Well, I’m late to the “game” on this one. Nevertheless, having just read the first in Suzanne Collins’s young adult fiction trilogy—in the wake of the buzz around the just-released third book of the trilogy, Mockingjay—I feel that I must write something about it. My reaction to The Hunger Games can be summed up in three words: Blown. A. Way. For those who have not yet read it but plan to, my Hunger Games summary and review will not spoil any crucial plot twists.
The Hunger Games: Summary
The Hunger Games portrays a dystopian vision of the future of North America, now the nation of Panem. In Panem, a powerful and technologically advanced city—The Capitol—rules mercilessly over 12 outlying districts, each named simply for their number. Every year, The Capitol requires that each district select two teenagers by lottery—one boy and one girl—to represent the district at the annual Hunger Games, as “tributes”.
The Hunger Games are a cross between the reality show Survivor and the Roman Colosseum: the 24 teens fight to the death on live national television in a huge outdoor arena (we’re talking many square miles here), which encompasses a range of natural geography that varies from year to year. The Capitol stages the Hunger Games as a continuing reminder of the districts’ subservience, and as a brutal warning about how rebellion is dealt with.
Katniss Everdeen—the protagonist of the novel—becomes one of the tributes from District 12, the poorest of the districts, along with Peeta Mellark. The bulk of the book features Katniss and Peeta’s violent struggle for survival in the arena, and their interactions with other tributes and citizens of The Capitol. Will Katniss survive the arena? Will The Capitol own her as she fights to survive? These are the anxious questions that drive the story forward.
Subjective Appeal: Efficiently Beautiful Writing, Gripping Story
This book has so much subjective appeal, I don’t really know where to begin. How about the writing? The writing. Collins writes with a penetrating and sometimes shocking efficiency. Her writing is lean and beautiful, wasting nothing. This is not the beauty of summer flowers or warm autumn tones. Rather, this is the beauty of winter, of a disciplined athlete, of angular modern architecture, of icy blue and battleship gray, of a tool in the hand of a master craftsman, of an archer who effortlessly drives arrows into the heart of a bulls-eye.
The cold beauty of Collins’s writing fits perfectly in her story, reflecting the beauty of her compelling protagonist, Katniss, who narrates the story to the reader in first person. Katniss is fiercely independent, and somewhat angry—a hard exterior deriving from the loss of her father, and a life of hungry survival in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest district of unjust Panem. Yet, despite her toughness, Katniss is eminently likable: she is principled, she speaks her mind, and she sees through the glamorous veneer of The Capitol to its oppressive nature (unlike some of her fellow tributes). Katniss is a strong, attractive character with a complex and believable inner life, which keeps us interested in the story.
The plot of Collins’s work of young adult fiction is thoroughly gripping. My heart was pounding through roughly 75% of this book, and during the remaining 25% I was grateful for the rest! I had to discipline myself not to read the book before bed, or I would end up tossing and turning, thinking about the story—and sometimes having to sneak out of bed to my computer to write part of this review. In addition to the drama of the Games themselves, Collins interweaves a compelling and complicated love story, which adds to the appeal of the book. Collins definitely leaves us “hungering” for the next book, Catching Fire (which I’m already reading).
Finally, this young adult novel is also attractive for its creativity. For example, throughout the novel Collins uses food and appetite to tell the story. Food binds together Katniss and Gale, who are best friends and hunting partners. Food also binds Katniss to Peeta, who saved her from starvation with a burnt loaf of bread. The rich copious food of The Capitol distinguishes it sharply from the Districts, whose food is basic and scanty. Throughout the book Collins also uses Katniss’s relation to food as a way of signaling her emotional state: when she’s anxious, she doesn’t eat; when things are well, she eats with relish; when she’s on a mission, she stuffs herself purposefully.
Another interesting sign of Collins’s creativity is the technology that characterizes The Capitol. Miraculous medicines, genetically engineered killer bees (“Tracker Jackers”), and, my favorite, a box that you place your hand on which sends a current through your scalp to effortlessly untangle, part, and dry your hair after showering (p. 75). These little creative touches made me marvel at the futuristic world Collins has created, and drew me into the book.
Developmental Value: Cultural and Moral Issues, Constructive Violence
In addition to its subjective appeal, The Hunger Games possesses much developmental value for young adults. First, and most importantly, this book of young adult fiction pushes teens to think about important issues. In many respects life in Panem parallels life in the contemporary west, and thereby provokes critical reflection on western culture. For example, the excesses of The Capitol—lavish consumption (especially of food), rampant plastic surgery (p.124), and an overbearing media culture—remind one of the contemporary U.S., as does the radical divide between the affluent Capitol and the poor Districts. By surfacing these themes, the book encourages teens to live with a healthy critical view of the culture around them.
The book also throws important moral themes into relief, thereby provoking beneficial reflection. The events of the Hunger Games cause one to consider how the value of survival stacks up against other important values such as loyalty, respect, and human dignity. Katniss’s actions are often guided—albeit begrudgingly (Kant would be proud…)—by her sense of moral debt, causing the reader to reflect on what it is, exactly, that we owe to each other. Also, the oppressive hand of The Capitol provokes reflection on the values of freedom and justice—indeed, the book feels a bit like Orwell’s 1984 in that respect.
In several ways, The Hunger Games also advances what I take to be an important empowering perspective of women. First and foremost, the protagonist is a strong young woman. Katniss is an imminently capable, and downright powerful character who is in charge of her own life as much as any man or boy in the story (though no one from the Districts is really in charge of their own life under The Capitol’s oppressive regime). Second, the book subtly depicts a future in which young women are given no special treatment when it comes to the violent Hunger Games. While this might seem like cold comfort—who rejoices in an equal stake in the Hunger Games?—the flip-side of this reality is the fact that young women are expected to have just as much chance of winning the games as their male counterparts. Here, then, is an important (albeit grim) message of empowerment for women. They stand on equal footing with men, even in the most physical of contests.
My one hesitation about this book is that it is very violent, particularly in the sections describing the Hunger Games. Collins does not linger on the violence in a grotesque manner, but the brief episodes are nevertheless disturbing. Thus, I would not recommend the book for teens sensitive to violence.
However, I do think the violence has an important function in the book, namely to make one feel (and not just cognitively understand) the injustice and oppression of The Capitol. Much violence in movies and books is mere titillating entertainment. In my view, such shallow violence has only negative effects, namely desensitization to the genuine horrors of violence. However, the violence of The Hunger Games is different. One experiences it as horrific, and thus the violence can actually play a helpful affective role in shaping character, hardening our resolve against evil, and helping us to understand the tortured psychology of those, like Katniss, who have experienced violence.
Thus, in short, I highly recommend The Hunger Games. The book is highly attractive for its stark beauty, its compelling characters and plot, and its marvelous creativity. The book is also developmentally valuable due to the cultural and moral themes it raises, and the constructive (though genuinely shocking) role of violence in the book. I encourage you to find the book in your local library, or to support my work by purchasing it through the links in this post, or in the Children’s Books and Reviews online bookstore.
Have you read The Hunger Games? What do you think of it? I’d love to hear your comments. Also, if you found this review helpful, why not post it on Facebook or Twitter? The “Share/Save” button below makes it easy. Thanks!