I’m not sure what to say about The Hunger Games. I didn’t really want to read it. Wasn’t interested, and had no plans to look into it further: just because I don’t much like children doesn’t mean I want to read about them killing each other. And I cordially dislike dystopian novels. If I’d known before buying it that it was set in the present tense I’d never have gotten it.
Then my sister mentioned she was reading The Hunger Games, and it was amazing. She was surprised I hadn’t planned to get into it. Huh, I thought. Then a very good friend told me she was reading it, and it was amazing, and I realized if two such very different ladies whose opinions I trust were loving it so much, I had to at least try it.
I bought a bundle of the trilogy on an Amazon special for the Kindle. When I opened the first page and saw the present tense, I sighed, but kept going. And very shortly I was incredibly grateful that I’d bought the bundle – if I had had to wait in between books either to buy the next or, horrifying thought, till the next was published, I think I would have expired from suspense. This way I was able to devour The Hunger Games and dive straight into Catching Fire immediately. (This is, I think, one reason the reviews have been so hard to write – I flew through them all so quickly that I was left reeling and with no clear division from one book to the next.) (This review, btw, kind of assumes a basic knowledge of the story; I don’t recap it.)
Amazing? I could exhaust the thesaurus looking for words to describe how much. I’m going to have to stop saying I hate books written in the present tense, after this trilogy and The Help. It’s always struck me as an affectation, a gimmick – but in this trilogy it pushed the urgency of the narrative. . And the first-person aspect was masterfully handled. In a story this big it cannot have been easy fitting all of the necessary exposition into the point of view of Katniss – and there was never a moment, in all three books, when I was thrown off by wondering what was going on elsewhere or how or why something happened. That the movie showed other points of view was fine; it suited the media. That Ms. Collins was able to accomplish it impresses me deeply.
Characterization was beautiful. Katniss is sixteen, and has been keeping her family – her mother and little sister – alive for five years, since her father was killed in one of the coal mines their District 12 is known for. After the explosion, her mother shut down, and it was either use what her father taught her about the bow and snare, or starve. She doesn’t make friends easily, and isn’t happy about that, but is unapologetic; she has much bigger things to worry about than whether people like her. Until, of course, whether or not people like her could mean the difference between living and dying. This is where the wisdom of the first-person narrative comes in: we are privy to her discomfort in the social settings in which Peeta handles himself so well, and we are also with her as she makes the choices that show her to be the person Cinna saw: fiercely loyal, protective, and selfless. It never occurs to her to think of her own needs when someone else needs her; she goes from looking after her family – and half of her neighborhood, really – to looking after Rue, to looking after Peeta, to … Catching Fire.
Still, even with the maturity her great responsibility has brought her, she is sixteen, and not entirely sure how she feels about her hunting buddy, Gale. He’s a little older, and does know how he feels, and she is still adjusting when the calamity of the Reaping strikes. The effect that Haymitch’s plans to help her and Peeta win attention from sponsors will have on Gale is never far from her mind – but the odds not ever being in their favor, the concern has to be set aside. Gale is strong, and capable, and responsible – and he has a wild, rebellious streak that frightens her.
The development of Peeta in her eyes is wonderfully skilful. He evolves from the boy with the heroic aura – the one who saved her life and her family all those years ago, at his own expense – to a young man with a personality, a sense of humor, great gifts and great spirit. His sense of humor kept taking me by surprise. He tromps through the woods like a herd of cattle, and can paint himself into a tree trunk, and will risk his life and his on-air reputation to ally with the Careers purely in order to help her, and he loves her. Katniss is used to looking after others; for someone else to look after her, takes her off guard.
I have seen interpretations of this book, and this trilogy, that made my eyes go wide (Peeta as a Christ figure because he spent three days in a cave and gave Katniss bread? Really?), but I’m in Tolkien’s camp: I cordially dislike allegory in all its forms. It can be useful as added depth to a story – but if allegory is the primary intent to a story it will probably not be a success for me. As a commentary, I find it powerful: it’s not so far-fetched a future for a nation (planet) gripped by thoroughly staged “reality” shows in which contestants’ personal or professional lives are in others’ hands. Every time Ryan Seacrest, while I was still able to tolerate American Idol, said something like “Who will survive tonight?” I found myself flinching. In interviews Ms. Collins has said that the idea began to germinate as she flipped back and forth between coverage of the Gulf War and reality television, and … it shows. Even more than the not-impossible idea of a totalitarian rule following a global ecological disaster, this terrifies me: to go from the pseudo arena of something like Survivor or one of the other immersion shows to the Hunger Games just doesn’t feel like a very big jump. Given the very clever governmental one-two punch of “We can never allow another uprising” – which is literally true, as the population cannot tolerate the losses that would come with another war and still remain viable.
And that’s another indication of a tremendous story: it can be interpreted any one of a dozen ways, or simply accepted as a tremendous story.
- A Literature Snob Reads the Hunger Games. And Likes It. (jamesroom.org)
- The Hunger Games Trilogy: New Era of Science Fiction (thetruthshouldbefree.wordpress.com)