The Hunger Games
Scholastic Children’s Books
I had so many people recommending this book to me, and given the calibre and taste of these folks, I thought nothing of travelling down to a bookstore at lunch one day just to pick this up. Partly out of respect for these same friends, I am weighing my review here very carefully.
This disturbing young adult novel is based in a dystopia, where civilisation, if it could be called such, was divided into thirteen districts. In a move to quell the spirit of the citizens and squash any hope of a rebellion, the Capitol, presumably the highest authority, started this televised game where two representatives from each district would be fielded in The Hunger Games every year. Held in a contained environment known as the Arena, participants had only one objective: to be the last one alive. The book traced District Twelve’s Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark’s struggles to survive against all odds under the intense scrutiny of an unscrupulous media and the callous dismissal of the audience.
The world that Collins has created is terrifying in its careless disregard for humanity, where the citizenry would rather fall in line and send two people from their community, whatever their age, into the Arena to die than to broach a rebellion against the authorities. Society is dysfunctional, as the black market becomes a key driver in the economy keeping the lower strata alive. The income divide between the haves and the have-nots is stark and the chances of survival are minimal. Half the time, I am not even certain that people want to survive. The Hunger Games plays up the violence, the bestiality in the participants in their efforts to keep alive; these I can excuse – I am a subscriber to the Hobbesian nature of man. Left on themselves, it is human nature to always watch for one’s survival and in so doing, life for one and all will be “nasty, brutish, solitary and short” – exactly the way the Games played out. I also appreciate how Collins kept most of them nameless – they are meant to be pawns. What I have found more revolting is the delight the cameras take in capturing each moment, the need to ham it up for the audience at home, the dependence on commercial sponsors for survival, the need to create a media persona in order to attract those same sponsors as well as support of the audience: basically the hallmark of reality competition shows today. Marrying the two concepts, the dystopian society and the immoral media, has been a stroke of genius, because it paints an unbelievably bleak view of the degeneration of humankind.
For reasons of the above description, I really would not recommend the book to any young reader. Not because I am dogmatic, conservative and moralistic, I’d like to think, but because, well I’ll much rather they keep a rosier view on life and humanity for a while longer. There is a part of me that wonders if Collins had intended to write the story for an older audience but lack either the confidence or the panache to carry it to the adult market instead. (I also suspect that the books would not have been as well received if marketed as an adult series from the get-go.)
Collins engages the reader well. Telling the story from the Katniss point of view is no mean feat, considering the character’s preoccupation with survival, almost at the cost of her principles, her ethics and morals. Her suspicious outlook borders on paranoia and her easy brutality shocks this reader. She, I find, is only redeemed by her emotional bond – I hesitate to say ‘love’ – for her sister, Prim and by association, District 11’s contestant, Rue. Her inability to see beyond the Games and survival, or perhaps, letting down the defences that she has erected in order to keep her family alive under the cold oppressive regime all these years renders her blind both to Peeta’s blatant affections for her as well as the possibility of rebellion. (I did wonder why no one thought of rebelling - but a quick scan through some of the most impoverished countries in the world today answered that: too many are too concerned with keeping alive that they would gladly abet the regime in keeping their oppressive hold if it meant them surviving another day.) That I managed to read through the book from the POV of a character that I at once respect, abhorred and pitied is, I find, testimony to Collins’ skill and vision.
However, I do wonder, and I should poll people here, whether the concept was what blown most people away. The dystopia at least and the idea of the games. What struck me when I was reading the book was how similar the concepts were to other works, namely: Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King) The Running Man and most definitely Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. It brings me back to my discomfort in Jordan’s: when is it plagiarism? Besides this idea of last-man-standing in a game for survival, the first also played up the media angle and the concept of reality-TV-turns-brutal, which is more remarkable than Hunger Games considering that it was written in a time before reality telly became a norm; and the second for the concept of a contained battle arena and the use of the annual battle game to suppress the spirit of an entire populace. I did find that my having read Battle Royale, both novel and manga, made the Hunger Games a less exciting read, particularly because I thought the characters in BR were better fleshed out. Unlike HG, BR’s focus was not only on the protagonist and a chosen antagonist – and the Japanese have a cultural gene for the macabre. I also saw ironic humour on the blurb on the back cover quoting Stephen King as saying “Constant suspense... I couldn’t stop reading”, because well, I would have said the same about The Running Man and this was essentially his story retold, albeit with better characterisation and fewer plot holes. The only angle which I thought was a refreshing addition was the focus on playing for the camera, on the importance of styling and the public image – which has not been included in other books of the same nature.
It was a good read, if not entirely enjoyable given the subject matter. If I can get over comparing it to Running man and Battle Royale, I would probably be able to rate this higher.
... because I really do not feel the compulsion to pick up the next book.