Tuesday, March 20, 2012

the hunger games

I finally decided to give this book a try, not only due of all the praise and hype, but because I am intrigued by Stanley Tucci's blue hair in the previews. The Hunger Games is technically a YA novel, but like the Harry Potter series, adults will enjoy it, even appreciate it more than teens. It's also a lightning-fast read. I finished the series in just a few days, but as fast-paced as it is, the characters and the problems of the world they live in stay with you long afterward. My reviews of the other two books are to come. Needless to say I will also be checking out the soon-to-be-released movie adaptation.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games
Author Suzanne Collins has woven some familiar ideas — Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, reality television shows, ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, the Greek myth of Theseus, Romeo and JulietThe Wizard of Oz and much more, into a still original look at a dystopian future where 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death in a yearly televised contest, the Hunger Games. The games are supposedly a lesson or a punishment for the sins of previous rebellious generations, but they have clearly morphed into the main source of entertainment for a spoiled Capitol that can cure practically any wound or disease and seem removed from death — hence a lust for bloodsport.

What takes The Hunger Games beyond just a mere will-or-won't-our-heroine-survive drama are all of the little moral dilemmas that keep cropping up as she tries to survive her time in the arena. 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen has been the head of her family for years. She is accomplished with a bow and arrows and hunts to keep her family and friends from starvation. When her younger sister Prim is selected as the female Games participant, the devoted and intrepid older sister volunteers in her stead. Katniss has learned survival techniques in her many hours hunting in the forbidden woods outside of the district where she lives, but she still assumes that she will be dead meat as soon as the Games begin. She just wants to die with some honor and ensure that her family won't suffer.

The boy tribute, the other competitor from her district, Peeta Mellark (the names!), is obviously besotted with her (obvious to everyone but Katniss), and doesn't feel he has much of a chance, either. Katniss at first distances herself from Peeta, who tries to help her at every turn, as she knows that she will ultimately be forced to kill him at some point in the games. The rules state that at the end there can only be one winner.

During the early days of the Games Katniss meets and befriends a younger girl, Rue, and the two briefly form an alliance. They bond instantly, much like kids do on the modern-day playground. But always hovering in the background are the rules of kill or be killed. Like Spartacus, these gladiators are never far from death.

The Games are broadcast live, and Katniss is at all times aware that what she is doing and saying is going straight back to the Capitol and her friends and family back at home. There are times when she is even mugging for the cameras. Like Survivor or Project Runway or The Bachelor or any of the other reality competitions we all tune in to these days, how much of the drama is real, or prompted by getting better ratings and sponsors? Katniss quickly learns that if she shows tenderness towards Peeta and plays up the romance angle everyone watching back home will lap it up — and sponsors will respond too, by sending in silver-parachuted, much-needed supplies.

There were a few loose ends or questions I had during the book that I felt weren't completely answered. Katniss's country, Panem, what is left of North America after a post-apocalyptic war, has been reduced to 12 districts (District 13 had been obliterated in a huge conflict that led to the current state of things). We learn that district 12, where Katniss and Peeta hail from, is what we call Appalachia. I was hoping for more clues to where and what the other districts were. Or how about a map? The Capitol seems to be located near modern-day Denver, but all of the other districts were a mystery.

Katniss is a great central character. She has been so beaten down by life that she can't pick up on the romantic (tri)angle, either at home, where she is "friends" with older boy Gale, or during the Games with Peeta. There is a lot of chaste kissing in the last third of the book that may give younger readers a thrill, but may have the older readers rolling their eyes. I sympathized with Katniss, who grew impatient with all of Peeta's lovey-dovey-ing, when she was trying so hard to keep them both alive under very harsh circumstances. The characters' priorities were very different, which kept them interesting.

Katniss may be naive in many ways, but she has naturally good instincts. Once she sees how things are going, she can quickly adapt. She is a brilliant hunter, but also has a huge heart, connecting to and feeling for the other contestants. Knowing that The Hunger Games is a trilogy, most readers won't be too worried about Katniss's ultimate fate. Collins is aware of this, and makes the conflict center around the life and death decisions Katniss has to make and how far she is willing to go to survive. The Hunger Games is a fast but absorbing read. It may raise more questions than it answers, but its characters and setting are more than compelling enough to make me snatch up the next novel and see where it takes Katniss next.
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