Friday, 5 November 2010

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games almost completely passed me by until all of a sudden the internet buzzed with news of the final installment, Mockingjay. I read of the cover design being leaked, the embargo apparently being as strict as a new Harry Potter or Dan Brown title, at least in the USA. Although the book was also embargoed over in the UK, no doubt with severe disciplinary action being taken against any bookseller who let it free to roam the shelves early, it wasn't until a few copies trickled into my bookshop that I realised it was part of an existing series: a dystopia, recommended on the cover blurb by Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King, that I had been staring at for maybe a year without ever really noticing.

The story is set many years into the future, after some vaguely specified apocalypse has virtually destroyed the USA. The country has been rebuilt as Panem, split into Districts, and ruled over by the tyrannical Capitol. Poverty exists everywhere else, stealing punishable by death which may be preferable to the slower death by starvation one otherwise faces. The highlight of the year is called The Hunger Games. Once a year, twenty four teenagers - a boy and a girl from each District - are entered into a reality TV show - a survival show. Literally. The show is a fight to the death, the winner being the last survivor. Contestants may opt-in, but not out. If you are chosen, there is nothing you can do but go through with the horrific ordeal. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the contest to save her beloved little sister from having to take part and no doubt be horribly slaughtered.

I did not expect to like The Hunger Games. The very thought of it repulses me and I wasn't sure I could handle a story that would be, essentially, a series of different death scenes, and of kids! Yet, over and over again, on blog after blog, I read rave reviews, and cannot recall a single negative one. Some people wrote that they were disappointed after the hype of Mockingjay, or maybe that the middle book was the weakest of the three, but the series as a whole received unanimous thumbs-up, so I decided I would try it and see what the fuss was all about.

I found The Hunger Games to be a very powerful book, with a terrifyingly well-realised world, some strong characters and a lot of action. Yet I'm not quite sure what the secret is. There are a lot of aspects of this book that usually turn me off a story - even if you leave out the evil that is the Hunger Games contest itself. I often don't like hardened, tough, cynical protagonists, and Katniss has aged before her time. She has had to. Her father is dead, her mother went to pieces with grief, and she was left as the head of the family in a brutal world. She has to be strong to survive, and she is presented as a realistic product of her upbringing. More than that, she is a real character, three-dimensional, understandable if not always sympathetic. Peeta, her companion from District 12, is quieter, at first glance weaker, a bit of a drip - or at least, that is how Katniss sees him. Yet as the story progresses and Katniss gets to know Peeta better, Peeta reveals an inner strength that was previously hidden.

The idea of the The Hunger Games came about when Suzanne Collins was channel-hopping between a reality TV show and news footage of child soldiers, and the juxtaposition between these two facets of the Hunger Games is jarring. On the one hand, Katniss is glamorised-up by airhead celebrity stylists, trained in interview skills, and on the other hand there is the gritty brutality of a war story. After all their training, all the build-up to the battle, some of her rivals die in the first minutes with only a sentence, not even named. It seems so anticlimactic, and yet this is war. And then, while the kids are fighting to survive, alone or together, Collins throws in a reminder that everything is live on television, that through all the carnage and chaos and terror, Katniss has to put on an act to show the Capitol what they want to see.

The Hunger Games themselves take up the majority of the book, mostly showing Katniss hiding, trying to find food and water out in the wilderness and just to stay alive. There is not a lot of human interaction or dialogue, as any other humans she meets are out to kill her. Again, I feel I ought to have got bored at times through these extended scenes, but Collins keeps you caring enough to want to know what happens next.

This next part contains some spoilers:

I was a little disappointed with the ending, or rather, I would have been if I hadn't known that the story continues. Firstly, the Gamemakers move the goalposts partway through the Games, which struck me as cheating on behalf of Collins, as it eliminates one of the hardest challenges Katniss and Peeta, if they were the last two survivors, would have to face - or would, if they didn't move them back at the last minute. Cunning, though, as it gives Katniss, Peeta and the reader a sense of relief before knocking them down back again, so maybe it wasn't quite the cheat I initially thought. I was sorry, however, that the pair seemed so resigned to the Capitol's regime and apart from a couple of token acts of rebellion, do little to change the world in which they live. I had thought that Katniss would defy the Capitol more strongly than she did, and even in the last pages I was waiting for her protest that this is not right. I'm still waiting.

I'm not sure that The Hunger Games is as amazing as the hype had led me to believe, but it is a very good book, and it was a lot better than the book blurb and my reading taste came together to expect.

5 comments:

  1. Great review!
    I've been wanting to read the series since The Hunger Games first came out, but decided to wait until the whole series was already out. haha I'm extremely impatient!

    I plan on reading all three during the holidays and your review got me even more excited for them! :)

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  2. My daughter is soooo excited about this series coming to the big screen. I have not read the series yet but definitely will before seeing the movie!

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  3. Just last weekend my sis-in-law, a fellow bookaholic, was filling me in on this story. My mother-in-law sat by and listened and had much the same feelings as you. Why children she wanted to know. Your review has definitely filled in some of the blanks for me. I may just have to try this one on for size.

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  4. I've never read The Hunger Games- seemed to have passed me by. I might have to try :)

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  5. I'm loving the new starring system.

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