Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Short review: In the dystopian future of Panem, Katniss and twenty-three other children are forced to fight one another for the entertainment of the masses. And for revenge against the downtrodden.

A brutal future
Where the Capitol rules and
Children kill children

Full review: At some point in the future the United States might be taken over by a dystopian totalitarian government. And the brutal rulers of that new nation might be tempted to show their power and appease the masses by creating brutal gladiatorial events where unwilling participants are forced to fight to the death for the enjoyment of television viewers. And they will make the experience miserable for the competitors and treat them in obviously unfair ways, just to show they can. And if they have read books like The Hunger Games or The Running Man they might reconsider all of this, because this sort of bloodthirsty spectacle never seems to work out well for the tyrannical dictators.

In The Hunger Games what was once North America is now Panem, divided into twelve districts and ruled with an iron fist by the Capitol. Each district produces something different, but most of the bounty is siphoned off for the Capitol, leaving the districts full of poor often half-starved inhabitants. Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen is one of the poorest denizens of District Twelve, which is probably the poorest of all the existing districts. With her father long dead, her mother emotionally incapable of providing for the family, and too young to go work in the coal mines, Katniss sneaks out of the district into the forbidden woods nearby and hunts for game so that she, her mother, and her younger sister Primrose can scrape by. Her poaching is illegal, but she has no real alternative, and so she puts to use the woodland skills her father taught her and makes do.

But the Capitol isn't content with letting the districts struggle to make ends meet. Seventy-four years prior to the events in the book the districts had sought to free themselves of the Capitol's yoke. In that conflict District Thirteen was destroyed and the remaining districts defeated and cowed into submission. As a measure of revenge, the Capitol declared that every year each district would be required to send two teenagers to represent them in "The Hunger Games" in which the twenty-four participants would fight to the death until only one was left standing. With this, Collins evokes both the classical mythological story of Theseus and the tributes that Athens was required to send once every seven years to Minos which were intended for the Minotaur's dinner plate, and modern reality shows like Survivor in which the contestants are winnowed down until only one is left – although in a far less brutal manner. And the story also calls to mind modern professional sports by means of "career" tributes sent by wealthier, more brutal districts, who train and volunteer for the Hunger Games throwing the dice in a gamble in which their lives are the stakes with wealth and fame as the potential reward. One has to wonder, is this so different from players in the National Football League, veterans of which have a substantially reduced average lifespan resulting from the rigors of the game. Or athletes who take steroids which give them a shot at glory notwithstanding the potential costs – such as the brain cancer that killed steroid user Lyle Alzado?

However, Katniss isn't a career tribute. She just wants to feed her family and make it to adulthood. But circumstances are working against her: to make the "reaping" in which the two tributes from each district are selected even more unfair while maintaining a veneer of fairness, the tributes are selected by lot. The system is biased, however, because those eligible may put their names into the lottery more than once in order to gain an additional tiny ration of grain and oil every month called the tessera. Since each of those eligible can put their name in an additional time for every family member they have, and since without doing so her family would starve, Katniss (and her best friend Gale) have added their names many additional times every year since they came of age. And the entries are cumulative every year, meaning Katniss' name is entered in the lottery twenty times. Katniss' twelve-year old sister Prim, on the other hand is entered only once, which is the reason for Katniss' many sacrifices: to protect her sister. Without dwelling on it, or having any forced "I love my sister" conversations in the book, Collins establishes Katniss as a sympathetic character and reveals her intense love for her sibling. So it seems perfectly natural that when, against all odds, Primrose's name is drawn as tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

This decision - one of only two real decisions Katniss makes in the story - sets the main plot of the book in motion as she is swept up in the circus that surrounds the games, and we meet the characters that frame her central place in the story. Gale, her reliable and responsible hunting partner who harbors a barely controlled seething rage against the Capitol. Haymitch, the one surviving Hunger Games "victor" from District Twelve, a broken down drunkard wrecked by his experience and the years of being forced to mentor doomed children sent into the arena to their deaths. Cinna, a man who has no reason to rock the boat, but whose designs for Katniss do so anyway. And finally, Peeta, the other tribute from District Twelve, who Katniss must kill in order to survive, but who turns out to be much more than a kind-hearted baker's son strong enough to lift heavy objects. Each of these characters represents a different reaction to the system imposed by the Capitol: Cinna fights against the system from within, Peeta refuses to let the system break him, Gale wants to destroy the system entirely, and Haymitch "won" using the system's rules, but his character, who starts out buffoonish, is the most chilling, because he shows exactly how heavy a price the system extracts from the "winners".

