As a longtime fan of dystopian fiction, I’ve been meaning to read this series for ages – especially given its unique premise and runaway popularity. When I saw it was being offered on Kindle for less than $5, I knew it was a must-read…and truthfully, this is one young-adult novel that lives up to its hype.
In the wake of a second Civil War, America has been segregated into twelve Districts, parts of the nation of Panem. Panem is ruled by the affluent residents of the Capitol, a centrally located territory responsible for establishing order. As an annual show of loyalty to the Capitol, each District must send two young Tributes – one male, one female – to compete in the national Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an extended gladiatorial competition in which twenty-four young people fight to the death…until only one remains. The victor’s district is subsequently lavished with food and other scarce commodities.
Young huntress Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Hunger Games in lieu of her younger sister. She is joined by baker’s son Peeta, who has long harbored feelings for her. Upon arrival at the Capitol, they are swiftly trained before being thrown into the arena. It’s a simple premise, but author Suzanne Collins successfully creates a nuanced, savage world that engrosses the reader.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had serious trouble putting a book down. “The Hunger Games” is a blistering, lightning-tempo read that refuses to let go. While some of the early chapters are a bit slow (and feel amateurish), the story goes into overdrive once the Games begin. The world of the arena (a gigantic forested environment) is described in lush detail, but never feels overdone. Collins’ characters, while somewhat stereotypical for the genre, are serviceable in their roles.
In addition to being a riveting action novel, “The Hunger Games” also works as a biting satire of the media. In ways that most younger viewers will fail to appreciate, Collins mocks modern audiences’ appetite for “reality shows.” Since the Hunger Games are a nationally televised event, contestants must behave in ways that will earn them “sponsors.” These sponsors can then air-drop needed supplies (food, medicine, etc.) into the arena. In retrospect, I wonder whether this novel is itself a form of irony: “The Hunger Games” is filled with elements that appeal to audiences (romance, children in peril, intense violence, girl-against-the-odds storytelling), even as it simultaneously satirizes them.
As one might expect in any story like this, worldview elements abound. Chief among these is the utter sense of desolation and despair that pervades the novel. While many dystopian novels evoke this emotion somewhat, most offer some sort of hope (however fragile). The universe of the Hunger Games, on the other hand, feels cold and godless, in which life is truly “nasty, brutish and short.” While the main characters clearly strive to act nobly, they frequently do so based on emotion, rather than ethics. In this sense, “The Hunger Games” is something of a disappointment. The novel’s grinding cynicism, though often incisive, becomes wearying. Having not read the others in the series yet (there are two books more), I hesitate to pass judgement on the trilogy as a whole…but “The Hunger Games” is bleak indeed.
Concerns have been raised over the violence in this book – and for once, I can say that these complaints are not unfounded. This is a story about children murdering other children in gladiatorial combat – graphically. I’m by no means squeamish when it comes to gore, but this book contains some genuinely grisly moments. I’ll be interested to see how the violence is toned down for the film adaptation’s inevitable PG-13 rating. This book is certainly not appropriate for readers under 13 or 14, and may be disturbing to older teens as well. There’s no language or sexuality (with the exception of some mild teen-romance elements), but the violence is brutal and gruesome.
So, is it worth reading?
Older teens and adults who are fans of the genre will find much to like here. “The Hunger Games” is one of the best-written young adult novels I’ve read in years (since the Mortal Engines quartet, probably). It’s exciting, intense, and thought-provoking…though it certainly feels despairing at times. If Collins is in fact an atheist/agnostic, “The Hunger Games” is not a militant attack on faith. There’s no mention made of religion…but it’s conspicuous by its absence. Readers aware of this undercurrent in advance will likely not find it problematic.
This book, however, is simply not appropriate for many of the age who will want to read it (especially after the forthcoming movie is released). This doesn’t feel like fairytale or fantasy violence…it feels like bloody barbarism. And though that’s precisely the point Collins is making, it doesn’t make the novel any more appropriate for preteen audiences.
I liked this book a lot. But not everyone will – or should.
An extremely compelling – but dark and violent – portrait of a dystopian future.