The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Read if you liked The Running Man and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Status: Yours if you want it.
IN A PREVIOUS ERA, a popular young adult character was assured that “Life is a game,” to which he replied: “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right – I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.” Given the chance, Katniss Everdeen, the sixteen year-old heroine of The Hunger Games, might have identified with Holden Caulfield’s thinking, though in a considerably more literal way. As it is, there is no indication that any copies of The Catcher in the Rye exist in her district of Panem, “the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” Panem is your standard dystopia: distant future; post-war society; impoverished districts held under the thumb of a shiny, sophisticated and paranoid government. Suzanne Collins, however, adds some interesting tweaks, most notably (for me anyway) that instead of a bleak post-nuclear landscape, Panem is a grim post-climate change world where instability and scarcity have led to massive bloodshed.
I like to think that kids today are convincingly frightened by sea level rise, droughts and resource wars. But The Hunger Games success with that cohort probably has more to do with its resemblance to reading a video game. For the older crowd, Panem is a refreshing update on the trope of How We Will Destroy Ourselves, free of nuclear winter, self-aware robots and global pandemics. A scenario other than total nuclear annihilation is all the more intriguing for its plausibility, much the way Batman the scientist is more interesting than Superman the science fiction. Most chilling are the familiar features of Panem and the recognition that approaches to our economy, our environment and our entertainment in the 21st century could logically conclude in a reconfigured world of vast inequality and televised teenage deathmatches.
That plausibility is reinforced by the fact that Collins drops you into Katniss’ fully-formed world, and keeps you far more concerned with tracking the unfolding horrors than decoding an allegory of political and economic systems. Panem’s power is centralized in the Capitol, a large city west of the Rocky Mountains where the prosperous and vacuous reside in high-tech leisure and comfort. Katniss lives with her mother and sister in the roughly Appalachian District 12, a poor coal-mining region and one of 12 districts that surround the Capitol. The districts provide the Capitol with goods and services for the privilege of not being destroyed. At one point they decided not to do that anymore, leading to an uprising and the destruction of District 13. As a reminder of who won the war, each district now provides one boy and one girl, called “tributes” by the Capitol, to compete in the annual Hunger Games. Twenty-four kid-contestants ranging in age from 12 to 18 are set loose in an intricately designed arena and one survivor goes on to fame and fortune. The other 23 die painful, gruesome deaths for the entertainment of the viewing audience, which counting the enthusiastic watchers in the Capitol and the government-enforced viewing of citizens in the districts, is everyone in Panem.
Obviously, this sucks. And obviously Katniss ends up in the games. I won’t go much further than that. The plot doesn’t throw many curveballs at you, but it is still fun to watch it unfold. Life in District 12 is grim but lovingly rendered, an essential aspect if readers are to care about whether Katniss gets to go home. The arena is suspenseful and terrifying, with the constant menace of other players, the omnipresent surveillance of the Capitol and the audience, and the presence of creatures like tracker jacker wasps. Tracker jackers were created by the Capitol during the uprising of the districts and deployed like bio-engineered landmines. When disturbed they do what wasps do: sting whatever is nearby. But thanks to enhancements from the Capitol scientists, these wasps ‘track’ stung victims to repeatedly inject a toxic hallucinogen that is massively unpleasant, if not fatal. They are just one example of the Capitol’s brutality and the nastiness of the Gamekeepers who control conditions in the arena.
The only drawback of reading The Hunger Games is realizing that it is written for young adults and being forced to wonder what that means for “kids today.” The novel reads and progresses like a YA novel, and Katniss is insightful and broadly sympathetic to the people around her like any good YA narrator. She also has the requisite rebellious streak. But she is hard and the world around her is dark, violent and devoid of much hope or redemption. One of the first things we learn about her is that she tried to drown a pet cat, and is content with its survival only because, as a “born mouser,” it has become a productive member of the household. Missing is the enchantment that YA sci-fi fantasy can provide. What’s worse is that ‘missing’ might not be the right way to describe it, because The Hunger Games is enchanting in its own sinister way. There is no magic in these pages, no better life aside from survival. Riches come only through destruction, fantasy creations are deadly animals dreamed up by sadists, and friendships are typically defined by whether someone wants to kill you fast or slow. Does the popularity of The Hunger Games series tell us something? Is Katniss fighting for her life the logical extension of Holden’s “Game, my ass…” for today’s young adult? Is this how kids feel?
Perhaps the answer will be found somewhere in the next two books of the series, which I absolutely plan to read.