The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

2008, Scholastic, New York.

The Hunger Games is a young adult novel of a dystopian future. It is highly readable, and I recommend it even for adults who can no longer be considered young. As a matter of fact, I rather think it may be more appropriate for the elder among us than the younger; it is certainly a bit gruesome for the 5th graders that my school library has it pegged for. It is currently enjoying moderate-high popularity among the teen crowd, and is likely to become a bit of a classic. However, it is firmly in the arena of action/adventure, so those of you hoping for the next 1984 need to keep looking.

The story is set an undefined time in the future, after the collapse of the United States. The remains of the country are still affiliated as the nation of Panem, but an ancient civil war has segregated the country. The rich and powerful Capitol subjugates the 12 outlying districts, and forces them to produce all the resources and technology required to keep the ruling class living in luxury. The major symbol of the Capitol's power over the Districts are the Hunger Games, a yearly event where 12- to 18-year-old children are selected by lottery to fight to the death. This sounds bad enough, but the Capitol is very powerful, and very bored. Every year a new arena is devised, with new ecosystems, new weapons, new dangers, new and interesting ways to die painfully. The 23 violent deaths are televised live to the entire nation, and the Games, which may last for weeks, are required viewing for all the Districts' citizens.

The story's heroine is Katniss Everdeen, an 16-year-old girl who lives in District 12, the area that once was Appalachia. She comes from a poor family, and has only survived by learning to hunt, illegally, in the wilds beyond the protective fences surrounding the city. She and her friend Gale are the foremost hunters and woodsmen in town, and they make a good living selling black-market meat to the richer townsfolk. As you may have guessed, Katniss is chosen for the Games. There's not a lot I can tell you without giving spoilers (and in fact, I have already bent the truth to avoid giving too much away), but I will say that only about half of the book actually deals with teenagers dying violent deaths at each-others hands.

This is certainly a work of science fiction, and action/adventure, and romance (on the level of Twilight; this is not a bodice-ripper). Its appeal is not limited to fans of those genres. However, there are a lot of deaths, mostly murders, all violent, many of them unnecessarily gruesome. You don't want to read this if that bothers you. This is a story about an evil and decadent ruling class abusing their powers; the deaths are meant to be disturbing, and they are. Having said that, this is not written to be a horror story, and I liked it, despite hating horror stories. I would, however, hesitate to recommend this book to any kid, or teenager, unless I knew them pretty well and knew that they liked this kind of story.

There are two other books following The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay. They are both excellent books, but the series should be read in order. Read The Hunger Games first.

I read Suzanne Collinsdystopian young adult novel The Hunger Games partly because several writer friends recommended it to me as being quite good and partly because it’s been such a runaway success. As with Christa Faust’s novels, it offers a first-person narration through the eyes of a dangerous female protagonist, in this case Katniss Everdeen. I was likewise struck by Collins’ descriptions:

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

We learn a great deal about the characters and their situations in this description of Buttercup. First, we know that Katniss is the main force keeping her little family alive, because she sees the cat as another mouth to feed. She’s got far more serious responsibilities than the teenagers who are reading about her adventures.

The cat isn’t merely sitting with narrator Katniss’ little sister Prim but is guarding her. The whole family feels protective of Prim, the cat included, and this foreshadows Katniss’ decision to offer herself up as tribute in the games to save her sister from almost certain death.

Why does Katniss feel so protective of her sister? Prim sees a beauty in the world that ruthlessly practical Katniss clearly does not, especially when it comes to Buttercup, whom she describes in the most unappealing language possible. But at the same time, Katniss wants the beauty her sister sees to be a real thing. She wants to believe, and keeping her sister alive means that she gets to hang on to her unspoken hope that their world could become a better place. Katniss’ love for her sister is the one thing that softens her and redeems her. Katniss has no qualms about killing, and it’s just a few short steps from killing without remorse out of need and doing it for power and pleasure. At this stage of the book, Prim is the only person keeping Katniss from becoming a monster.

On another level, I was impressed that Katniss is portrayed as the kind of person who would try to kill a little girl’s pet cat. As I remarked in my writeup on Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always, the standard advice I’ve always gotten is that in popular fiction, you don’t show harm coming to pets and babies. It’s simply not done if you want to avoid alienating your readers. Katniss of course relents and doesn’t actually kill Buttercup, and Buttercup is portrayed as quite an unpleasant beast. But still, Katniss is not coming off as a likable person here. (Prim’s love of ugly, hissy Buttercup also mirrors her love for her hard-bitten sister). It’s pretty risky to have a protagonist running around killing animals right in the first pages of a book for younger readers.

But clearly, this didn’t limit the book’s readership in any noticeable way. So, seeing Katniss’ portrayal here should gives writers more confidence in terms of the types of characterizations and horrors we can include in our own YA narratives. Writers need not sanitize unpleasant details from their fiction simply because of their readers’ ages.

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