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The Hunger Games: Summary and Review

The Hunger Games: summary and review, cover artThe Hunger Games: summary and review
Title: The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Age Category: 16 to 19 years +

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, MockingjayMockingjay by Suzanne Collins—I feel that I must write something about it.  My reaction to The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review 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 GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review 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 FireCatching Fire by Suzanne Collins (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 GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review 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 19841984 by George Orwell in that respect.

In several ways, The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review 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 GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review 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 GamesThe Hunger Games: summary and review.  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.

To read my review of Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy—voted one of ALA’s “Best Books for Teens” for 2010—click here.

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!

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8 Comments

  1. […] Today, in honor of Teen Read Week, I review the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire.  As it turns out, teen readers across the country recently chose Catching Fire as their favorite book of 2010.  I will not spoil any important plot twists in this review.  For a review of the first book in this teen fiction trilogy, The Hunger Games, click here. […]

  2. […] that the book, like its predecessors, is quite violent (though I think appropriately so; see my review of The Hunger Games for the rationale behind this […]

  3. […] course, this phenomenon is not limited to children: when I read The Hunger Games (click here for my summary and review) there were times when my heart was pounding as hard as Katniss’s; and when I was reading the […]

  4. tamara says:

    What a wonderful review and analysis! I too have read the novel and thought it was amazing! :D

  5. Aaron says:

    Thanks Tamara! I appreciate the encouraging feedback.

  6. Pamela says:

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a series of books that are being given almost the same acclamation as the Harry Potter series. The first movie is due out in March. I’ve read that some schools are asininely including them in their curriculum and that some young girls are left with nightmares after having read them.

    Due to the popularity of these books, I would like to issue a warning to parents. Please read the entire series before allowing your children to read them. I feel the books could be psychologically damaging to young, impressionable minds. Please read them in a critical manner.
    The following are my own thoughts on the series and then I included another review:

    I finished reading the series last night as I had received them as a gift.
    The books were riveting, charged, highly emotional, but having said that… I have real reservations about the series.

    The series is about the extremely sadistic torture of young teenagers. The further along in the series…the more twisted and perverse the story line becomes. But, because of the way it is all presented, you tend to forget that these are children and not adults who must survive these gruesome, hellish games. The sarcastic glory with which the Hunger Games are treated by those in power adds an utterly depraved dimension to the plot. For those who are unfortunately familiar with the Saw movies, the books are more insidious.

    Besides the almost continuous and multiple ways the author finds to torture and kill off her characters, the under-age main character must stand naked while a man examines every inch of her in deciding how she is to be dressed, is handed suicide pills, watches a close friend beheaded, sees her sister go up in flames and learns that the former victors were sold as prostitutes. Children are forced to kill each other. This is a series for young pre-teens and young teens? What happened to half-way wholesome books for our young ones? Let’s throw-out the misleading ‘young adult’ label these books are given. Children are not ‘young adults’ until they are 18 years old. They should not be considered adults until they are 21 as it always was, but political reasons forbid this.
    By the end of the series the main characters are left so completely broken in body, mind and spirit that there is no victorious rejoicing. While the feat of eliminating the Hunger Games forever is accomplished, there is very little else to celebrate. This is entertainment for children?
    Books which are completely absorbing as are these, leave a deep-seated impression that cannot be easily shaken. There is a subtle subconscious psychological impact. In a way, similar to movies and television, the story is such that it almost desensitizes a person to the subject of the torture of children and I feel that is a very dangerous thing. Only someone who has read the entire series will understand what I am saying, here. I would be very interested in knowing what a panel of psychologists would say about the effects of this series on young minds.
    Whether intentionally or not, to my mind, the series glorifies the torture of children. The movies will do so at a deeper level.
    I almost have to wonder why the books were written. Supposedly, it was to show the effects of war on children according to one review. But, in reality, these books aren’t about a realistic war, which is bad enough. In reality, there is no-one, no-one who could survive what the author puts the main character through in the games. The series seems to be the product of a mind who has thought up every way imaginable to torture innocent children and present the torture as a story to the world.

    These books are not the way we want our children’s imaginations to be stirred. Those who will rush to see the movies, which has a big-star line-up, think about what you will be endorsing. Make no mistake, the entire series is about the unmitigated torture of children in as many imaginable forms possible. If we consider these future Hunger Games movies entertainment, then what is that saying about us?
    Because of the level of violence, sadism and the torture and sacrifice of children, I don’t plan on seeing the movie. And, let’s hope the crazies out there don’t see them, either.
    I know that everyone is raving about this series….but when people regard a series of books whose entire content is about the extreme, bloody torture of children in every form imaginable, their having to kill each other or be killed ….these are children’s books? Come on. Shame on Scholastic for publishing them. These have to be the most violent children’s books on the planet. They are sadistic in the extreme.

  7. Aaron says:

    Thank you, Pamela, for your thoughtful comment. While I agree that the books are very violent, and should likely only be read by teens older than 16 for that reason (with cautious parental approval), I must disagree that they glorify the torture of children. In fact quite the opposite, the horrific things that the teens undergo in the arena (and generally in the unjust world ruled by the Capital) are treated as grave and horrific throughout the novels. They are not trivialized as in many action movies and TV shows where people get killed in terrible ways and such events are sloughed off as no big deal. In the Hunger Games trilogy, we see the deep psychological impact of war working itself out in all of the main characters, showing violence to be what it really is: something that can damage and alter a human life permanently. This is no throw-away violence that leaves children thinking it would be glamorous and cool to live in that world; rather, this is violence that repels and troubles, as violence should. So, while I agree that parents should be cautious with these books, I do think they can be excellent books for mature teens for the very reason that that they do NOT glamorize or trivialize violence. And if one is to write moving, powerful books about war–as Collins has aimed to do–it is awfully difficult to avoid violence. The truth is, war is violent and horrific, and this is a truth that ought to be etched deep in the soul of young adults, as they begin to consider what it means to be a citizen of a country that tends to involve itself in many wars.

  8. Reese says:

    Omg I love this book it’s my favorite ever I just finished like thirty minutes ago I’m eleven and I do agree that it’s. Violent but that doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna read the other books or recommend them to my friends love this book a real page turner you should really read it if you haven’t

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