I started reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games on a random Thursday afternoon. Four days later, I finished Mockingjay.
Let me concentrate on the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, for this review. I’ll begin by admitting that except for the Harry Potter series I haven’t read any young adult fiction since I was in that age category which was a very long time ago. The movie trailer caught my attention and I knew I wanted to read the book before watching the movie.
From the first few paragraphs I knew I would love this book because of Collins’ swift pace, succinct writing and ability to paint the details of the world of Panem, District 12 and the Seam with such clarity. (Left: one of many imagined maps of Panem from The Hunger Games fans)
Collins brings her reader into a desperate world of hunger, ruled by a remote city called the Capitol (Marked C on the map). And, in such a desperate place, her characters do deseperate things in the name of survival. The triumph of the human spirit is evident throughout the black market of the Seam. Despite the atmosphere of doom and oppression and the Capitol’s iron hand suffocating the will of Panem’s people, Collins creates a seed of hope. That hope is of course the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly courageous character. Her foundation is the loss of her father and therefore, the loss of her innocence. Katniss has built an impenetrable wall because emotions in the Seam, in District 12, in Panem are useless and will not keep her family from starving. Collins creates a character we care about, root for, and wish to protect. Throughout the entire book we hope that she survives the ruthless and cruel Hunger Games hosted by the Capitol because she is a fighter, and because her sister Prim needs her to.
Collins humanizes her characters through their love for their family, their desperate need to survive and to take care of what little they have. Also, we relate to basic human needs: food, shelter, compassion, dignity, love. Amidst the spectacle that is the blood-thirsty games and the menacing control of the Capitol, Peeta Mellark is the first character to bring true emotion to this novel. His declaration of love for Katniss is shockingly sweet. And, that’s when it hits me that I’m reading young adult fiction. Enter adolescent angst about love and relationships juxtaposed with war, death, murder, cruelty and the media. Is there a more fitting image for what today’s teens have to face?
I find myself torn with Katniss’ choices: win the games (meaning killing Peeta) or die? Gale or Peeta? Her survival becomes secondary, since as the protagonist she’s obviously going to live (and, somehow Collins will find a way to save Peeta too)…but, who will she choose? And, more importantly, who do I want her to choose? By the end of The Hunger Games, I’m secretly hoping she picks Gale because I feel so sorry for him since he was forced to witness the girl he loves making out with another boy on nationally mandated television…but, then I feel like I’m betraying Peeta because I love Peeta! (Was adolescence really that complicated?) This book plays on every archetype of young love and the love triangle. The independent and brave heroine is faced with a choice: the fair-haired romantic boy or the dark haired smouldering boy. And, it works. But, the success of this novel is not its love story.
The Hunger Games highlights the dangers of the media and the role it plays in shaping our perception of reality. That so-called reality can be shattered only when we question the stories that are fed to us through the screen and really listen to ourselves and each other. The novel mocks our frenzied need to remain youthful through the ridiculous style of the people of the Capitol. There is little difference between cat-face plastic surgery and dyeing your skin green. All of the circus-like characteristics of those in power are meant to mask the imbalance between the haves and have-nots in Panem – if the masses are kept entertained, distracted and contained, they cannot revolt. But, of course, the rumblings are present despite the Capitol’s efforts with the possibility of war bubbling under the surface.
There is no question that this book is violent, violent, violent. The characters live in a world that breeds violence and they are forced to play the game. This book works because it is so relevant to the issues that young people see plaguing their world, and their feelings of helplessness in changing anything. Except, young people can exact change (just look at Kony 2012)…just like Katniss can challenge President Snow with a handful of poisonous berries.
This is a fast-paced, well written book. Its characters will fascinate and its setting, though fictional, eerily reflects the worst of modern society. A great story that will have you reaching for the second installment before finishing the last paragraph because you will have to keep reading.