A Review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

September 27, 2012

By Elijah Scott

As a librarian, I’m often asked what books I like to read – generally, the presumption seems to be that librarians must spend all of their time reading books, without any other activities of interest in life.

In reality, this stereotype is one that often makes librarians laugh, with a touch of sadness.  Yes, many – I dare say, even most – librarians LOVE to read.  No surprise there.  Yet sadly, many – again, I dare say, even most – librarians have far too little time in their lives to spend much time reading for enjoyment.  Our work days are filled with teaching classes, answering questions, identifying new information technologies, staying abreast of trends in the profession . . . and then, of course, there’s LIFE, which throws at us all the daily joys of family, friends, laundry, flat tires, children and all of their myriad activities, and . . . well, in short, too much to do and far too little time to enjoy as many good books as we might like to.

So, when asked to provide a review of The Hunger Games, I was excited to have a real reason to read something fun.  I’ve always been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. I spent many happy hours as a teenager devouring the works of Isaac Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Ray Bradbury, Madeline L’Engle, Fred Saberhagen, Ann McCaffrey, J. R. R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, C. S. Lewis . . . well, you get the picture.  In more recent years, I’ve added any number of good sci-fi and fantasy writers to my personal bookshelves, including works by Ian M. Banks, C. J. Cherryh, Jacqueline Carey, Larry Niven, Lois McMaster Bujold and many others.

Of course, with so many years of reading in a particular genre, I have occasionally found works that simply don’t appeal to me.  I fear that The Hunger Games has found its way onto that bookshelf.

As a quick synopsis, the narrative is set in a future in which North America has been torn apart by a catastrophic war.  The continent is now known as PanEm and is ruled by the Capitol, a city somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.  The remainder of the continent has been divided into 13 districts under the dictatorial control of the Capitol.  Resources in this post-apocalyptic environment are scarce.  All of the districts are forced to yield most of their products – food, natural resources and manufactured goods – to the Capitol.  Citizens of the districts generally have barely enough to survive, and live lives that are rigidly controlled by the government.

The narrator, Katniss Everdeen, leads the reader through the story.  She explains that District 13 was destroyed in recent years when it attempted to rebel against the Capitol.  Because of that rebellion, each of the remaining districts is required to hold a drawing each year to identify two youths – one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18 – to be entered in the annual Hunger Games.

Once selected, the 24 youths are placed in an arena chosen by the gamemakers of the Capitol.  The goal of the Hunger Games is, quite simply, survival.  The winner is the last youth alive.  The contestants are thus required not only to struggle to find food and shelter to ensure their own survival, but they are also required to kill as many of their competitors as possible.

The basic narrative is straightforward.  Katniss is not chosen for the Hunger Games, but instead volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Prim.  Another youth from her district, Peeta, is chosen as the male competitor.  Once the two enter the games, Peeta reveals that he has been in love with Katniss since they were children.

The remainder of the story is largely occupied by the various ways in which their competitors die, and how Katniss and Peeta survive.

So, essentially, The Hunger Games is a tale of loyalty, rebellion and individual freedom, all of which are explored as Katniss is forced to make a series of nearly impossible choices.

Now, it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Katniss survives and wins the Hunger Games.  The fact that she’s the narrator – and thus is required to survive to the end of the story – pretty much gives that information to the reader on page 1 of the book.

It IS a bit of a spoiler to tell you that Peeta also survives, but it shouldn’t surprise you.

In fact, there’s very little that’s surprising about The Hunger Games.  Part of the fun of science fiction is the world-crafting – the ability for the writer to create a world or universe that is completely different from our own, but which retains enough in common to enable the reader to relate to the characters.  Collins does nothing original in this area.  Her vision of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America has been explored by many other authors.  The Handmaid’s Tale, by Ursula K. LeGuin, immediately comes to mind, as well as the current Word & The Void series of novels by Terry Brooks (if you’re my age or older, you may associate Brooks with the Shannara series).  In fact, the world she creates is quite generic, with a Capitol and 13 unnamed districts.  Perhaps this strategy was employed to reinforce the sense of dehumanization for the characters, but I don’t believe it was terribly effective in that sense.

