Estelle’s husband, James, joins us today with a review of The Hunger Games.
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games may be a wild collection of themes and stories, but it is far more than just the sum of its parts. The runaway smash hit adventure/thriller trilogy manages to explore numerous strong themes, draw references to pop culture and history, and even hits on a number of current social issues while simultaneously providing an enjoyable page-turner that is often as difficult to read as it is to put down.
That is not to say that The Hunger Games are poorly written, or boring, or a struggle to complete. Far from it. Instead, the essential plot points, themes, and events of the story threaten to turn your stomach as often as they cause you to crack a smile. Throughout the trilogy, Collins proves adept at setting a brisk yet steady pace and resolutely sticking with it, and after some of the more egregiously shocking revelations (in just the first few chapters), you begin to wonder what other jaw-droppers she can drop at the end of each chapter; yet somehow, she never ceases to amaze – for better or for worse.
For background, The Hunger Games is set in the future after an unknown catastrophic event obliterates most of humanity in North America (and, we can only assume, the rest of the world). A smattering of humans somehow survived and eventually formed the republic of Panem from the ashes of the United States. Panem is ruled by the Capitol, the extravagant and wealthy heart of the republic and the seat of power for the ruthless President Snow and his army of Peacekeepers, who brutally control the masses residing in 12 separate districts. Each district is cut off from the others and is responsible for producing a special export for the Capitol.
The people of Panem living in the districts are, for the most part, desperately poor and have been completely broken down by oppression. In short, things look pretty dim for those not in the Capitol. Yet as if starvation, dictatorial rule, and abject poverty were not enough, the Capitol is also responsible for administering the annual Hunger Games, a devious punishment for a failed attempt at an uprising by the districts over seventy years ago. Once a year, a reaping is held in each district where two children between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected – one boy and one girl – to be sent to a gladiatorial arena where they must fight to the death on live television. The last tribute left standing is the victor of the Hunger Games, and he or she is thereafter responsible for training their district’s tributes.
The novels are written as a first-person, present-tense account by Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl from District 12, a mining town and the poorest of all the districts. Katniss is a fiercely independent character whose initial introduction features her slipping through the district’s electrified fence (their electrical coverage is so hit-or-miss it’s not usually on anyway) and venturing off into the forest to hunt wild animals with her best friend, Gale Hawthorne. The problem is that leaving the district is illegal, and hunting wild animals (and keeping the food, you see) is definitely illegal; so why do they continue to tempt fate? We quickly realize that without Gale’s superior tracking abilities and Katniss’s skills with a bow and arrow, they would both be dead from starvation along with many of the mouths they feed.
And as evil as the Capitol may already appear, let me tell you – it only gets worse.
Without giving away the gory details, rest assured that the Capitol has no shortage of butchery and ghastly violence to employ against the districts. With President Snow as Hitler, the conscripted Peacekeepers as the goose-stepping Nazis, and the ruthless Gamesmakers as Dr. Mengele and crew, it is clear that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Especially when you consider that the districts operate like concentration camps, and the ruling party annually slaughters the children of the people out of not only revenge and spite, but also outright fear.
Besides drawing from history, Collins also finds inspiration in a number of more modern topics and themes. The denizens of the Capitol, unlike those in the districts, are well-fed, cultured, and mostly immune to the horrors of the Capitol’s might. They dress in a flashy, trashy style that screams of The Hills meets My Chemical Romance, and are as enraptured by the bloodbaths in the Hunger Games as modern audiences are by reality TV drivel like The Bachelor and Survivor.
When the series opens, the Capitol and the districts have an uneasy but stable relationship; the Capitol rules all, and the districts keep their heads down and stay in line. No one risks speaking out or acting against the Capitol for fear of retaliatory torture and murder. Things really kick into high gear when Katniss is whisked away with Peeta Mellark, a local baker’s son, to be sent to the arena.
The events of the first novel, The Hunger Games, focus mainly on their struggle to make it out alive. In the second and third books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the themes of survival and desperation are increased while a new concept (both to readers and to the denizens of the districts) is introduced: rebellion against the Capitol. There will be no spoilers here, but the obvious story arc is that the districts must find a way to rise up and overthrow tyranny and oppression.
The Hunger Games trilogy features a vast number of themes ranging from slavery to child exploitation to independence and rebellion, yet the real thrill is not in trying to decipher its meaning but in enjoying the journey. Katniss and company embark on a roller coaster ride almost straight out of the gate which hardly ever slows, but it never feels like Collins is searching for a new plot line; the story just flows as naturally as all the blood that is spilled. Don’t be put off by the violence, though; underneath all the gore, the trilogy shows real heart and makes for an extremely engaging read, no matter how squeamish you may be. With the major film adaptation set to premiere in March 2012, now is the perfect time to check out The Hunger Games.
Just don’t say you weren’t warned.
James grew to be a bookworm at a very early age and probably shouldn’t have been reading Stephen King books in elementary school, but he just couldn’t help it. The library was always one of his best friends as a child and remains so today. While he wishes he could read for pleasure half as much as he reads for business, he still cherishes his lunch hours at work where he can stick his nose in a fun book for 45 minutes and forget the real world. After all, isn’t that what reading is all about anyway? His favorites include The Stand and The Shining by Stephen King; The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; and of course, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
Follow James on Twitter: @disruptor32