The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
I first heard about The Hunger Games through the book section of the Globe & Mail here in Canada, which had a blurb given by Stephen King across a prominent ad. I didn't rush out to read the book though, just put it on my wish list and left it at that. Then, I saw the trailer for the film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson, and that's when I realized I needed to get it over with and read this book. But after years of procrastination on my part and ceaseless hype on the part of those who published it, did it live up to my expectations?
Set sometime in the future, civilization as we know has collapsed and in its place a new power structure has risen in Panem (what used to be North America), presiding over twelve colonies that all serve the Capitol. There used to be thirteen, but one city was destroyed during a civil war, and serves as a cautionary tale to the remaining twelve. Since peace was reestablished, an annual event airs on television. It's called the Hunger Games. Think of it as a macabre cross between American Idol and Stephen King's Running Man. And our protagonist, Katniss, a sixteen-year-old girl has just volunteered to enter, thus sparing her twelve-year-old sister from having to compete.
Each of the twelve colonies randomly select one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen. After being whisked from their homes to the Capitol, they are lavished with every luxury imaginable during their training until they are all thrust into a remote landscape and forced to fight each other to the death until only one remains. Sounds like good watchin'. And it better be, because it's compulsory viewing for the colonists, as a reminder that rebellion will only serve to kill all their sons and daughters.
For Katniss, the ideals of surviving to bring honor and glory, however fleeting, back home are a distant second to her longing to spare her mother and sister from seeing her weak and scared. She's spent much of her life providing for them in the wake of her father's death in a coal mine, and has become resilient and calloused in the process. In fact, aside from the selfless act of replacing her sister after the random drawing, Katniss isn't a terribly likable character. She's resentful towards her mother who had a mental breakdown after her Dad died, and is self-centered to a degree that's really irritating. Granted, her living conditions don't exactly lend themselves to a happy-go-lucky adolescence.
The first half of the book spends time establishing who Katniss is and how she sees those around her, as she's plucked from her life and introduced to an Oz-like world in the Capitol. Peeta, the baker's son, is the other teen chosen to compete, and together they try to maneuver their way through ridiculous protocol and the stacked odds against them in training. As well, Katniss must weight how much she can trust Peeta once the games begin, because only one can be declared winner, and her paranoia has her questioning not only his every move, but her own as well. The second half of the book is all about the Hunger Games, when she, Peeta, and the twenty-two other teens are sent into the arena to fight. Here, things are really turned on their head, as Katniss finally realizes her hunting skills are the only thing that's going to keep her alive, namely her prowess with a bow and arrow. Unfortunately, the weapons are laid out as bait at the start of the games to encourage immediate confrontation, so Katniss has to settle for grabbing what supplies she can and hiding in the forest before one of the others kills her.
The book is exciting for nearly the entire way through, with each chapter offering enough suspense and cliffhangers to make you keep turning pages. There are some aggravating aspects to the book, though. One of the big problems I had with the book was Katniss' evasion of killing others to survive. It seemed at nearly every turn, when her hand was forced and she had to defend herself, there was some kind of godhand stepping in to take care of the killing for her. I don't want to go into detail more than that, as that's spoiler enough I'm sure, but when other competitors are getting blood on their hands, Katniss seems to be surviving less by skill than by sheer luck. Another facet of the Hunger Games I didn't like was the idea of sponsors in the Capitol airdropping supplies to competitors at certain times during the games. Since Katniss and everyone else are being filmed by hidden cameras and tracking devices, their performances are used to garner sponsors for things like food or medicine or whatever the case may be. For Katniss, the little items that parachute their way were literal deus ex machina. Things are at their worst? Don't worry, here's that thing you desperately need and would otherwise die without it.
That much I can ignore, but for me, the ending was just awful. This, I can't spoil, so sufficed to say there is something that happens towards the end of the Hunger Games that comes out of nowhere and just derails the whole story for me. And then--and I don't think I'm spoiling anything since this is the first book in a trilogy--after Katniss gets out of the Games, there is further annoyance to the "after show" and her attitudes towards other characters when things had settled down. I'm still looking forward to reading the second book, Catching Fire, but only because I'm hoping Suzanne Collins' plans for this story make up for the loose strings left in this book.