The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

Cover image

Series: Hunger Games #1
Publisher: Scholastic
Copyright: 2008
Printing: September 2009
ISBN: 0-439-02352-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 374

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Katniss lives in District 12 of a post-collapse United States ruled with an iron fist from the Capitol District. District 12 is in the Appalachias, a mining district, and one of the poorest, not that life anywhere outside of the Capitol is very good. Katniss's father died in a mine explosion, and ever since she's been taking care of her younger sister and depressive mother in every way she can, primarily through illegal hunting in the nearby forest.

The central fact of life in the districts, ever since a failed uprising and the annihilation of District 13, is the Hunger Games. Annually, every district is forced to select two children between 12 and 18 by lot. The lottery system for selecting tributes is complex and the chance of selection grows with age and with additional risks that the children can take to get extra provisions for their family. Katniss has been taking those risks for years. All 24 selected go to the capitol for a brief period of training, and then are thrown into the wilderness (turned into an arena by technology) to fight to the death. The one winner is set for life, showered with (relative) riches, and with the responsibility of training subsequent "tributes" from that district.

Katniss's chances of being selected, due to the additional rations she's gambled for, are better than she'd like. Those of her hunting partner are even stronger. But she is not at all prepared for the lot to fall on her baby sister, just turned twelve, whose chances should have been miniscule, and finds herself volunteering in her sister's place.

It probably must be said up-front that the premise of the Hunger Games is not particularly believable. A system this cruel seems moderately implausible even for the combination of tyrrany and coliseum-style entertainment. And there are a few other problems that niggle at one's suspension of disbelief, such as the unrealistically low population of at least District 12 given its place as part of the industrial base supporting what we later see is a fairly lavish civilization. But within a few pages of starting the book, it becomes clear why it's as popular as it is. Collins tells the story from Katniss's perspective, with a sparse, efficient, and effective style that conveys both Katniss's emotional reactions and the emotional distance that lets her be the person she has to be. The story is engrossing and fast-paced and the first-person narration is utterly sympathetic. One is quickly so immersed in Katniss's world that the implausibilities stop mattering.

It's also a book full of events that, while unrealistic from a strict realism perspective, are sharp and stinging as metaphor. The more I noticed the underlying layer of commentary on high school, on bullying and popularity and teenage alliances, on entertainment, on reality shows, and on the abandonment of children to hostile environments by adults, the less the required suspension of disbelief mattered.

One of the things The Hunger Games is decidedly not, despite frequent comparisons, is Lord of the Flies. This is not even remotely the story of the inherent brutality in human beings taken outside the boundaries of civilized society. Rather, it's the story of desperate teenagers put into a vicious and deadly situation through overwhelming authority and trying to cope with that situation as best they can. Much of the pleasure and satisfaction of the story comes from Katniss struggling to balance ethics and survival and finding ways to stay true to herself. Other tributes are trying to do the same but finding different paths; others still thrive on their sense of superiority and certainty that they'll win. (That is where I thought the parallels to bullying were strongest.)

Another thing this book is not is just the description of tactical combat between a bunch of kids. There are some tactics here, of course, and they provide their share of the tension, but the ethical struggle is as central as the physical struggle. Collins does a great job conveying the addictive nature of a reality show, where the alliances, negotiations, and psychological strategies are as much or more interesting than the physical challenges. The game masters are constantly meddling to heighten the tension and provide more emotional drama for the audience, and the alliances are both completely real and completely fake simultaneously. Collins gets the feel dead-on; the Games read exactly like a reality show with viciously high stakes and non-consenting participants.

Also, a substantial amount of the book takes place before (and some after) the Games themselves, including Katniss's backstory and prior relationship with the boy tribute from her district, and those parts of the story are not trivial or simply setup. It's clear that the real story in this universe is going to go far beyond the Games.

I doubt many readers will find the plot arc surprising. Katniss comes from the poorest district, one that has only won twice in the nearly hundred-year history of the games, and is obviously an underdog. She discovers valuable talent for the Games despite not having trained like some of the other kids, following the standard model for this sort of story. There is, of course, a romance, even a bit of a romantic triangle. The path to the ending has some surprises, but the nature of it is fairly predictable. But it's all told so well, and with such a great eye for the emotional arcs of Katniss, the other competitors, and the audience view that the familiar story structure doesn't detract. Instead, it serves as the skeleton for some great story-telling. The constant guesswork at how the audience is reacting to the story is particularly well-handled and adds some welcome complexity.

The Hunger Games also deserves its reputation for a strong female protagonist. Collins does a beautiful job avoiding belaboring that point and instead subtlely weaving it through the story. Katniss has done what she has to do because there's no one else, and that just happens to lead to a wonderful inversion of gender roles between her and Peeta, the other tribute from District 12. Only when they're forced to put on traditional gender roles for the cameras does the contrast with their normal personalities become obvious. The subversion of the usual boy-girl storyline is delightful in its understated simplicity.

And, beyond that, every character here felt real to me, even the kids who were little more than cannon fodder or the adults who keep the system in operation. Collins characterizes with an emotion here, a bit of sympathy or empathy there, and even with characters that appear for only moments in the book, one can imagine a background and a motivation. It's a beautiful construction of an oppressive system: there's no single hissable villain, and a lot of people who want to be on Katniss's side in one way or another, but a relentless momentum to the structure of the Games and a lurking evil created by their existence that sucks the characters in whether they want it or not. This is a wonderful example of how to create morality and opposition in a story without stereotyped villains.

I wasn't sure what to think about this book going in, but I came away very impressed. It is violent, in places a bit too violent for my taste, and some parts of the world structure don't withstand serious inspection, but it's not gratuitous and it has an excellent narrative voice. I loved the characterization and the note-perfect emotional resonance with the unthinking cruelty of audience reaction to drama. Highly recommended; I will definitely be reading the remaining two books in the trilogy.

Followed by Catching Fire.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21