Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Hunger Games

It's probably a truism to say that books for children or young adults have become big business. Whatever you think of them, Harry Potter and Twilight have sold millions of copies, spawned successful movie franchises and, in the case of Twilight, spun off a whole subset of literature for teenagers. What's interesting is that these series seem to come out of nowhere, with big, rabid fanbases and a lot of the books already published (although this blindsiding probably shows how out-of-the-loop I am).

The Hunger Games is another one of these types of books - I first heard about it last year, presumably because they were gearing up for the release of the movie this year. And now that I've read it, it feels like I'm seeing all the grown-ups reading it on the Tube, much as they were all reading Harry Potter ten years ago (same as me, I should add).

So, curious, I managed to get my hands on the first book, and essentially devoured it in the course of a week. Part of the reason for that is the simplicity of the prose, but I feel that simplicity helps to obscure the themes Suzanne Collins is writing about; reality TV, violence in the media, all that good stuff. In his review at the Wertzone, Adam likens it to Battle Royale, and while I was certainly aware of the similarities as I was reading the Hunger Games, I think the two stories are working off different themes.

(FYI, this post will have some spoilers, so if you intend to read the book I'd suggest you stop reading here)

I tend to take at face value Suzanne Collins' statement that she got the idea for the story when channel surfing between Iraq War footage and a reality TV show. As a result, I don't see the Hunger Games as being about the teenage years being some kind of battlefield, which is the theme of Battle Royale. There's certainly some aspect of that, but the sources Collins draws on, such as the tributes to King Minos of Crete and Ancient Roman gladiatorial games, suggest to me that her real preoccupation here is the media, and how our demands for entertainment are becoming ever more extreme.

Overall I think it works, though sometimes it gets a little obvious, especially when she starts throwing about Roman names (Cinna, Cato, Claudius, etc) for characters from the Capitol or from richer districts.  One aspect I enjoyed about the book was the preoccupation with manipulating the Tributes' image to make them appeal to the masses; I was particularly interested with how the main character, Katniss, was expected to be sexualized beyond her age of sixteen years, including by playing up a romance with the Tribute from her own district, Peeta.

As far as characterization, Katniss is a good, strong character, portrayed from the start as someone who's adapted to her harsh surroundings and is determined to survive to return to her family. Suzanne Collins maintains this portrayal throughout, even when Katniss is thrust into the Hunger Games and is expected to slaughter her fellow Tributes to get home; she does it when she has to, but not in cold blood, and she maintains her moral core throughout.

Another interesting portrayal is that of Peeta, who's also selected to take part in the Games. Because the story is told in the first-person present tense, the only information we get on him is what Katniss sees, or what he himself tells her. He's the first one who suggests to Katniss that there might be some way to fight the Capitol, by keeping true to himself rather than by rebelling openly, and this influences the outcome of the story, when they are the last two Tributes remaining and are ordered to try and kill one another (told you there'd be spoilers).

If I have some objections, it's that sometimes things in the story are a little too simple or cut-and-dried. Katniss develops a bond with another girl, Rue, who reminds her of her younger sister. Rue proves herself to be clever and mostly able to take care of herself (apart from, y'know, getting killed at some point), and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; that is, for Rue to turn out to be the most dangerous of the Tributes, or something like that. In fairness, it's not a bad thing that Collins subverts the reader's expectations by not turning Rue into a homicidal maniac, but it's also accurate to say that once the Games start, you know straight off who the good guys and the bad guys are. The one exception is Peeta, who seems to change sides a couple of times during the story.

The other thing that slightly bothered me was when the Gamemakers announced that if two Tributes from the same district could win; the minute I read that I knew that Katniss and Peeta would be the last two, and that when they were the final survivors the rules would be changed again to force them to try and kill one another. I suppose you could have kept the suspense longer if that initial rule change hadn't occurred, but I guess Collins had to find some way for Katniss and Peeta to be working together at the end.

Still, it was a fun book, and I enjoyed how Collins used the trappings of Ancient Greece and Rome to talk about what's happening in America now. I've got the two sequels waiting for me on my bookshelf, so I'll see how she develops her themes further.