Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Hunger Games

Imagine all the publicity and excitement surrounding the SuperBowl—profiles of the players, analysis of past games, commentary and interviews—and multiply it by, say, a factor of five. Now imagine a Shirley Jackson-style "Lottery" in which a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 16 are selected randomly from each of 12 districts. Now imagine that government puts the children selected into an arena that can be tens of square miles and include forest, desert, mountain, lake, stream, jungle...whatever. The game's winner is the one who manages to kill every other child. This is the framework for Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.

This is the first book in a trilogy for young adults; the next two are Catching Fire and Mockingjay. It is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a spunky 16-year-old young woman who has a 12-year-old sister and a widowed mother. They live in District 12 in, what sounds like, Appalachia; the District's main function seems to be to supply coal to the Capitol. Katniss's father was killed in a mine explosion. In this future world, food is in such short supply that Katness and her friend Gale must hunt small game with bow and arrow to feed their families. (Only the Peacekeepers, the cops, have guns.) The totalitarian government holds the Hunger Games annually to entertain the population and to keep them from rebelling.

Collins spends about the first half of the book setting up the society, giving us Katniss's history, introducing the other characters, selecting Katniss for the Games (actually her little sister is selected and Katniss volunteers in her place, showing what a brave, loving sister she is), preparing her for the Games, and putting her into the arena where she has to kill 23 other children to stay alive. At that point, the book takes off and I could not put it down. Collins manages to throw in enough twists and reversals that, if you accept the book's premises, are both believable and satisfying.

(I did have an extra-literary thought: Because Katniss is telling her story, we know she survives somehow. Unless...Collins is having a dead girl telling the story. Not impossible, but an unlikely authorial decision given that Katniss has two more books to narrate.)

Although the children are hunting one another with bow and arrow, javelin, sword, and knife, the government's technology includes force fields, silent hovercraft, genetically modified birds and animals, weather control within the arena, and enough unobtrusive video cameras that viewers can enjoy every single child's slaughter.

While it is possible to read the books as a girl's adventure story—the way, I suspect, most teenagers will read it—Collins's subliminal messages is: Don't trust reality TV. The Katniss that the government puts onstage for the pregame shows and into the arena has been buffed, burnished, coached, and dressed to the tens.

I do not want to over-praise the book. It cannot compare in depth and intellectual complexity, for example, to Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy. The Hunger Games has been on the New York Times young adult best-seller list almost since the day it was published, and at least three of my middle-school creative writing students had read it and loved it. As I said, once the game started, I had to read on. I guess that if you have a young teen-age daughter or granddaughter, you might read it just to see what all the excitement's about.

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