The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Over the last few years, you may have noticed an increase in popularity in Young Adult novels which have a dystopian science fiction setting. I reviewed one of these – Moira Young’s Blood Red Road – last month and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series has become increasingly talked about in the lead up to its forthcoming film adaptation. The rise in popularity of this genre can be traced back to The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games was written by Suzanne Collins and was first published in 2008. It forms the first part of a series of books which are collectively known as The Hunger Games Trilogy, also containing Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010).

The novel is a first person narrative from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl named Katniss Everdeen. In Katniss’s world – Panem – the poorer people live it outlying Districts that surround the opulent Capitol. As a punishment for a rebellion seventy-four years previously, it has been decreed that every year each district will surrender one boy and one girl to the Capitol. These tributes are chosen by a random lottery and are destined to be pitted against each other in a televised event known as the Hunger Games – a battle to death from which only one victor can emerge.

When her sister’s name is drawn at the Reaping, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. Along with her male counterpart – Peeta Mellark – she is transported to the Capitol in order to undergo the combination of public appearances and training that precede the games. During one such interview, Peeta reveals that he has always been in love with Katniss – much to her horror. Katniss sees this as a psychological attack to give him the edge in the arena, yet the people of Capitol eat it up.

Under the instruction of her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss is forced to play up this angle, presenting herself and Peeta as star-crossed lovers in order to earn favour with the viewers. In the Hunger Games, such favour means sponsorship and the chance of being awarded gifts that will be essential to her survival. To be without sponsors is to enter the arena at a disadvantage against twenty-three other teenagers, all of whom are desperate to kill you…

Firstly, I feel that I should say that The Hunger Games is an absolutely outstanding novel and really does shine as a paragon of young adult literature. It is eloquently written and never talks down to its reader, presenting some complex political ideas and violent themes in a way that never feels sugar-coated or over simplified. A mistake that a lot of young adult writers make is to assume that their audience is stupid and non-judgemental. They churn out simplistic, non-challenging novels (often written in poor prose or with glaring continuity errors) because they simply believe that teenagers will read anything and so effort is not necessary. This is thankfully not the case with The Hunger Games.

The setting of the novel is striking and memorable. There is a sharp contrast between District 12, where people often starve to death in streets and are forced to live beneath a perpetual miasma of fear, and the Capitol where people have money to burn and have never known hunger. The Games themselves helps to draw out the difference in attitudes between the rich and poor. In the Districts, people are forced by law to watch the Games but take no pleasure from them (for them, the loss is real). In the Capitol, it is presented as a glorious event and people watch the brutal deaths as though it was a game show, betting on the outcomes and elevating the Victors to celebrity status. It seems far-fetched at first, but still somewhat believable. It’s a futuristic recreation of Roman gladiatorial combat and so never seems beyond the realms of possibility.

The first third of the novel largely presents these differences in the form of culture shock. Katniss has only ever known poverty and is immediately shocked and angered by what she learns in Capitol. Even the first meal that she is given on the train would have taken her days of hunting to prepare (and, she notes, still would have paled in comparison). For all the niceties of the Capitol, it still cannot escape the barbarism that lies just beneath its gleaming crust. The servants are captured traitors who have had their tongues cut out and the Tributes are presented in a way that makes them seem proud of their sacrifice.

This glamour fades away for the last two thirds of the novel, when the Hunger Games begins. I found this to be a bit of a shame, as I was absolutely captivated by depiction of Panem in the early chapters and really did long to see more, but obviously as the novel is called The Hunger Games one would expect this to be the central focus. The Games are not an original concept by any means (bringing together a combination of ideas from Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and Stephen King’s The Running Man) however it is still an exciting idea. The Games are fast paced and brutal, retaining tension even through the quieter moments. We are aware from the start that twenty-three of the Tributes must die, but the order and means by which that these deaths occur provides much of the movement and uncertainty that sustains the rest of the novel.

My only real gripe here, and this is just a small niggling sort of thing, but why exactly is this called the Hunger Games? I understand that food is scarce and this causes problems for many of the Tributes that are not skilled hunters like Katniss is, but hunger is really the least of their problems in the arena. Katniss specifically tells us that the viewers in Capitol find the sight of the Tributes succumbing to the elements boring and so the Gamemakers deliberately try to engineer ways that will draw them all out into open combat. If the danger is not starvation, then why put the word hunger in the title at all? Sure, it sounds catchy but it does not seem to make sense.

As you can see, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here to find things to criticise in terms of plot. The story is well paced and exciting, even if it does end a little abruptly after the Games have finished. However, this does not mean that novel is without flaws. The biggest problem that I had with the novel is its treatment of the supporting characters.

