Playing with the Girl Who Was on Fire (Review: “The Hunger Games”)

This may be the hardest review I’ve written for ACNM. This is not because I didn’t read the book. I did; I’ve read it twice now, and I would never try to review a book I hadn’t finished reading. This is not because I didn’t like the book; it was amazing. This is because the book blew my mind, and because it has caused such a stir in the literary world. This book is The Hunger Games.

Before I read the first book in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins back in 2010, I had been hearing about it for ages. I actually had important plot points from the second book spoiled, but that happened with A Walk to Remember, and I loved that anyway, too. I had some time to kill before a friend’s wedding rehearsal, so I decided to grab a chair in Borders and give the paperback one chapter before I decided whether to buy it. At the end of the first chapter, I immediately knew two things: I was going to have a tough time putting it down to get to that rehearsal on time, and I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d finished the entire trilogy. As I mentioned in my first review (on my personal blog), it was on.

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The premise of the Hunger Games almost defies explanation. In the near future, the United States has collapsed and re-emerged as Panem, a country with 13 relatively poor districts plus the wealthy Capitol. Over time, unrest leads to a widespread uprising, and after the government obliterates the district that caused the most trouble, they institute the annual Hunger Games. All children ages twelve through eighteen have their names entered into a random drawing by district. One boy and one girl are prepared and sent to an arena where they must fight to the death as cameras film constantly. The sole survivor receives a crown, a fortune, a mansion, a life of luxury, and a year’s worth of gifts (mostly food) for his or her whole district. When the book begins, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen takes her beloved younger sister’s place as a “tribute.” She knows she risks a brutal and very public death, but what she experiences is arguably worse.

The Hunger Games reads like an action film, although there’s no escaping that many children will die as you turn the pages. The fast-paced, present-tense narrative keeps you right on Katniss’s tail, just as apprehensive as she is about what the next incredible twist will be. At the same time, this is still young adult literature. Katniss is a teenager; she gets caught in a love triangle; she’s not perfect, and you’re rooting for her to overcome her challenges. (In this case, that would be literally trying not to die.) On top of that is the political and social tension. The Games are a tool of the government meant to crush the people’s spirits and remind them who is in control. What parent could watch a child die without resolving to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening again, even if the only possible action is compliance? I say “watch” because the Games are televised: live, for the pampered Capitol residents, and in nightly replays, which are required viewing for the entire country. Just when you thought reality TV might be okay, you get this (and the end of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a reality show with a heart—coincidence?). There are so many thematic layers to what otherwise might be a simple story, albeit a gruesome one.

The Hunger Games was not the next Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling already made it cool to read again and showed us how to write stories boys and girls can both enjoy. That was a classic legend, and Rowling had the classical education to support it. The Hunger Games is a completely contemporary cautionary tale. When we see war on one TV channel and The Bachelor on the next (as Collins did: her inspiration), what kind of society must we conclude that we are building? This book offers one possibility. I shudder to think what the reality might be.

Next time: Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy

Part II: Review of Catching Fire
Part III: Review of Mockingjay