Some indeterminate time in the near future, North America is shattered by a series of natural and man-made catastrophes, and a bloody civil war. From the wreckage emerges a totalitarian central government, the Capitol, surrounded by twelve Districts that supply it with goods and raw materials. The Capitol has a monopoly on all advanced technology and military force. Citizens of the Districts live mostly at a subsistence level on whatever scraps remain from their exports to the Capitol, and the merest breath of dissent is crushed without mercy. Another District, the 13th, has already been obliterated for attempting rebellion, and the Capitol employs an assortment of means to reinforce its message that revolt is both futile and fatal.
The most demoralizing of all is the Hunger Games. Every year, each District must select two children, one boy and one girl, to participate in a battle to the death that is broadcast across the Capitol’s empire. For the bored residents of the Capitol, the event is high entertainment. For the Districts, it’s a devastating reminder that no aspect of their life is exempt from Capitol control.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, a region in what used to be the Appalachians, devoted to coal mining. Her father died in a mine explosion, and her mother suffers from debilitating depression, so 16-year-old Katniss must support her family by poaching game in the forest and trading the meat for the necessities of life. When the annual “reaping” lottery is held for the Hunger Games, Katniss’ 12-year-old sister Prim is chosen. It’s a death sentence. Prim isn’t capable of surviving combat of any sort, and impoverished District 12 has produced only two victors in the entire history of the Hunger Games.
Katniss steps forward to take Prim’s place.
She’s swept into a bizarre ritual of celebrity glamor and gladitorial combat. Katniss is a skilled hunter and a dead shot with bow and arrow, but her opponents are formidable, and she must play to the audience to win sponsorships that can provide a winning edge in the coming fight. She hasn’t a clue how to do that. Even worse, her mentor is District 12’s only surviving victor, who’s known more for his prowess with a wine bottle than his combat skills. Her fellow competitor from District 12 seems friendly enough, and she owes him a favor from long ago. Might his offer of alliance spring from something deeper than shared community, or is he luring her into a trap?
Does it even matter? When the Hunger Games begin, the only rule is to survive, and there can be only one victor.
Thanks to the Darling Daughter and her high school’s English Department, I stumbled onto Suzanne Collins’ little dystopian tale, The Hunger Games, and lost the better part of a day to it. I’m not paranoid about my daughter’s reading material, assigned or otherwise, but when she begins spending all her spare time locked in her room with a book–one she’s due to finish eight weeks from now–I become mildly curious. So, I thumbed through the first few pages…and didn’t stop until I’d finished the entire book.
It’s an absorbing read. The premise isn’t all that unusual–stories about societal collapse resulting in brutal totalitarian regimes are a staple of science fiction, and teens fighting teens to the death has been done before, painted in darker brushstrokes by Koushun Takami in Battle Royale. Our contemporary obsession with reality game shows is an obvious influence, and I also noticed echoes of the Greek legend of Theseus and the annual tribute of young Greek men and maidens sent to Crete for sacrifice to the Minotaur, a parallel I was gratified to discover the author acknowledges.
Collins keeps the action moving, and the first-person, present-tense narrative makes Katniss’ progression personal and compelling–from backwoods Annie Oakley, to fish-out-of-water in the reality-show world of the Games, to desperate warrior. A nice mix of flashbacks and dialogue with other characters fills in her backstory and that of the strange world she inhabits, one that must seem even more dangerous and frightening to young readers who have never experienced oppression, war, or want. The fighting scenes are riveting, as is the depiction of Katniss stalking her opponents through the forest as she is, in turn, stalked by them. Collins throws in a couple of genuine surprises along the way, including a particularly chilling revelation near the climax that I expect sets the stage for the rest of this series. Despite the violence of the Games and its brutalizing intent, I was glad that Katniss, though forced to fight for her life, and indelibly marked by this experience, never surrendered her humanity or her ability to feel compassion, even for her enemies.
Some may object to the story’s lack of explicit references to ethical/moral principles or spirituality of any sort, but I would counter that it depicts a society which has lost that compass, both in the Capitol (which has succumbed to depravity) and in the Districts (which are consumed by desperation and the task of day-to-day survival). Katniss and her friends, however, provide evidence that the spark of truth and love, and the aspiration to live a noble life despite a world that seems to demand only self-interest, still endure. Katniss gradually comes to understand the true evil of the Capitol regime and begins to see she must somehow stand against it, not simply endure it as a fact of life.
The really scary thing about this book, I realized as I was pondering it later on a long walk with my wife, was that it positioned me among the audience in the Capitol, watching detachedly from my easy chair with a cup of hot tea and a cookie, as Katniss endured horror after horror. Her maneuvers to capture the audience’s sympathy might well have been directed at me, and I could imagine Ms. Collins similarly reaching a key point in the story and thinking, “Here’s where we need to help them connect with Katniss,” or, “They’re getting bored about now, let’s make something happen.” Any author does this, but it was a little disturbing, as a reader, to think about the story this way. I’m not those people watching kids kill each other on television. I’d never tolerate this. I’m better than that.
I did have a few minor gripes. The supporting cast, with a couple of exceptions, seemed less than three-dimensional, and this impression wasn’t helped when several of the most interesting characters met their doom just as we were getting to know them. Katniss’ mother is a phantom and her father a fleeting memory. The ultimate villain, the Capitol government, remains shadowy and vaguely malevolent the entire story. We see what it does, but not why, and especially not who is pulling the strings. Katniss’ community in District 12 has substance and meaning, but the Capitol and its citizens are an Other of anonymous faces, living in wealth and luxury, blurred into an amorphous, despised entity. I can rationalize this from the story’s point-of-view, though–this is how Katniss sees her world.
The ending was less than satisfying, leaving Katniss to wrestle with a dilemma that seemed trivial by comparison with the battle she’d just survived. Of course, the story isn’t really over. It continues in two more volumes, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.
The Hunger Games has been adapted for the big screen and will be coming to a theater near you in March 2012. If handled properly, it could become the next Harry Potter-ish phenomenon, but I’m skeptical that Hollywood will be able to faithfully capture the subtext of Ms. Collins’ story. Oh, they’ll get the action part, and pump up the love story, just like the Gamemasters running the Arena, but they’ll miss the rest. Maybe they’ll surprise me. I still recommend reading the book first.
For older teens and up, mostly due to the violent nature of the Games, but even those depictions are more restrained than I expected. No explicit sexuality or profanity.