My issue does not lie with Katniss or Peeta. Katniss is presented as very strong and capable heroine. Although she is somewhat paranoid and distrustful of the people around her, we can clearly see that this is just due to the nature of her upbringing. Katniss is a survivor, which is why she finds it so easy to assume the role of a Hunger Games Tribute. Following her father’s death and mother’s subsequent breakdown, Katniss was forced to become her family’s provider – breaking the law by hunting outside of the District in order to keep everyone fed and healthy. She is not a warrior, but her hunting skills give her and edge in the Games – the ability to track and snare game and skills with a bow and knives – which cause her chances of survival to gradually increase as the Games drag on.

Although Katniss is somewhat lacking in compassion, Peeta more than makes up for this. The two characters complement each other brilliantly – with Katniss providing the survival skills and Peeta providing the soul. It’s interesting that this provides a reversal from the norm (as usually in literature you find that the male characters are strong while the female are compassionate) and thus provides a breath of fresh air to tired gender stereotypes.

Katniss is suspicious of Peeta from the start, convinced that his kindness is just an act to try and lull her into a false sense of security, but it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that she has assessed him all wrong. Peeta is not trying to fool anyone, he is always honest about how he feels towards Katniss. It is merely her paranoia and inability to understand altruism (an understandable side effect of her upbringing) that causes her to believe that he is merely out to make her look foolish in front of the viewers.

While these two characters are soundly written and likable, the problem that I have with the characters is that I am given no reason to care for the other Tributes. With the exception of Rue (the female Tribute from District 11 who reminds Katniss of her sister), there is no time given to building the characters of the remaining twenty-one teenagers. One or two of them have names (Cato, Glimmer, Thresh) yet don’t really develop beyond a few off handed comments that Katniss gives to describe their outward appearance and fighting style. Some others (Foxface) make a bit more of an impression, but still it boils down to merely an assessment of their abilities as Katniss never speaks to them directly. Most of the others are only ever referred to by their District number as Katniss does not know anything about them.

While I feel that I should care about these people because they are all dying in horrible ways, I unfortunately do not.  Even in Battle Royale, at least all of the students had names. When they are killed, I don’t feel sorry for them in any way because I’ve been given no reason to like them. I’m not saying that we need to know all of the Tribute’s back stories (especially as a good number of them are wiped out immediately as the Games begin) but for the major ones it would have been nice to know a little about them – what motivated them, what they had left behind, what life was like in their District. I think it would have made their death have some meaning, rather than just become statistics. In a way, this puts us in an even more removed position than the people of the Capitol, as at least they have watched the interviews and know all about each Tribute.

I’m aware that I’ve been rambling for a while so I think it’s probably about time that I wrap this one up. The Hunger Games is a fantastic novel, offering a blend of action, suspense, romance and political allegory that will entice any reader. Setting my gripes about the characterisation of the Tributes aside, I thoroughly recommend that you seek out and read this book as I do not think that you will be disappointed. I am certainly really looking forward to seeing how the plot thickens throughout the rest of the trilogy.

The Hunger Games can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. helen berry
    Apr 02, 2014 @ 17:29:56

    Hi Kim! Found this via your Facebook and thought I’d have a read. I love the hunger games series and enjoyed your review.

    It is interesting to hear your take on the supporting characters. I agree they’re not at all fleshed out and you might be right, perhaps we should care about them a bit more. but for me I think that kind of highlighted what it would be like in that kind of situation. Katniss doesnt want to get to know too many of the people. She has to be able to get on with what she’s got to do to survive. So the lack of development seemed appropriate to me. Rue provided a good balance and brought it home that each of the characters is a real human being.

    Maybe the hunger thing in the title referenced the hunger out in the districts as well as just in the games – they can earn extra food by putting extra entries in for the reaping etc – the capitol controls the food and thus the districts and the games is the big reminder that they must be good and that’s why they’re hungry. That’s how I took it anyway! Not sure if I’m right!

    If you’re looking for similar books I would really recommend ‘the knife of never letting go’ and the rest of that trilogy.

    Reply

    • Kim
      Apr 02, 2014 @ 20:12:22

      Hi Helen – glad you found me!

      I admit that my gripe about the other tributes is a personal one. I’m just of the opinion that if a character is killed there should always be a good reason for it. Because I didn’t feel that I knew any of the Tributes (bar Katniss, Peeta and Rue), there deaths had no meaning to me. I admit that it does make sense from Katniss’s perspective (realistically, it makes sense to distance herself from them) but from a story telling perspective it seemed weak. I think I mentioned ‘Battle Royale’ in the review – this novel has a very similar premise but I felt handled the characters a little better than ‘The Hunger Games’.

      I like your idea about the name of the Games – I hadn’t thought of it that way. Another suggestion that has been offered to me is that it refers to the reason for the Games – the Districts revolting against Capitol because they were starving. I guess in this sense it would be so called to always remind the people in the Districts of this fact. I don’t know if Suzanne Collins has ever stated where the name comes from though (I couldn’t find an official reason when I googled it).

      Many thanks for the book recommendation – I’ll add it to my list and hopefully get to take a look at it soon!

      Reply

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