Last year, when I started this blog, everybody was talking about Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. At first I ignored the reviews, because this is a young adult novel, and I haven’t read young adult novels since I was eleven or twelve years old. But one chance day, I read a review, and something about it must have struck me because I added this to my TBR list. Fast forward several months to August: I am in the Las Vegas airport, waiting for a flight home. I can’t seem to get into the book I have with me, so I wander into the book store to look for something to read on the plane. I browse and choose a book (The Likeness, by Tana French) and proceed to the counter to pay.
When it’s my turn, I hand my book to the cashier, and she tells me it was her second-favorite read from the past year, but her favorite book of the past year is—and no joke, we say this at the same time: The Hunger Games. How I knew she was going to say that, I cannot tell you. She could have just as easily said The Help, but somehow I knew she was going to say The Hunger Games. She proceeded right then and there—with customers lining up behind me—to give me a full review of the book. After that, it stuck in my brain and would not let go, so I finally checked it out from the library.
Most of you have probably already read this book, but just briefly for anyone who hasn’t: The nation of Panem, which occupies the ruined lands of North America, is divided into twelve districts and a Capitol. The people in the Capitol use many means to control the districts, in order to prevent any uprising against their harsh government. One of the ways they control the districts is through The Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen through a random drawing to travel to the Capitol and be a part of The Hunger Games, a true battle for survival. Only one contestant can win the game, and the rest will lose their lives.
Enter Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for The Hunger Games after her twelve-year-old sister, Prim, is chosen in the drawing. We follow Katniss on her journey to the Capitol to prepare for the games, and then experience her fight for survival during the games themselves.
I realize this will seem completely random, but have you ever picked up a book and started reading and found that the minute a character is introduced you associate her (or him) either with an actor or someone you know? This happened to me with The Secret History, with the character of Bunny. At that point in time, I’d seen this actor in exactly one movie—The Scent of a Woman, and in a bit part at that—but when Donna Tartt introduced the character of Bunny, he was immediately Philip Seymour Hoffman (much younger then), and for me he remains as such until this day. I say this because the minute I met Katniss Everdeen, I saw Anne Hathaway. She’s probably too old for the part now, but that’s how Katniss will always appear in my head.
Okay, that’s out of the way: on to the book. If you are one of the few people left who hasn’t read this book, do try to get your hands on a copy in the near future. I was very lucky, I think, to be the age I was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, because there were so many smart young adult books by writers—S.E. Hinton, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, just to name a few—who treated young adults just like that—young adults. Honestly, there may still be hundreds of terrific YA writers out there today (I hear the names Patrick Ness and David Almond mentioned quite a bit, and I know Nick Hornby took a turn at writing YA), but I do not have children and know next to nothing about that market. Based on the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High and Hannah Montana tween nonsense I see everywhere (although, to be fair, I think Sweet Valley High may have been around when I was younger), I generally assumed that YA had sort of deteriorated into…well, into crap.
But I’m still not talking about the book, am I? All I can say is, anyone over the age of eleven or twelve (there are some rather graphic scenes during the games, and people—kids—do die) up to the age of…death, I guess, would enjoy this book. Suzanne Collins is so even-handed, and presents such a realistic portrait of this world she has created that you cannot help but be engaged. From the first word of the book, the world is real, and you are immersed in it. Katniss, like a lot of real children, was forced into a sort of early adulthood by the death of her father. Collins does an excellent job of walking that very fine line with characters between late childhood and early adulthood. Katniss never seems older than her years, even though she has the capabilities of an adult in many ways, something that was circumstantially thrust upon her rather than willingly sought. She is smart, and she is a survivor, but what she longs for most is stability and security, and she does her best to provide those things for her sister and herself.
The game scenes that make up much of the second half of the book are suspenseful and well-paced, and at times (for me, at least) a bit scary. Everything in the games is televised for the people in the Capitol and the districts, but the games exist both to exhibit the power of and to entertain the Capitol residents. I could not help but wonder if Collins wasn’t sending up the whole reality television idea of watching people struggle and suffer for our entertainment.
And there is a bit of a love story—I won’t say much about it for fear of giving anything away—but it fits in nicely with the plot instead of distracting from it. The fact of the matter is that every decision Katniss faces determines who she will become. It’s interesting to see a young woman in a situation like this dealing with choices about love not based on looks and popularity (or the traditional quarterback or geek scenario), but based on what will help her survive, and what sort of person she believes herself to be. How can she learn to trust her feelings, when her feelings are tied to her most basic survival instincts?
As for the writing, Collins writes neat, clean prose. She gives enough vivid detail so that you can create the rest of the picture yourself. I recently read a comment somewhere that someone preferred YA novels to adult novels because YA writers were not so concerned with “words,” and that adult novelists seem to be too interested in language and being clever, instead of being interested in the story. I think to be a writer or an avid reader and say you don’t care about words is like saying you love astronomy but you aren’t really interested in stars. Stories are words, they are nothing without language, and I imagine that YA novelists—the good ones anyway—spend as much time carefully weighing their word choices and perfecting their prose as adult novelists do. After all, today’s YA reader becomes tomorrow’s adult reader, and I believe the good YA novelists are quite aware that they are working with malleable young minds, teaching them how to appreciate language and story.
I also wanted to add that reading this book reminded me of reading Madeleine L’Engle’s books so long ago. Again, I think it’s her even-handed presentation of Katniss, how she makes her struggles and decisions so real, and how the world exists in shades of grey, rather than the usual black-and-white. I have a renewed interest now in YA, and I look forward to reading the second book in this series, Catching Fire.
Some passages (most of my favorites give too much away):
I’ve been right not to cry. The station is swarming with reporters with their insectlike cameras trained directly on my face. But I’ve had a lot of practice at wiping my face clean of emotions and I do this now. I catch a glimpse of myself on the television screen on the wall that’s airing my arrival live and feel gratified that I appear almost bored.
Both Peeta and I run to the window to see what we’ve only seen on television, the Capitol, the ruling city of Panem. The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur. If anything, they have not quite captured the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal. All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens to bright, and the yellows too painful to the eyes, like the flat round disks of hard candy we can never afford to buy at the tiny sweet shop in District 12.
Morning brings distress. My head throbs with every beat of my heart. Simple movements send stabs of pain through my joints. I fall, rather than jump from the tree. It takes several minutes for me to assemble my gear. Somewhere inside me, I know this is wrong. I should be acting with more caution, moving with more urgency. But my mind seems foggy and forming a plan is hard. I lean bank against the trunk of my tree, one finger gently stroking the sandpaper surface of my tongue, as I assess my options. How can I get water?