I’m sure that most of you have already heard of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy. There are even movies made of this book and the sequel. Obviously, I’m a bit behind the curve and have just started reading the series. Unlike the last fiction work I read which took me a couple years to get through, this one took me less than a week.
It’s funny when something like The Hunger Games comes around there are always those who love it with an undying passionate love and those who seem to despise the book with an undying passion of their own. Sometimes it is hard for me to figure out if the hatred for a book is simply due to the love other people have for the book (as some kind of self-imposed balancing force) or due to honestly thinking the book is terrible.
Personally, I really enjoyed the book. It was easy to read and had a plot that sucked me in. I would say the book does have a few flaws, but nothing to really hinder it too much. However, let’s look a little closer at what The Hunger Games is about and what it has going for it and against it.
The plot focuses around the titular Hunger Games. The Hunger Games take place in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem that is built on the ashes of what we call North America. The country has twelve districts and is ruled over by The Capitol. The event known as the Hunger Games is where twenty four tributes aged 12-18 from the twelve districts are forced to fight to the death in arena combat. Now if this wasn’t morbid enough, the games are also televised and treated like we treat reality television competitions like Survivor.
Our window into the world of The Hunger Games comes through the main character and heroine of the book Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is a 16 year old girl from District 12 who finds herself in the 74th Hunger Games and trying to survive. Of course this will be no easy task as there are twenty three other participants that are trying to do the same thing.
I may be oversimplifying the plot a bit, but this captures the essence of what the book is about. I must say though, that while the plot seems fairly simple, it also always feels like the plot is bigger than what we’re seeing. Perhaps that seems obvious since the Hunger Games is part of the a trilogy and everything. Even so, it does a good job of keeping a tight plot in a stand-alone book while still creeping it’s tendrils out in such a way that I wondered if there is more going on than we’re privy to.
The plot and world that is presented is an interesting one, even if it isn’t maybe the most original. I’m sure many people can find books or short stories that this will remind them of. I had thoughts of the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson while reading it, but truthfully this did little to cause me to dislike The Hunger Games, but more wonder if there was any inspiration from it.
I’ve also seen criticism of the plot being that it wouldn’t be possible because something as horrible as the Hunger Games would be resisted against too much. I’m not sure if I buy this as part of what keeps people doing it is the oppressive, totalitarian nature of the Capitol. They appear to be better fed, resourced, and armed than at least District 12, so it all seems a bit one sided.I don’t underestimate the power of fear and oppression. However, even if it is still unlikely, I’d say that I don’t really require “realism” in my fiction of this type.
One negative I do have about the plot is that it tries to shoehorn a love triangle into the works. Which, I must admit, is not the most convincing plot point in the book. It seems like included because it was needed to gain traction as a young adult novel and not really because the plot needed it.
The character that you spend the most time with and come to know the best is Katniss. After all the novel is told from her perspective in the first person. While I’d hold that this is an overall positive choice of perspective, it does hold a few weaknesses. The strength is that you get to know Katniss really well. She’s a great character. She’s strong, smart, but still real enough to do very stupid things in the midst of everything too. She seems like a well fleshed out and very human character.
The problem with this is that the other characters are only able to be known to the extent that Katniss knows them. This leads to weaker characterization of the supporting cast. While I think that the cast of supporting characters are still presented and developed fairly well, there isn’t nearly as much development of them as their is of Katniss. This makes it easy to see other characters as perhaps more one dimensional than they really are, simply because that’s primarily how Katniss perceives them.
Another potential negative is that Katniss really doesn’t know a lot of what’s going on during the book and neither do you. She doesn’t understand the thoughts and motivations of other characters unless it is later divulged; you don’t know what’s going on elsewhere until she gets the information. This isn’t a terrible thing as it helps create a tense atmosphere and has you trying to figure out what’s going on too, but I could see how some might get frustrated with it.
Themes (Some Spoilers Possible)
The Hunger Games is an interesting beast. I found it to be an enjoyable book, but it deals with subject matter that is a bit uncomfortable, like the whole teenagers being forced to fight to the death thing. I’ve seen some try to make it seem that the book glorifies violence and is an endorsement of what the Hunger Games in the books represented. I’d have to disagree with this assessment.
In fact I’d say one of the main themes of the book is the misuse of power and violence. While the other main theme is survival and the willingness to disobey the authority in order to survive. These two linked themes can be found all over the place in the book.
We see the misuse of power underneath the reasoning for the Hunger Games in the first place.The reason for this terrible event is to remind the districts of a time when they tried to rebel against the Capitol. It is a reminder of who is really in power and what happens when that power is resisted. It is the pinnacle of power and violence being abused.
As you proceed through the book, this abuse of power is highlighted again and again. While many people in the districts go hungry, we find that in the Capitol there is plenty of food to go around. Both the quality and quantity of food in the Capitol far exceeds the meager portions that can be found in District 12 where starvation is a very real fear.
To make matters even worse the citizens of the Capitol are so self-absorbed and separated from the plight and abuse that takes place in the other districts. The Hunger Games are presented as some spectacle complete with stylists, parades, and even televised interviews.They present the Hunger Games as if those participating were doing this for some noble cause, or as if the majority weren’t going off to their deaths.
The other main theme is that of survival and that sometimes defying the authorities is necessary in doing so. Again this is a theme that is present from the opening pages to the end of the book. We first see Katniss getting up and sneaking out of the boundaries of District 12 to hunt in the nearby forests. This is something that if she was caught she could face severe punishment, but hunting was a way that she could provide food for herself and her family. Survival was more important than obedience.
This continues in small and large ways throughout. Even Katniss volunteering for the Hunger Games in place of her sister could be viewed as defiance to the status. It is also an example of another significant theme in the book, which is self-sacrifice. Katniss is willing to sacrifice herself to protect her younger sister. There are also other examples from Katniss and other characters that are willing to sacrifice themselves for others throughout the book..
Personally, I would say that these are the strongest themes of the book and carry the weight going forward. Katniss’ main focus is on survival, and while she does realize that her need to survive is because of the abuses of the Capitol, her defiance is not necessarily ideological as much as practical. She wants to stay alive and keep those she cares about alive. So she doesn’t always think too hard about the consequences of that survival when it is in defiance to the power of the Capitol.
As I said near the beginning, I enjoyed The Hunger Games. It’s an engaging book that deals with themes and a plot that can be a bit disturbing, but that I feel ultimately serves a purpose. I certainly liked it a lot more than the last fiction book I read.