Literature Commentary: The Hunger Games

12 Jul

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.


Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Sci-Fi


9 responses to “Literature Commentary: The Hunger Games

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    July 30, 2011 at 7:56 am

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  2. livingoakheart

    August 10, 2011 at 9:14 am

    I found it a simple extrapolation of our culture–a warning, if you will. We are rapidly becoming what Ancient Rome was.
    Not to say that I disagreed with anything you said. This is just something extra I thought you didn’t mention.

  3. James Kuang

    April 19, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    solely based on the first book (and in my opinion, the only half decent one):

    Oh. One of the best-written young adult fictions?

    The setting makes no sense. Panem is made up of 12 districts each with its own industry? So… since district 4’s industry is fishing, other districts can’t fish? And only one district can use agriculture? Sounds like economic failure to me.

    The plot is dumb. So, after the “tributes” leap through hoops and slaughters to stay alive, the focus is suddenly foisted on their love life. What’s this?! Do I smell marketing?

    There was no character development. Except with Haymitch. Who gains a new reason to not be drunk, and (in the movie…) Cato… who has half a page worth of script to explain how he realised how worthless his life is.

    She also misspells “oppossum”.

    The Hunger Games was not made to critique America, much less the world. It was written to make money- off of fangirling middleschoolers too shallow to know otherwise.

    Try Brave New World. It’s better. Even Unwind is better.

    • literaryanalysis

      April 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      The idea is that the Capitol operates according to a central planning mechanic. Each district specializes in one trade good (basic economic concept of comparative advantage) and the Capitol distributes the resources.

      I didn’t like the love triangle element in Catching Fire. If you read my review of that, I echo your criticism.

      It is “opossum” btw. Just saying. (

      Addendum: I’ve read both of the novels you suggest…Brave New World is good, but a little obtuse for the mass market. Unwind has an interesting premise, but its execution is a little lacking. Hunger Games, if nothing else, balances a strong concept with good prose – and makes a relevant story accessible to modern audiences.

    • rooftopministries

      April 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      The “romance” was not thrown in after the action as an afterthought. The unconditional love Peeta has towards Katniss and is part of her character arc – which is huge, so I don’t know how you managed to miss it. This is a young girl who doesn’t think about “feelings” or the future, especially a future with feelings for anyone besides her sister. But she DOES have feelings, and to her-unfortunately- the HG are forcing her to face them. Believing and trusting someone after her father died and her mother emotionally abandoned her is hard for her to handle – it makes her feel week. But she begins to see caring for someone – like she does the weak, or her family, makes a person care for someone else, and having someone love you so completely is very comforting and brings security, things Katniss has missed having. She thoought Gale was just a friend and hunting partner, but she’s not sure she has feelings for him because she should – in a loyalty, he was first, sort of way -or if she genuinely would want a life with him. Same with Peeta, did she just use him to “survive” which is her fallback, all she’s known since her dad was killed? Did she just get caught up in the “game” of loving him? She doesn’t like that she was forced into it and forcced to face it. There’s all kinds of character arc for her. Through the triology Gale becomes more true to his personal desire for revenge against the Capitol at all cost. Peeta has no arc or revelation, I believe because that is part of what contrasts with Katniss: his love could not be conquered, contained, or corrupted.

      Through the next two books, their relationship is the thread, but it is not the point of the triolgy – which greatly disappointed me, and I am NOT a miiddle school girl, but a 40 year old, stably married mother of 7. I didn’t know the novels contained anything of the sort, so it took me by surprise, but it is the element that kept me reading. The story is completely told from her persective, so this is something that was important to her – therefore important from the author. Everyything that haappens in the arena, isn’t just for actions sake, much of it is rising actioon to define the Capitol, other aspects are to learn more about Katniss and her tendencies to mask her feelings or second guess situtions, and her humanity that she feels is being mutated. All the “mutts” throughout the series I think are good mirrors of what the Capitol/Snow try to do personally to Katniss and Peeta.

  4. rooftopministries

    April 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Suzanne Collins is Catholic.

  5. rooftopministries

    May 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Sorry, I know this is three in a row, but I just finished reading the trilogy a 2nd time. And I wanted you to know, because of your perception there is no God and no reference to God in the books, I did find a couple things that I do believe the author intended as reflections of biblical themes – the snakiness of Snow is definitely an allusion to the Serpent, that Dragon of Old, the Devil. The other allusion I want to post on your other entry on the last two books since that is where it is found.

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