What a compelling, tension-filled, brutal, and difficult read. The Hunger Games is the kind of book that you have to read as quickly as possible because it occupies part of your brain even when you aren’t reading—it sat there in my mind like a reminder of something urgent that I needed to be doing.
I’m not sure I liked Katniss—our main character—although I was very interested to see how her story turned out. She has good reason not to trust people, so she’s always looking for the angle that will help her survive—and I was most definitely rooting for her to survive. But she’s practical to a fault and assumes that everyone is prepared to turn on or abandon her. This brutal pragmatism doesn’t always make her the most sympathetic character. You almost get the impression that we’d find her more likeable if we could see her as others do, but we see her as she sees herself and that’s not always flattering. But in many ways that makes her easy to identify with, and she’s a very compelling main character.
The novel takes place on the remains of North America in an indeterminate future in Panem, a country made up of a beautiful urban Capitol surrounded by 12 poor and mostly rural Districts. After the Districts rebelled and were violently put down, a system was put in place to ensure there would be no more rebellion—every year each District must randomly choose 2 tributes—a boy and a girl—between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. When Katniss’ 12 year old sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Peeta, the baker’s son and a boy who Katniss credits with saving her life in the past, is the other tribute.
The Hunger Games are televised and are the entertainment event of the year. The makeovers, the stylists, the interviews, every moment being filmed and televised—it’s reality television taken to an extreme. The fact that a modern reader can recognize so much in Katniss’ futuristic and dystopian world is part of where the horror and tension comes in.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Oh my goodness, the violence. It’s a truly brutal book, for the 24 tributes must kill each other or be killed. And since it’s all about good television, the gamemakers don’t hesitate to control the weather, set fires, release truly horrific beasts, and other awful things to keep the action going. It gets pretty graphic, although much of it is about the aftermath of the violence rather than the violence itself. The threat of death hangs heavy throughout the book. Peeta is hurt badly enough that even the incredible medical technology of the Capitol can’t fix everything.
Before the story begins, Katniss’ father died in a mine explosion which nearly resulted in her family starving to death—there are few safety nets out in the Districts. Some of the deaths of the other tributes are graphic and disturbing. Worst of all is the death of 12 year old Rue who was allied with Katniss. This tragic death is given its due and nearly brought me to tears.
The Hunger Games are all about classism—it’s the Haves keeping the Have-nots in their place. In the Capitol, all the luxuries you can imagine (and some you can’t) are available at the touch of a button. The focus is on image, as much money, effort, and technology is put into appearance. In the Districts, they’re all trying too hard to simply survive to worry about such things. There’s an implication that those in the Capitol are shallow and very possibly heartless, but there are exceptions to that as well. The Districts provide for the Capitol first and live on the scrapings that are left. Poor families in the Districts can earn extra food by entering their kids’ names multiple times in the drawing for the Hunger Games, increasing the chances that kids from the poorest families will get chosen and most probably killed.
Different characters are described as having different skin tones, etc., but the divisions happen because of where you were born more than what your race is. I pictured a very diverse culture in the Capitol, but I honestly don’t remember if that was explicitly described.
The Capitol controls every aspect of life in Panem. It is absolutely required that everyone in the Districts watch the Hunger Games on television and even celebrate them, despite the fact that they’re watching their own kids die. Even the animals might be spies for the Capitol (“muttations” are genetically engineered creatures developed by the Capitol), so even in the “privacy” of your own home, you don’t speak treason. Rebellion is dealt with very harshly—such as by execution or mutilation.
Family is complicated. Katniss is an adoring older sister, required to take care of both her little sister and her mother after her father is killed. Peeta is hit and verbally abused by his mother, but his father seems loving and supportive. Katniss develops several strong friendships that are similar to family.
Katniss’ mother suffers from debilitating depression after her husband is killed. Although she’s in the house, she has effectively abandoned her children. Katniss is terrified that her mother will leave again, and she orders her mother to hold it together for Prim’s sake when Katniss leaves for the Hunger Games. Her mother, an apothecary, says that the first time she didn’t have herbs and medicines that would help her cope. Now she does, so she will be better able to deal with it.
You might find some if you read between the lines—girls being sexy and nearly naked is a valid approach, Katniss gains support when she seems to lean on Peeta—but I think it’s minimal and can be argued against—boys being nearly naked is also a valid approach and Katniss is so tough that leaning on Peeta may make her easier to identify with.
Haymitch, mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is a drunk. He drinks constantly, often to bad effect—he vomits, he sort of gropes a female reporter, he falls off the stage. Eventually he begins to pull himself together, but he’s never fully sober. At one point Katniss has some wine, but stops when she gets tipsy; she doesn’t like the lack of control.
It’s a truly compelling book I won’t soon forget. I think younger readers (10 to 12 or so) probably ought to read it with a grown-up, either aloud or book club style. There are a lot of deep concepts and disturbing issues and tragic scenes. It’s hard for me to imagine any reader being unaffected by them, and I don’t think it will be hard to get your kid (or anyone else who’s read the book) to talk about it!
If my daughter chooses to read it, I’ll give her some spoilers to keep her from getting too anxious. I may even break my iron-clad rule and let her see the movie first so she knows more or less how the plot turns out before she reads the book.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Published in 2008 by Scholastic Press
First in a trilogy
Read my paperback copy