Monday, September 07, 2009

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is not the story of the apocalypse; it is the story of what comes after. North America was ravaged by flood, famine, fire, and war. The nation of Panem rose from the war-torn ashes of what was left. Panem was a strong Capitol City surrounding by thirteen districts. The districts eventually rebelled and were defeated; the thirteenth district was destroyed completely. The remaining twelve districts were given new laws and they were given the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins. – pg 18
The Hunger Games is treated as the future of reality television. It’s something like The Running Man (or The Long Walk) meets Battle Royale. The Games are broadcast both for entertainment purposes (and you know this would be popular) as well as a lesson to the districts.

The novel is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl from District Twelve. District Twelve is, in her mind, one of the poorest districts and only twice in seventy-four years has District Twelve produced a winner of the Hunger Games. When Katniss’s younger sister Primrose is selected in the reaping as the female tribute for the Hunger Games, Katniss offers herself in her sister’s place. Volunteers are rare, but allowable. Through the eyes of Katniss readers see the preparation for the Games, some training, and then starting with Chapter 11, the Hunger Games begin.

While there is a small romance element to the novel that gets played up as part of the strategy of the Games, The Hunger Games is heavy on action, suspense, and strategy. The Hunger Games is a story of survival. There is only one winner of the Games after all. The losers don’t survive. With the novel’s narrator as one of the contestants of the Games, there is a certain level of expectation inherent to the story being told that Katniss will survive. After all, how else can she tell the story? Also, this is the first volume of a planned trilogy, so unless Suzanne Collins plans to twist things up with Catching Fire, Katniss kind of has to win the whole thing.

Strangely, this does not lessen the tension much. We expect that Katniss will survive, but we don’t know how and we don’t know in what shape she will be in if she does make it through. That’s where the tension and suspense lies. What’s going to happen? Suzanne Collins balances this very well, the dance between expectation and surprise.

In The Hunger Games Collins has created a world that, despite its post-apocalyptic nature, is believable and feels real. It is a world readers can accept. We’ve seen and read different versions of this story, ones where survival and death are mass-market entertainment. Suzanne Collins provides her take on this idea and tells a compelling story.

That’s the most important aspect of The Hunger Games, that it is a well told and compelling story. Even knowing (or suspecting) the ultimate conclusion, readers will want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Readers will care about the fate of Katniss. The cliché phrase “a real page turner” exists because of books like The Hunger Games, because the cliché can be true.

Whether Catching Fire will be as successful and compelling as The Hunger Games remains to be seen, but Suzanne Collins has set herself a standard that may be difficult to meet. Regardless of whether she does or not, The Hunger Games is an impressive achievement.

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