The odd thing about the book is that the games themselves, while exciting and full of action, are possibly the least interesting part of the book. After seeing Katniss' day to day struggles to feed her family and the political machinations surrounding the games, the actual time in the arena seems almost anticlimactic. Even though there is drama, and in a couple of incredibly wrenching sequences involving other competitors, pathos, the reader, like Katniss, gets caught up in the game, and loses sight of everything else. Both Katniss and Peeta prove to be remarkably resourceful, which allows both of them to maneuver their way through most of the event, but this requires that they set aside almost all concerns other than survival. And although Katniss takes action throughout her experience, most of her actions are not really decisions, because they are driven by the necessities of survival. For much of the book Katniss has no real alternative to the course of action she takes, but in the end, Katniss realizes the lesson that Haymitch provides, and makes the second of her two real decisions: the only way to deal with the game is to refuse to play by the rules.

It is only after the games are over that one realizes who Katniss' true enemies are. Her enemy is not Cato, or Foxface, or any of the other participants in the games: in the end it is clear that even the brutal and violent Cato is as much a victim of the games as the charming and waif-like Rue. The enemy isn't Effie Tinker, or the Gamesmakers, or even President Snow, even though they orchestrate the system that divides the Districts from one another and forces their children to kill one another with swords, spears, knives and arrows. The real enemies are people like Katniss' stylists Venia, Flavius, and Octavia. Despite working directly with her, they still see the Games as nothing more than thrilling entertainment that provides the topic of conversation at parties and fodder for betting games. Their indifference to the pain, the suffering, and the lives of the children that provide them with this spectacle is the true evil in the book - and the true evil of the system that President Snow enforces. In some ways, although cruel and devious, Snow is not quite as vile as the three stylists, because he knows he is killing not just dehumanized tributes through the Games, but people's daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. His goals are only accomplished if the tributes are seen as real people by their Districts, because then the systemic crushing of their humanity and their ultimate destruction illustrates to those living in the Districts the price they must pay for their ancestor's defiance. But in the case of Venia, Flavius, and Octavia, the idea that children would kill one another for entertainment is so commonplace as to be unremarkable, which makes their evil banal in nature. The Games exist because ordinary citizens in the Capitol see nothing wrong with them, and that is the true face of the enemy for people like Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch.

The book ends, as one might expect, after the titular Games have concluded, with a victor crowned and set to return to their home. But the story makes clear that victory is not without cost, and returning home is not likely to be as sweet as one might have thought. And that even a small spark of defiance can be dangerous, both to the defiant and to the defied. The Hunger Games is a brutal book that doesn't shy away from showing the horror of a vicious totalitarian government even though it is aimed at younger readers. Not only that, the book accomplishes the task of giving the reader a female hero who is interesting and compelling without defining her by the boyfriend she chooses. By telling the story of a dystopian nightmare through the lens of a handful of people caught up in it, The Hunger Games gives the reader a front row seat to view how cruel and evil people can be to one another in the name of control, and more horrifically in the name of entertainment, and is definitely a must read for any young science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: Catching Fire

2009 Locus Award Nominees

Suzanne Collins     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. Interesting. I haven't read the book yet. Will probably see the movie first. Your review brings up Hannah Arendt - the banality of evil - Eichmann in Jerusalem-- the Banality of Evil. In other words, "normalizing the unthinkable" - Edward S. Herman.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: That is possibly the most frightening thing about the book. Yes, President Snow is calculating and cruel, but he knows that he is destroying people by doing what he does. That's his goal.

    But the average citizen of the Capitol, represented by Katniss' stylists, has become so inured to the idea that a twelve-year old could be sent into an arena to knife fight other children to the death that it seems normal to them. That is a scary plot element.