It finally happened, I read the Hunger Games. Not that this should come as much of a surprise, I did promise I would after all. But it took me quite a while! Months back when I was doing a review of Dystopian Science Fiction – which earned me most of my current followers, thank you! – one of the biggest questions I was asked was “what about the Hunger Games?”
Yes, person after person wanted to know how this recent piece of YA dystopian fiction fit into the historical record. At the time, I really had no intention of reading it or doing a review. Not because I had anything against Collins or this book, but because I had not heard of it prior to the movie’s release. And I have this thing where I become resistant towards anything that becomes a big commercial deal. Maybe its a desire not to follow the trends, I don’t know.
However, as I began to look into the concept of this book, the desire began to grow to check it out. And though I did my best to avoid spoilers, I couldn’t help but check out some reviews of the phenomena and what is said about our culture. Here is an excerpt from one such article, entitled “‘The Hunger Games’: your kids are angrier than you think”, by Brian Bethune (Maclean’s Magazine):
“Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and ﬁx their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even.
Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager. And living it in an era of economic uncertainty, conspiracy theories and fear of environmental collapse. Western civilization used to produce literary utopias, but in the past century of world wars, ﬁnancial panics, murderous totalitarian regimes and nuclear threat, dystopias have outnumbered sunny projections by several orders of magnitude. Pessimistic depictions of the future are now everywhere in popular culture. Teens and teen books are not immune to larger trends in society.”
What a perfect synopsis really. Not only is this book a look at a future where apocalyptic events have led to the creation of an oppressive, abusive state that controls people through scarcity and force. Not only is it a commentary on mankind’s fascination with reality tv and endless appetite for distraction. No, this book has the added dimension of capturing the angst and confusion of being a teenager, thrust into the world of adults and forced to work hard and compete for their apparent amusement, all the while reflecting on how it’s basically the older generation that have made the world what it is.
Not that it’s necessary since so many people have now read the book or seen the movie, but I shall give a bare bones summary anyway just to recap the selling points. The story opens on the nation of Panem, which is a play on the name Pan-America, a post-apocalyptic nation set in the not too distant future. Though it is never specified exactly what happened, what is clear is that what is left of North America is now organized into 12 Districts ruled from a central city known only as “The Capitol”.
We then see the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a resident of District 12 located in the coal-rich areas of Appalachia. Her and her friend Gale are hunting, which is necessary to ensure their families eat well and supplement their meager incomes. We quickly learn that the Hunger Games are upon the 12 District for another year, that the names of two “tributes” are about to be drawn from each district, whereupon they will be sent to the Capitol to compete. When District 12’s names are drawn, Katniss is terrified to learn that her younger sister’s Priss, who is barely a tween, has been selected. She does the unthinkable and volunteers in her stead.
Her partner/competitor for the games is a baker’s boy named Peeta, a boy who apparently has always fancied her. The two of them are put aboard the special rail car for transport to and from the Capitol where they meet their “coach”, their design team, and the frumpy lady who acts as their PR and etiquette consultant. As they travel in style, these people take turns prepping them, which mainly consists of cleaning them up and making them look presentable since the lead up to the games involves all kinds of televised appearances and interviews.
Their coach, a man named Haymich Abernathy, who was the last person from D12 to win, is a horrendous drunk who doesn’t seem to care what happens to them. This changes when an altercation aboard the train makes him realize that Katniss and Peeta have some fight in them. From then on, he curbs his drinking so he can advise them properly. When they arrive, they witness even more style and opulence, being placed in a private hotel, treated to lavish meals, and made to take part in a presentation ceremony where all districts ride out in a public arena.
Quickly, and with Haymich’s help, Katniss and Peeta distinguish themselves as the team to beat. On many occasions, hints are given that there is a bubbling romance between the two, one which may very well be real. Katniss also impresses her judges when she demonstrates her archery skills, something she’s spent years honing from hunting. By the time the games roll around, she is considered the contestant to beat, and Peeta quietly shares with her that he wishes there was a way to strike back at the people who are forcing them to compete.
