Monday, February 27, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

#1 New York Times Bestseller
#1 USA Today Bestseller
Wall Street Journal Bestseller
Publishers Weekly Bestseller

In the future, North America has been changed by un-named disasters. The nation of Panem arose from the ashes: with the Capitol in the Rocky Mountains and thirteen districts spread over the rest of the continent. However, about seventy-five years ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol’s oppressive rule. During the Dark Days that followed the thirteenth district was totally destroyed and the other twelve were beaten into submission. In order to demonstrate its total control over the defeated districts, the Capitol announced the first Hunger Games. Each district was required to send one girl and one boy chosen by lottery from all the children between the ages of twelve and eighteen. These twenty-four Tributes were then placed in an Arena to fight one another until only one remained alive whilst the whole event was broadcast live to the nation. Since then the Hunger Games have been repeated every year.

In District twelve, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen is struggling to provide for her younger sister, Prim, and their mother, who has been unable to function since the death of their father in a mining accident. Only two things have kept them alive: the food that Katniss hunts or collects illegally from the forest outside of the district fence and the extra food she receives by increasing the number of times her name is placed in the annual Reaping for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place, even though she is sure that this will lead to her death. The male Tribute selected is Peeta Mellark, the son of the local baker, who once saved her family from starving by giving her some burnt loaves of bread.

We follow the Tributes to the frivolous luxury of Capitol where they are prepared for their roles in the Games. Once they have been waxed, styled, interviewed and given minimal training, they are sent into the Arena, which this year is a forest, much to Katniss’ delight. Despite the dangers, she survives because of her mental strength and hunting experience. She tries to avoid killing the other Tributes, and even forms an alliance with Rue, the tiny girl from District eleven, but eventually she is forced to confront the other Tributes in order to stay alive. All the while she cannot forget that to become Victor she must kill them all, even Peeta, who has declared his love for her and to whom she already owes her life.
Wow! So many people had told me that this was a great read, but I wasn’t prepared for how seriously good it was.

I know that it is billed as a Young Adult title, but I never once felt that the author pulled her punches because of the intended audience. In this respect it reminds me much more of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy than J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’. This title has real grit: we follow Katniss through blood, sweat and tears to Hell and back again. The first-person perspective and usage of present tense increases the sense of immediacy and tension as we are insulated from any outside knowledge. In fact we are kept ignorant of many details, just as Katniss is. The fact that some of the Tributes make no impression on her, so that she knows them only by their district numbers, whilst others are quickly analyzed makes the stream-of-consciousness so much more realistic than an endless pile of exposition. I’m not normally a fan of either first-person or present tense, but here they added to my connection to the character, rather than being a barrier.

Katniss herself is a wonderful, sympathetic character, but the secondary characters are fleshed out beautifully as well. They fell real, which makes it even more difficult to read some of the sections in the Arena. Indeed, the underlying cruelty and sadism in Panem can make for harsh reading. This is a society where the majority of people are barely able to survive starvation, whilst the privileged few in the Capitol enjoy a luxurious, hedonistic lifestyle.

“I open the parachute and find a small loaf of bread. It’s not the fine white Capitol stuff. It’s made of dark ration grain and shaped in a crescent. Sprinkled with seeds. I flash-back to Peeta’s lesson on the various district breads in the Training Center. This bread came from District 11. I cautiously lift the still warm loaf. What must it have cost the people of District 11 who can’t even feed themselves? How many would’ve had to do without to scrape up a coin to put in the collection for this one loaf?

Collins makes many references to Ancient Roman culture. The nation’s name is taken from a phrase used by the satirist Juvenal: ‘panem et circenses’. This is often translated as ‘bread and circuses / games’ and bread certainly plays a pivotal role in the life of most of the people in Panem as they desperately seek to feed themselves. The circuses / games were the amusements that the privileged classes would stage to entertain the masses. These often occurred in an arena and could be as simple as a pair of gladiators fighting one another or as ornate as the recreation of an event from history, complete with set and costumes. Bread was usually thrown to the crowd as part of the proceedings. The arena also served to demonstrate the power of the nation to the masses, though the Romans saw this more as a celebration of their military prowess against the barbarians, rather than being used as a way to subjugate its own citizens. 

Seeing the events in this context, I have to disagree with Sarah at Bookworm Blues when she finds the whole idea of the Reaping to be unbelievable. Children have been given away out of necessity throughout human history, and still are in some parts of the world. We are told that in District eleven, where they harvest food, that to steal any piece of food is punishable by public execution. In a world with that kind of brutal dictatorship in place, I don’t find it so unbelievable that the misery of two families would be outweighed by the general population’s fear of reprisals for disobedience. This also meshes with the presence of the Career Tributes ‘allowed’ from some of the wealthier districts – where the Capitol has no doubt encouraged the idea that being a Tribute is a huge status symbol for the child’s family.

One thing that Collins does very well is to show the societal effects of the Games. As AnimeJune says at Gossamer Obsessions, we are constantly reminded that many of the most brutal and demeaning aspects of them are televised live, so that Katniss is always aware of how she must appear to the audience in order to win them over to her side. We see that if the Tributes are not being entertaining enough the Gamemakers will manufacture a natural disaster or provoke confrontations by offering a boon. Also, we get to hear how even Katniss’ prep team fail to see the Tributes as real people, instead viewing them as actors in an entertainment. I found this to be one of the most chilling aspects of the book and an intriguing statement about the celebrity culture surrounding reality shows. We see this most clearly in the 'romance' between Katniss and Peeta, which is used to manipulate the audience quite shamelessly.

This emotionally-engaging and action-packed book is highly recommended to all adults: young or otherwise.


  1. Sue, your take on books is always so interesting... as in the correlation with Roman history and bread. I loved that scene simply for the act of honor and its recognition from a rival district.

  2. There's a typo on my last comment that's driving me crazy! Sigh... are, not is. :0)

  3. I am fairly sure that I was a Roman in a former life as I find them totally fascinating . . . but that is what I really love about discussing books: seeing them through other peoples' eyes is thought provoking and makes me appreciate them even more. I had to mention the bread gift: it was such a moving scene and spoke volumes about the culture of Panem . . . plus, it made me cry.

  4. That's what happens when you type after a glass of wine! :D

  5. Too funny!! I wish I had that excuse, however a glass of wine is four points on the WW... so I haven't been having much of those lately. Rabbit food mostly. And coffee ALWAYS AND FOREVER---the one thing I will never, NEVER, give up. :o)


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