The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
One mind is that of the action junkie, one who can escape into a Tom Clancy kill-the-terrorists novel or watch and enjoy Battle Royale, the easiest and probably laziest comparison to The Hunger Games. And, truly, the comparison is apt; decadent societies force large groups of children to fight one another to the death, with the last one standing as the sole victor, for the entertainment of the general populace. For the benefit of the two people reading this who are not already familiar with the plot, that’s the setup. In The Hunger Games, every year the Capitol of Panem exerts its complete dominance over the rest of its country by conscripting a boy and a girl from each of its subservient Districts, celebritizing them to the point of absurdity, then dropping them in some remote wilderness filled with cameras to brutally murder each other. No rules, no mercy; think Survivor taken rather more literally, complete with reward challenges and rule changes. Despite not being chosen by the annual lottery, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (an accomplished hunter and backwoodswoman) volunteers to take the place of her twelve-year-old sister and is shipped off to almost certain death. Glitter and carnage ensue. And, honestly, author Suzanne Collins hits nearly every note perfectly, from the squalor of coal-mining District 12 to the opulence and frivolity of the Capitol to the almost casual brutality of the Games themselves. And, make no mistake, the Games are brutal indeed; despite showing commendable restraint when it comes to graphic description, Collins pulls no punches with the inevitable whittling down of the playing field. And therein lies the problem.
You see, the other mind is that of a parent, one with a nine-year-old daughter (who desperately wants to read this book, by the way). And, as a parent, The Hunger Games is going to haunt me, probably for days. With due respect to Battle Royale, I don’t think the theme of children overtaken by violence has been done this well since William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the perspective shift that the reader goes through as characters morph from frightened children into callous adults and back to children again is very similar to Golding’s novel. Children as young as twelve are chosen for the abbatoir, thrown in blithely with their nearly-adult counterparts to battle against contestants twice their physical size, and are expected to hold their own with no concessions. It’s easy to lose track of this while reading, because the story whips along at such an impressive rate that some of the implications get left behind, but the central concept of the story bears emphasis: 24 children are sent to fight each other to the death. Even now, just writing those words turns my stomach upside-down. Although most of the deaths happen offscreen (so to speak), those that do not are heartbreaking; the memory of one in particular makes me want to cry right now.
The one criticism I would level is that Collins’ cultural satire is very blunt and lacks subtlety (this could be intentional; I’m not certain there’s much room for subtlety in a book like this). Katniss’ stylist Cinna is really the only person from the Capitol we get to spend much time with, and therefore the only one to develop any depth. The rest are basically flat caricatures representing the most vacuous parts of American media culture, where particularly through reality TV we’ve essentially turned celebrity into yet another blood sport. The thing is, I basically agree with her; our national pastime is no longer baseball, it’s schadenfreude, and it sometimes seems inevitable that without concerted effort in the opposite direction we’ll end up a nation of desensitized libertines waiting with bated breath for the next Videodrome transmission. It’s not a great leap from our current collective obsession with fame and death to staging this kind of morbid spectacle.
And so, as I was going into this, I’m of two minds regarding my final opinion. The detached, objective part of me greatly admires the plotting, pacing, characterization, and creativity of this truly excellent novel. The parent, on the other hand, is disturbed to the point that I’m not sure I’ll be able to continue reading the rest of the trilogy. I’m intellectually curious to know how the big picture turns out, but I honestly am not sure that I’m willing to put myself through this sort of emotional wringer again in order to find out. I guess I’ll have to sleep on that. I can say that, although I have no doubt that it’s excellent, I have absolutely no interest in watching the movie; the very last thing I want to do is have the events of the Games played out for me onscreen. And if my daughter thinks she’ll be reading this anytime before she reaches an age with the word “teen” in it, she’s greatly mistaken.