Katniss Everdeen, our sixteen-year-old heroine, lives in District 12 in the country of Panem. Every year, the Capital drafts two teenagers from each of the twelve districts to participate in a “last (wo)man stand” showdown that functions as a cause for bringing the people of Panem together to celebrate, and as a reminder of a yearly punishment meted out to the districts for a vaguely defined rebellion 75 years prior. When Katniss’s little sister is selected as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games. The second tribute from the district is a baker’s son named Peeta who may or may not harbor real feelings of love for Katniss.
So off to the Capital we go, where the games begin in a controlled outdoor “arena.” Twenty four kids fight it out to the death. The winner receives lifelong acclaim, a big fancy house, and lots and lots of food.
For the past few years, I’ve heard nothing but gushing about The Hunger Games. I’ve never been a fan of YA. Speaking in broad terms, all the YA I’ve read practices the art of convenience, black and white morality, forced love stories, simplistic and cliched characterization, and characters behaving in ways that make you want to give the book a good toss across the room. BUT!!!! But I was promised by friends who claimed to know better that The Hunger Games was not like this, it was good YA.
I have no doubt that YA exists that will rock my socks. Sadly, this book was not it.
The biggest issue I have with the novel is that so many parts of the plot have been done before (and done better). Children forced to perform in a contest until all but one is dead? Check! Reality television being used for entertaining blood sport? Check! Scary totalitarian regime? Check! A male and female forced to “act” in love for the greater purpose of the plot? Check!
There are too many coincidences. That Peeta, a boy who unknowingly helped shape the person Katniss has become, is selected as her fellow tribute… that Katniss naturally plays the role of charming smarty-pants for the camera when she’s otherwise has the personality of a trout… that she has justification to kill every single time it occurs in the arena (the author is terrified of having Katniss have any faults)… that Rue (a young tribute from district 11) is so much like Prim… that the game makers decide for the first time EVER to change the rules to allow two winners (I thought this would happen from the start, and when it finally did, I performed an epic eye roll out of frustration with the author).
Oddly, the only people of color are Rue and a monster of a boy named Thresh (a bit of a cardboard stereotype, certainly) and they’re both killed (giving Katniss moral ground to do her own killing). I don’t think the author is making any point about race… she’s more interested in class dynamics, but it is still somewhat misleading.
Despite these multitudes of issues, I must acknowledge Suzanne Collins and the outstanding job she has done tapping into our cultural zeitgeist. This is an author who knows the proper buttons to mash to get readers interested. Even though reality television has been skewered plenty of times in literature, many people recognize how openly such shows pull our emotional strings. And yet we can’t stop watching. We watch in hope of a metaphorical train wreck occurring. Suzanne Collins knows the world (and especially the U.S.) is currently dealing with a have and have not societal structure. District 12 is an open interpretation of the Appalachian region. District 11 can be viewed as people from the Midwest. District 1 and District 2, the wealthiest districts, are the upper-crust elites and government bureaucrats on our coasts (Hollywood/NYC/Washington DC). The simplicity of her world building is staggering, but it works because it brushes up against reality so well.
There are also a handful of nice authorial touches. The muttations are quite disturbing. The punishment rendered to the avox is terrible. Cato’s torture at the end… *shudder*.
Reading The Hunger Games is like doing a popular dance (let’s say The Macarena, cuz it is always fun!). You know all the moves, yet you like doing them. The Hunger Games doesn’t surprise and goes exactly where you think it will, but you still enjoy it.