The news that Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is coming out in movie form in March 2012 finally moved me to read this book, which one of my young nephews has recommended to me with extravagant praise. That nephew is going to be a darned good literary critic when he grows up, because he’s absolutely right: The Hunger Games is an excellent adventure with plenty of depth to it.
Suzanne Collins clearly set out to make The Hunger Games a book that older as well as younger readers can enjoy. The setting is a dystopia of the future, in a world where the United States no longer exists. It has been replaced, at least in large part, by a country known as Panem. Panem consists of the Capitol (apparently somewhere around what we now know as Denver, Colorado) and 12 Districts, each with a special responsibility — agriculture, manufacturing, and so on. The first person narrator of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, lives in District 12, which lies somewhere in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. It is responsible for mining the coal that runs Panem.
Decades ago, well before Katniss’s birth, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. It’s no wonder: the Capitol takes for itself all the resources produced by the Districts, while the citizens of most of the Districts live in poverty. In District 12, death by starvation is not uncommon – if the mines don’t get you first. The rebellion ended badly for the Districts, and conditions became even worse. One consequence of the rebellion is the Hunger Games, which occur each year. Each District is required to send two of its youth, between the ages of 12 and 18, one boy and one girl, to compete in a survival contest until they are all dead but one. The contestants are chosen by lottery. The lottery itself is tilted toward choosing the poorest of the poor to participate: if a child turns 12, he or she can collect “tesserae” for each member of his or her family, a sparse ration of oil and grain sufficient for a year, by entering additional times. So Katniss, for instance, when she turned twelve, had her name in the bowl four times, once for herself and once for each tessera she signed up for: one for herself, one for her sister, and one for her mother. And the number is cumulative; those four increase by four more each year she collects the tesserae. When the alternative is starvation, there’s little choice.
As The Hunger Games opens, it is the day on which the “reaping” will take place — the choosing of the two contestants. Primrose — Prim — Katniss’s beloved sister — has just turned 12, and will be in the reaping for the first time. She only has one entry, while Katniss has 20, and Katniss’s friend, Gale, has his name in 42 times. The catchphrase, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” applies with much greater force to Katniss and Gale than to Prim. But the unthinkable happens, and Prim’s name is drawn. Katniss frantically volunteers to take her place, and the plot takes off.
My strict “no spoilers” policy bars me from saying much more about the plot. The pages turn swiftly as the contestants are prepared in the Capitol for the competition, and even more swiftly once the competition begins. It is barbaric: 24 children unleashed into a wilderness area to kill one another until only one is left standing. They must scrounge for food and shelter. And even then, the Gamemakers twist the odds, creating adverse weather in the arena, or draining streams, or presenting gifts to chosen contestants that give them an advantage.
Collins expertly plays on her readers’ sense of justice and fair play, creating a sense of outrage and frustration when things go badly, and joy when something good happens to Katniss and her fellow District 12 participant, Peeta, the baker’s son. And there are deeper lessons here, too. The lopsided distribution of wealth in this society is extreme, and the consequences of that are spelled out in detail: the brutal repression of the poor, so that freedom of speech is unknown, and the freedom to travel seems to be nonexistent (the Districts are fenced in). No one grows up to be what one wishes in this society, unless one lives in the Capitol. You become what your parents were or, at least in District 12, you go to the mines. There is no such thing as making a better life for yourself than your parents had. For those who are at all politically minded, this book reminds us of what we have in America, for all her faults, and serves as a cautionary tale of what we could become if we do not solve our problems before they become unsolvable.
I am eager to begin Catching Fire, the next book in this trilogy. And yes, that will be today.