The games begin shortly thereafter and half the tribute die within the first day. Bonds form as the kids from the more privileged districts, known as the Career Tributes, come together to eliminate other contestants, which is typical of the games. As the best equipped, best sponsored and best trained contestants – who, as the name suggests, spend much of their time preparing for this at home – a tribute from one of their districts is usually the winner. Their leader is a large, temperamental boy named Cato, who to her dismay, Peeta seems to have joined in order to hunt her.
Luckily, Katniss forms a bond of her own with a young girl named Rue, a young girl from District 11 who reminds her of her sister. Small, fast, and adept at climbing and hiding, the two become fast friends and assist each other. They even manage to take out a few of the privileged kids and manage to destroy their supply cache, a move which evens the odds considerable. Peeta also risks his own life to save Katniss at one point, a move which confounds her since she was convinced he turned on her. However, the move saves her life and causes Peeta to be several injured by Cato himself.
Shortly thereafter, Rue is killed by one of the boys. Katniss manages to take this boy out with an arrow, and sings to Rue until she dies. This is something she promised she’d do, as Rue was a lovely singer who sang regularly during her long hours picking orchard fruit. Remembering what Peeta said about getting back at the Capitol, she also moves Rue’s body to a more dignified spot and covers it with flowers, knowing that everyone in the Capitol is watching. She is given heart when she realizes that Peeta’s has not been declared dead yet and goes off in search for him.
She finds him camouflaged in an embankment and digs him up. He is mortally wounded, and Katniss spends the next few days trying to heal him. Due to their growing popularity as “star-crossed lovers” the Capitol announces a rule change, couples from a district can win together! Once he’s healed enough, Katniss and Peeta begin to enact a final plan to draw the last of their enemies out and kill them. When Rue’s fellow tribute dies and the girl named “Foxface” is accidentally poisoned by some berries Peeta picks, Cato is now alone. However, when they find him, the Capitol throws in another game changer.
All the previous tributes, now dead and taken away, have been bred into muttations – bio-engineered dogs that can stand on their hind legs, and that are smarter and more aggressive than your average hound. These dogs pursue the three tributes to the Cornucopia, the starting point of the games, where they trap them on top of the structure. There, Cato tries to take Peeta hostage, but Katniss takes him down with an arrow to the hand. He falls and is set upon by the mutts, and Katniss mercifully fires and arrow into his head to end his suffering.
In the end, the Capitol declares that the two of them must kill each other again, but Katniss and Peeta pull a fast one. Grabbing their store of poisonous berries, they resolve to eat a lethal handful together and force the issue. Seeing this, the Capitol backs down and declares them both winners! A hovercraft arrives shortly thereafter and brings them back to the Capitol for medical treatment and rest. When Katniss wakes up, she learns that Peeta is alive and well despite his many injuries, and she appears to be completely made over.
However, all accounts are not settled. Haymich warns her before the final interviews take place that her stunt with Peeta embarrassed the rulers of Panem and they are planning on retribution against them. There only hope is to make it look as if they did it for love, playing up the popular lovers angle and thus ensuring that the Capitol can’t touch them. This, they do, but Peeta is heart-broken when he learns that to Katniss, this was just a ploy to help them win. However, she privately reflects that she doesn’t know if her feelings for Peeta are genuine or not, and fears what will happen when they are separated upon their return to D12.
Let me start with the criticisms first, since that is by far a shorter list. To begin, I felt that things were conveyed a little quickly and easily vis a vis the whole power structure of Panem. It’s in the first chapter when the Games are being discussed that Katniss conveys all the relevant details about the 12 districts, how their used to be a 13th, and how the games are used to control them and prevent further rebellion. In fact, I felt that the tone of the book was being pitched at a bit of a basic level.
