The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Don’t you dare find this book entertaining.

Because then comes that uncomfortable moment, as you’re flying through those pages to see the “bloodbath” at the Cornucopia begin after the pulse-pounding 60-second countdown, when you realize that a teen girl’s fight to stay alive in a murderous free-for-all is fun to read.

Not to be confused with a history of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Ah, ah, ah, you’re no better than those sadistic fops from the Capital! But let’s be fair. It’s like that thought that a true anti-war movie can never be filmed because the combat will always seem– even if only a little– exciting.  This book can condemn our culture’s attitude toward media violence but not without making the drama of said violence enjoyable to read. I don’t see that as a hypocrisy but rather a demonstration of its point.

In the aftermath of a devastating war, North America is divided into 12 impoverished Districts controlled by the Capital, which is located in what used to be known as the Rockies (where I am– so in the future, I’d be living the good life! Cheers!) To punish the Districts for a past rebellion, twenty-four kids ages 12-18 are rounded up, gussied up, and trained to fight to the death on live TV. These Hunger Games, as they’re called, also keep the idle rich distracted with sensational entertainment, so two birds, basically.

Katniss tells us the story, and she ends up in the Games once her little sister’s number is drawn in the dreaded lottery. One may volunteer, as Katniss does, to take a tribute’s place.  Her (disappointingly under-described) archery skills give her a chance, at least, since she’s grown up hunting illegal game to feed her family. Also competing in her District is Peeta, and Katniss can’t decide if he has a thing for her, or if it’s all an act to gain the upper hand.

Notes for Future Dictators

Whenever I come across a dystopian novel, I try to judge whether its structure of oppression could work. In this case, would the Capital realistically be able to control the populace the way it does?

It’s a mixed bag. The geographical division of the lower classes, the “districting,” I can see being effective. The systematic starvation? Now that’s the tough sell. Historically speaking, a hungry population is much harder to control than a healthy one, the former being driven to desperation and fiercely united against the ruling class (but what the ruling class can do at that point is deflect the blame for the famine and indoctrinate the population against a scapegoat enemy [see: North Korea], which I don’t see happening in Panem).

We don’t get a lot of background in the first book on how this world, Panem, came to be, nor can we, since it’s so intimately told by a girl consumed by the task of survival; a detailed history lesson would be jarring and silly. I get the feeling, anyway, that the society Suzanne Collins is creating is mostly to serve the plot.

But What a Plot It Is

She stirs enough dramatic ingredients into The Hunger Games that there’s never a dull moment. She does cheat a bit, though. For example, the “sponsorships” are a plot device designed to parachute much-needed supplies into the arena and help Collins out of a jam (and Katniss, too, sure). Also, if the kids aren’t killing each other at a satisfactory pace, the “Gamemakers” can push some buttons and send balls of hellfire screaming down on the participants.

(I wish I could push the Hellfire Button whenever a book became boring)

Basically, everything Collins needs to do to keep the action moving is already built into the structure of the games, and it works beautifully as a read.

Entertaining. But The Hunger Games is often praised for being more than that, even a thought-provoking read for adults. One thing I got from it, apart from dystopian lit ideas I’ve seen before, was a renewed awareness of the human layer that lies beneath entertainment. We may not be watching people murder each other on The Bachelor or this week’s Who-Da-Baby-Daddy rendition of Maury Povich, but we are watching lives get ruined, which we are content not to contemplate. Also, in the book’s most intriguing moments, Katniss, no-nonsense survivalist that she is, is swept up in the pageantry of the Games, such as when she’s giggly at the interview or giving a knowingly mysterious smile for the camera. Even the sacrificed can’t always resist the intoxicating effects of being watched.

I’m glad I read this, and the attention it’s gathered is plenty fine by me. Though it deals in heavy themes, the violence isn’t gratuitous for younger readers, and for them it’s a great stepping stone to the towers of what is (at least to me) a sacred genre.

Read it if

1. You’re between the ages of 11 and 18, period. (Kids, why are you coming to a site called Read, You Bastard for book recommendations?)

2. You’re older than 18 and want a fast, gripping read that has a sense of relevance.

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10 thoughts on “The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

  1. Been meaning to comment on this since last week. Very nice summation of the book. As the series goes the sectioning of society into district works less and less well. By Mockingjay, it really does feel like a nonsensical way for a dictator to run things. Feels much more like neat framework in which to tell a story, but then I really didn’t like the third book.

    I’ve never been convinced Collins initially intended to write a trilogy, and the weakness of her world set-up is one of the reasons why.

  2. Hey Doug! Excellent review, as always. You’ve mastered it in a way that I continually fail to, haha.

    Anyway, I came across this article on on IGN about why The Hunger Games isn’t a Battle Royal ripoff and thought you might find it interesting, given your previous HG post. Here’s the link!

    http://m.ign.com/articles/1221815

    • Hey, give yourself some credit, Caitlin– we’re doing two different things. You’re actually presenting strong arguments about what you’re reading, and I’m clanging pots and pans together.

      I agree with the author of that article. While no one should accuse the Hunger Games of originality, the same goes for Battle Royale (case in point: http://betterbooktitles.com/post/1262858466/lordoftheflies), so quit yer griping, nerd-raging Japanophile fanboys.

  3. I’ll finally be taking the plunge to read this… after much deliberation. Went to see the movie on Sunday too, so thoroughly ruined the plot as well !!

    Just my two cents, I too thought this would just be a Battle Royale ripoff like you put it, but I see now that is isn’t. I’m a little ashamed to admit it but Collins has pulled it off and taken ideas from several novels (1984, Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies) and made it her own. I take back all my nasty comments about how all YA is crap. This girl eats her hat… pass the Lea & Perrins.

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