The characters don’t break much new ground either.  Neither Katniss nor Peeta express much of themselves as fully-fleshed, thinking and feeling beings.  Clearly, the emphasis for both characters is on survival, but the one-way love interest between the two would have been an excellent opportunity to develop each as an individual.  Katniss’ character spends most of the novel expressing anger and cynicism toward her society, while Peeta only moves to the forefront of the narrative when he tells Katniss of his unrequited love for her.  Neither character exhibits much internal change from the beginning to the end of the novel.

I suppose that for me, what puts this book on the dislike shelf is the essential plot of the story:  place 24 kids into an arena and force them to kill each other, while the rest of the world watches via television.   Collins has explained that the plot was conceived while she was channel surfing between a reality TV show and coverage of the war in Iraq (see  Sellers, John A. (June 9, 2008). “A dark horse breaks out: the buzz is on for Suzanne Collins’s YA series debut.”. Publishers Weekly. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20080609/9915-a-dark-horse-breaks-out.html).

Again, the plot is not groundbreaking.  We’ve seen aspects of this plot before in such works of literature as The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein.  History presents us with the same concept in the gladiatorial contests of the Roman Empire.  It’s not even much of a stretch to argue the same concept presented itself during the American Civil War.  Perhaps the only new wrinkle is the romance between Katniss and Peeta, but this element is too much of a subplot to have much impact on the larger story.

So, since this book is part of a trilogy, am I hungry for more?  Well, I confess that I’ve read the Wikipedia entries for Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and I don’t think I feel the need to go any further with this series.  Maybe the movie is better?

Editor’s note:  Joan Ledbetter has agreed to review the next issue’s selection, Where Am I Wearing?, the Common Read at GHC, and the One Book, Many Voices selection for Rome and Floyd County.

3 Responses to A Review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

  1. Dana Davis on September 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    I must say, I’ve never been a fan of sci-fi. Oddly, though, I’ve always loved fantasy, perhaps because I studied Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King in high school at the same time that the musical Camelot was wildly popular. It’s probably why I loved all the Harry Potter books — and The Mists of Avalon, which came out about 15 years ago. But I could just never get thrilled about sci-fi. Still, I felt I needed to read The Hunger Games, as Elijah had so kindly offered to review it. Because of the movie I knew the basic premise of the story. I must say, I really can’t stand violence in books or movies, so I was relieved when I read this book and it didn’t resort to graphic descriptions of gory killings. Nevertheless, I’m with Elijah. I don’t think I’m curious enough to pick up the other two installments of the trilogy.

  2. Joseph McCauley on September 29, 2012 at 4:47 am

    I would say that The Hunger Games Trilogy rank as some of my favorite books. I read the first book and quickly devoured the second. The third book (Mockingjay) took a little more time (partly due to graduate school and partly due to the sadness of the impending end of the story). I would suggest that you read the second book if you made it through the first. The characters are allowed to grow a lot in the next two books and the overall story becomes less about survival through the “game” and more about survival of a people against an oppressive government. There are a wealth of characters that are introduced and you come to love (or hate) many of them to the point of turning page after page to see how it all ends. Give book two a try. Of the three, it was my favorite.

  3. Angela Spano on October 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    My Dear Mr. Scott,

    Let’s first understand that this book was written for a young audience and anything that gets youth into reading is, in my opinion, great! Yes the story line is simplistic and the characters one dimensional but again we are not looking for a literary masterpiece (they have all been written) just a book to read for fun. I have read all three books and have seen the movie and it was pure entertainment. Didn’t have to concentrate too hard or try and remember who was who. Keep an open mind and try something new, you might surprise yourself!

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