Mar 26, 2012

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I sort of let the Hunger Games craze pass me by. I saw the books - hard not to when every bookseller is trying to slam you in the face with them wherever you go - and I knew a movie was coming, but I couldn't really force myself to care enough about this year's YA rage. They tend to not be that good you see. However, the movie was drawing closer and so, about two weeks ago, I decided that I couldn't let this happen, and that I should read the novel before I went to see it.

The Hunger Games is the opening chapter of a trilogy, but it is entirely self-contained too. It is set in a dystopian future where the United States have collapsed under social and natural cataclysms, only to be replaced by a small totalitarian country called Panem. The Capitol rules Panem, and the twelve Districts serve the Capitol, supplying it through the sweat and blood of their citizens with all the luxuries its spoiled inhabitants desire. But once there were thirteen Districts. A few generations ago there was a revolt. The Districts rose against the tyranny of the government, only to be smashed into even more degrading submission. District 13 was completely destroyed, its citizens slaughtered, and now it's nothing but a toxic waste.

But the defeat brought not only further poverty and even more severe laws. It also gave the Districts the Hunger Games. Every year each District is to supply two "tributes" - a boy and a girl - who will go to the Capitol and on a specially designed arena will fight each other until a single survivor stands victorious. A constant reminder of the revolt's failure, a punishment and a way to keep the Districts at each other's throats, the Hunger Games are the Capitol's favorite reality show. Bets are placed on the tributes, sponsors are charmed into paying the exuberant prices for small gifts that could mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

The young huntress Katniss Everdeen, from the coal-mining District 12, volunteers as tribute when her little sister is drawn in the lottery. Together with the baker's son Peeta Malark she has to travel to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. Her life is on the line and she doesn't truly believe that she can win, but things get even more complicated when in the pre-game interviews Peeta announces he has been in love with her since early childhood. The only problem is - only one tribute can survive the Games.

The Hunger Games is a Young Adult novel, and that quickly becomes clear. It doesn't shy away from violence and uncomfortable themes, but pulls back when it comes to morality and the hard questions. The book dances around some real ideas, but it doesn't quite get there. In a very artless way, it falls short of the probing questions about society and the human condition - or the issues of present day - which children fighting to the death in a reality show should provoke. It almost asks important questions. Almost. And to be honest, I have a problem with that. I know the story is geared toward teens and early tweens, but the subject is simply not used effectively. Why pick a dystopian future if you are not going to delve in the dystopian themes and the naked mirror of contemporary life that they give you? There are ways to say relevant things and still not lose the young audience, but it takes skill that Suzanne Collins either does not possess, or has not bothered to use.

Not all is wrong here though. The Hunger Games is a very dynamic book, immensely enjoyable and a quick read. The writing style is not memorable in any way, and the setting leaves a lot to be desired (as shown in the previous paragraph), but both of them are effective and do their job just fine. Characterization is good, considering that the story is told from the first person narrative, and even though characters outside of Katniss' very egocentric world are not given too much attention, the reader is left with a clear impression of who they are. All, that is, except for Peeta. For whatever reason, Collins has decided to make her otherwise very intelligent and resourceful heroine a total dimwit when it comes to the boy that claims to be in love with her. She spends literally the entire book thinking he is probably playing a game, thinking that all she does is play along too, and that makes her woefully unlikable since the reader, on the other hand, is not mentally challenged.

Criticism aside, to say nothing good about the novel's setting would do it injustice. Panem is not developed too deeply (perhaps that will happen in the following novels), but what we see of it is interesting enough. The miserable poverty and day-to-day existence in the Districts, where even electricity for more than a few hours a day is a luxury, and hot water simply does not happen unless you boil it yourself; the opulence and decadent luxury of the Capitol, its citizens turned into almost carnival caricatures by their careless existence built on high technology and the sweat of slavery; the cold cynicism of the Games and the arena - a forest that obeys the Gamemakers' commands like a living chess board. Those are memorable pictures, and that only adds to the frustration of a more demanding reader, as The Hunger Games could have achieved so much more if it were intended for slightly more mature audience, or if Collins hadn't underestimated the one she targeted.

All in all, the book is an enjoyable read. It falls short of its potential, but does so gracefully, without wasting your time or boring you. I am not sorry I read it and I would definitely check out the sequels as well. But to be perfectly honest, I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone, unless you fall in the target audience or - like me - can't stand watching movies without having read the books they're based on.


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