But then of course, I remembered that it’s YA fiction. Of course it’s going to say these things up front, the intended audience is not yet familiar with dystopian fiction and its many subtleties. Slapping myself on the forehead and saying “A-doi!” I continued reading with a more open and less snobbish mind. And the book only got better from there, weaving a young adults appraisal of the world quite seamlessly with dystopian themes.
Because in the end, the real genius of the book comes through amidst all the entertaining and well-paced format of the story. Between Katniss’ confusion, angst, anger and the ongoing struggle to stay alive, the dystopian flavor of the whole affair really shines through. We see that there are very clear and obvious distinctions between the Capitol and the outlying districts, that these become more evident and appalling the further one ventures out, and that disparities between districts are exploited for the sake of entertainment and control.
This is especially true when it comes to the Career Tributes, who have it better than the others and stick together as a way of guarding their shared sense of privilege. The way the outlying districts, as personified by Rue and Katniss, form similar bonds is held up as the flip-side to this, where a shared sense of deprivation and abuse push them together to resist their common enemies. And what I found brilliant about this was how it demonstrated that for the dispossessed, it’s not just the oppressors who they must fight against, but also those they have bought off with scraps from their own table.
But even more brilliant was the way this was so relatable to young adult readers. In their own way, teenagers experience dystopia every day by simply having to endure the unfair and privileged environment known as high school. With its cliques, ruthless sense of social judgment, bullying and constant pressure to perform, always at the behest of a system dominated by adults, it must seem like an arena in which their very lives are at stake. Many people speak of “teen-age” drama and how silly it seems to them, but I challenge those people to look back at what being a teenager was like and to tell me drama isn’t precisely what every moment of every day is charged with.
I can now see why this book resonates with young people and adults everywhere. Not only was it a good dystopian themed story, combining several classical elements in a way that hasn’t really be done before; it is also a perfect allegory for growing up and being forced to step into a world not of your own making; all the while feeling like everyone’s against you. Between those forcing you into the game and those of your own age trying to kill you, adolescence is very much like living in a totalitarian state and fighting your own for the entertainment of others.
I get it, people. I see why this book is a big deal now. However, I often wonder if others really see its for its inherent value. Sure it’s entertaining, relatable, and chock full of stuff that young people love – empathy, romance, pain and angst. But it’s allegorical depth is what I think makes it truly valuable as a science fiction and dystopian read, especially to the young. By describing a dark world from the point of view of teenagers, it basically captures what all teenagers know already. Life can be totally unfair, oppressive, aggravating, and just generally suck!
Feel free to skip this part if you don’t feel like a heavy read. But I assure you, it’s relatable…
In my work, I’ve often been subjected to the drama of the young and find myself sympathizing one moment and wanting to pull my hair out the next. But always, I enjoy the moments when I’m able to talk to a young man or woman and feel like I’m getting through to them. There’s nothing more rewarding when you see that glimmer in their eyes that says “they get it!” It’s little wonder then why my worst job experience was in an environment where the words “f*ck off”, “you suck”, and “I hate you” were so common.
It made me angry, it made me sad. But more than anything, it made me feel powerless. How do you help when the disparity of your positions makes it impossible? But of course, after I left, I kept hearing how the new teacher was constantly being told “Mr. Williams was WAY better than you!” Funny, they kept comparing me to the last guy too 😉 But I think it made me appreciate how much life can suck for young people, especially kids growing up in poverty, broken homes, and living with the legacy of abuse, defeat and blatant racism. As if these kids don’t have enough problems without a dark legacy hanging over their heads.
Under the circumstances, it’s amazing any of us make it out of our teen years, let alone the majority of us. That was another thing that happened regularly in my old job posting, teen-age suicide. With all the problems and complications of life and their age, some kids truly feel like there’s no way out. In addition to thinking life sucks, they become convinced that it isn’t worth living. But what seems to do them in is the fact that they feel so alone, and can’t express their feelings and lighten their load. If more kids understood just how un-alone they are, far more would make it to adulthood. I think we should all take a moment for those who didn’t…