Thank you Sam Hailes for lending me your copy of the novel, much appreciated. His post about his reading habits and The Hunger Games is located here.
With the film adaptation being released in the next couple of days, The Hunger Games is said to become one of the biggest hits of 2012. When reading the novel, it isn’t hard to see why it will become a hit. Currently, the media dubs this and its sequels as the new ‘Twilight’ (young adult novel origins, female protagonist) as frenzy and popularity start to build up to fever pitch, however they couldn’t be far different from each other.
After a catastrophic post-apocalyptic event, out of the ashes of the United States comes Panem, a place controlled by a vindictive dictator Coriolanus Snow. He rules from the prosperous, cruel and unusual place called The Capitol, and within this world, also controls other separate regions serve a particular duty to The Capitol. Varying in region, they each have separate goals e.g. District 3 makes technology, District 7 specialises in producing lumber and District 12, where the story begins, specialises in coal.
Katniss Everdeen, an archer and an independent spirit, acts as the main breadwinner for her family, after her father’s death five years before. She goes out illegally into the forest with her (boy)friend Gale, hunting and selling game in the black market, fighting off starvation in an environment where it is norm.
Years before, when the Capitol proved victorious against rebellious districts, they decided a particular cruel event as a way to remind the districts why they are the victors. Every year, two children aged between 12 and 18 are chosen randomly to compete in the Hunger Games: A winner-takes-all televised event set in special, miles long arena where 24 ‘tributes’ go in but only one comes out alive. When Prim, her younger sister, is selected, Katniss trades her life for hers and she is sent into the games with another tribute, Peeta. They head into the Capitol for preparation, where sponsors, secrets and personal image rule, proving to be just as dangerous as the battle within the arena.
The book sets itself up for a couple of challenges: firstly, it needs to build up a world that is far different from our own but remains relatable; it has to set up an environment that allows this preposterous plot to take place; and finally, allow the development of characters to stop the narrative turning into a simplistic good vs. evil battle. What Collins does is truly admirable and succeeds on many fronts. She weaves a narrative that makes us excited to discover this world, from the smallest details from day to day life in District 12, to the excesses of the Captiol, not forgetting the booby-trapped arena where the teens battle.
This world works in the book’s favour to present a complex display of the social-media perceptions, and also presenting a society that exhibits control and restriction with a hyper-realistic bent while trying to understand the meaning of honour. There is a palpable threat hidden in the novel throughout, not just presented by the brutal (but never glorified) violence of the games themselves, but mere interactions anywhere can be a cause for treason. However, this would be for nought if our main protagonist wasn’t interesting.
Katniss is unlike most female protagonists that we encounter, that has more personality and a stronger will than that of a thousand Bellas. The book sets up this romantic entanglement that could be considered typical of this fiction: the love triangle. However, while the Gales of the world are strong and handsome, and the Peeta’s are caring and sacrificial, its her ability to take care of her family and her relationships between Prim and her surrogate sister Rue, a tribute from District 11, that bring complexity and an honest portrayal of womanhood.
She is more than just the repurposing of the readers perception (the reason why Twilight Saga has an appeal), but invites us in to accept her faults. She struggles and adapts to extraordinary circumstances, with the mixture of emotions a normal teenager or even some adults would face. Surrounding this character, we have supporting characters that transcend archetype, and are fully flesh and blood. Each character has a role to play from her development from simple rebelliousness into TV personality and driving her determination to survive, meanwhile hinting at far more underneath the surface.
If there is one thing that lets the novel down, it is its prose. While it does allow the narrative to have a certain dynamism, it is extremely literal at times, such as the audience from the get-go learns the connection between Rue and Prim in Katniss’ eyes. Whether it is because it is from Katniss’ perspective, where her school education are dedicated to procuring coal, or it is Collin’s creative decision to keep it as chaste as possible, we do not know.
However, when it is subtle it succeeds, as she uses the restriction of the first person narrative to embolden intrigue. Katniss (and by extension, us) never really sure what is true or false, circling the same questions over and over, as whether she can trust Peeta or even what he represents in her life, meanwhile trying to retain her character in front of death.
In the end, while people would consider this book to be a rip-off Battle Royale, it compensates with a complexity that can seem entirely unexpected. The book is somewhat let down by the simple and literalistic style, but it does have extremely well-developed characters. It exists in a tangible world, has a strong social critical edge that makes this novel stand-out, not just as a young adult novel, but most sci-fi in any medium. Let the odds of it being a good film be ever in their favour… until it is released that is.