might not be the most efficient way of oppressing people, doesn’t stop a society from getting to a place where they feel that it is.
Speaking of the Careers, does anyone else feel they’re unfairly maligned? One of my favourite parts is the punch-in-the-gut moment when it dawns on Katniss – and the reader — that the unpleasant Haymitch probably got that way from watching his District’s tributes die year after year. But the Careers’ lives can’t be all fun and games (sorry, terrible phrasing) either. Unlike Katniss, Prim and Gale, who can spend their teens reassuring themselves that their chances of being selected are quite small, the Career tributes must know from a young age that they will go and kill and probably be killed*. Maybe this complexity is drawn out later in the trilogy, and I’m just making myself look stupid complaining about it!
One of my other favourite things in this book is the action and pacing, and Katniss’s place in it. I’m in awe of how Collins uses action to advance the novel conceptually**, as well as the more traditional application in creating tension and gluing me to the book. In resistance to the Capitol’s dehumanising tactics, the death of each tribute is jarring. Even the “bad” ones. Even when Katniss doesn’t see their deaths, which itself (as opposed to the trope where everyone dies “on screen”) adds to the sense of the scale and senselessness of the Games.
I wondered how Collins would write Katniss in the arena – given the whole kill-or-be-killed ultimatum, it seemed she’d either make an unrealistic triumph without hurting a fly, or get seriously non-PG. How it played out reminded me a lot of Children of Men, an intense film in which the main character never once fires a gun. The Games force Katniss to be a bit more aggressive than that, but I love the unexpected complexity of having a hero(ine) whose solution is not to kill everyone in sight. Plus the gritty reality that the first threat to her life is dehydration. On top of all the other seemingly-impossible things Collins does, she writes a book focussed on violence, where the central tension is over the possibility of violence, without glorifying violence.
In fact, Collins delivers a stern critique of people who see this stuff as entertaining, not to mention voyeuristic desires for extreme displays of human emotion. Although it doesn’t take a genius to figure out contemporary “reality” shows are anything but, when you actually know someone on one of those shows it’s still a shock how much they (are made to) manufacture for the purpose of entertainment. As such, Peeta and Katniss’s “relationship” is incredibly interesting, and Katniss’s constant concern for the sponsors adds yet another layer of complexity. Sometimes I don’t know how Katniss – not to mention Collins! – keeps it all straight in her head, but the second-nature way she factors in the whole thing reminds us of how she’s grown up with the Capitol’s manipulative cruelty.
With all this in mind, there are a few things I feel are overlooked. It doesn’t quite ring true when Katniss says that they keep the old arenas as tourist attractions for the Capitol people. All 73 of them. Given that Katniss’s arena is large enough that they never seem to hit an edge (I know the Capitol people could be diverting them away from the barriers, but she still manages to walk quite far seemingly in a straight line), it’s hard to believe that there are 74 of these arenas on the continent, and counting. Maybe they only keep arenas from recent and/or very popular years? Secondly, did none of the 73 previous Hunger Games result in a situation where the two final tributes mortally wounded each other before the Gamemakers could intervene?
Also, little nuances abound, and I’m sure I’ve noticed only a fraction upon first reading. A few people have mentioned Christian references in The Hunger Games. The story seems to me a political comment, rather than anything that can be plotted to the Bible like Narnia. But does anyone else read Cinna as “sinner”? Given Collins is a Roman Catholic, it can’t be a coincidence that the guy with this name is the only Capitol character shown who recognises the injustice of the system and his own part in it. On a lighter note, people have pointed out a few digs at Twilight in this book (the gusty female heroine herself being one), and I couldn’t help chuckling when Katniss thinks about her hallucination: “…just the fact that he was sparkling leads me to doubt everything that happened.”
Anyway, for all those who’ve read The Hunger Games, I hope the reflections of a new reader are interesting and/or amusing. If there’s anyone out there who’s even slower to the mark than me, get your hands on a copy quick-smart!
*Even if their only real competition is the other five Careers (one from their own, four from other districts), that’s still over an 80% chance of death when, not if, they’re in the games.
** This really highlights the false dichotomy between “plot-driven” and “literary” works – yes, action novels often don’t engage with deep ideas, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, and, as Collins proves, the devices of action themselves can be used for ideas.***
*** Interestingly, I can think of films with plenty of action (Bladerunner, Animal Kingdom, The Searchers, Children of Men) that have been deemed worthy of inclusion in English courses. But adventure in a novel, particularly contemporary works, instantly strikes them from the “literary” genre. Discuss.