Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice..."

-Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

I started reading The Hunger Games with the expectation that I would like it. I had heard some positive things, and the premise sounded intriguing. From the moment I started the book, though, I realized it was going to be difficult for me to fall in love with it, and the further I got in the less I enjoyed it. I didn't dislike it because it is popular, I just didn't find it engaging.

In a dystopic United States, the Capital rules over 12 Districts (the 13th was destroyed following a failed revolution), and to keep its power over these districts the Capital hosts what is called the Hunger Games. Each district gives up two tributes, aged between 12 and 18, to participate in these games. These tributes are either chosen in a lottery or they may volunteer themselves. The point of the game is to be the last person surviving. The winner brings home food and wealth for their district until the next game.

The story takes place from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen, whose father died in a mining accident and whose mother has become useless. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss in the movie, which is ironic, because in her first big role, Winter's Bone, she plays the same character in a realistic story. Katniss hunts with her only friend, Gale, and makes all the sacrifices she can to ensure her younger sister, Primrose, is not selected to be in the games. However, this is not enough. Primrose is selected in the lottery and Katniss immediately volunteers in her place. Going with her as tribute is Peeta, the baker's son, who likes Katniss, though she doesn't know it. From here begins their training and then the games themselves.

The story is, technically, well-written, but its style is not very engaging. Katniss, as the narrative voice, is too apathetic. She doesn't show compassion towards others, except maybe her sister, and even that is evident only in her decision to take her place in the games. Her sole focus is in hunting and surviving. She's very narrow-minded. She never seems to consider the broader scope of the society she lives in. Human history provides many examples of people in harsh conditions who consider how to make life better not only for themselves but for others. Consider slavery. Frederick Douglass learned to read and write while enslaved, and escaping wasn't enough for him. He fought to free all of the slaves. Katniss instead chooses to tolerate her life and hope that neither she nor her sister get selected to participate in the games. It never once crosses her mind to try and do something proactive.

Of course, readers of the novel understand that Collins is not endorsing a society that makes use of child violence for entertainment. I've heard and read many discussions of people saying how horrible the slaughter is, but this discussion does not happen within the novel. The viewpoints of the characters are not discussed, not even in the sense that many of us talk about the violence in our large cities. The problem with the violence is that it plays out more like a Hollywood action movie, which serves the goal of making it exciting rather than a condemnation of violence. These teenagers fight one another more like action heroes/villains and cold-blooded, experienced assassins than frightened, inexperienced teens. The novel's message would have been more effective had Collins instilled the sense of terror of battle, or a sense that these teenagers are being forced to kill when none of them want to. And with an exception of one character, the deaths are not seen as tragic, but as one less obstacle in the way of Katniss winning. In Howard Fast's The Hessian, grown men prepare to ambush a troop of Hessian soldiers. As they wait for the Hessians to arrive, they shiver with fear that they'll die. And when the ambush is an overwhelming success, they grow sick at the sight and smell of death. That level of humanity is missing here.

What also struck me was the lack of emotion during the lottery process. Where are the mothers and fathers crying out in agony, fighting desperately for their children? Why aren't the teens themselves overwhelmed with fear? They all accept their fate like sheep. Nobody fights for their own survival, or the survival of loved ones. They simply accept their fates. This is why I included the Martin Luther King quote at the start of this review. The people of Panem accept a negative peace in order to avoid tension rather than a positive peace. I can't help but think of King's condemnation of those who silently watch and do nothing, believing that justice will prevail eventually but feeling no need to fight for it. The novel views Katniss as a strong female character, but she doesn't fight except when her own survival depends on it. To me that's cowardice. And it's short-sighted. She's no stronger than her mother because she's just as mute when it comes to her society. She would rather tolerate her life than fight to make it better for her and her people. Her only form of rebellion is to say, I refuse to have any children. That's good for her, but what about the generations to come?

At one point in the novel, Gale wonders what would happen if everybody refused to watch the games. This is an interesting question, but it's the wrong one. The right question to ask would be, what if the tributes refused to fight?


  1. I like your review. Your take on things was way different than my own (I got caught up on the 'romance' between Katniss and Peeta - so dumb)

    I think I sort of agree with you on the violence. I personally didn't think it was gruesome/horrific enough and the pageantry beforehand was silly.

    I'm wondering what you'll think of the second book? ...that is, if you plan to read it. I'm about to start the third one.

    I just accepted it for what is was - a popular, young adult book. But like I said, I like your take on this.

    I'm also going to read Battle Royale by Takami and draw some comparisons. Have you read it?

    Great post.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Amber! I am curious to read the rest of the trilogy, hopefully during the summer. I've heard about the Battle Royale comparisons, but I haven't read it, so you'll have to let me know what you think.

  3. This review is really good. Of course, like most girls, I was very wrapped up in the romance, but it didnt really take away from the story.
    I think you should read the second and third books. The first was my favorite of the three, but they do continue to be violent and they do show the reality of war-people do die.

    1. Thanks for visiting! I do plan to read the next two books, hopefully before the end of the summer.

  4. I came across your blog through Amber, and I really liked your review here; you expressed some things that bothered me that I didn't express as well as you did, I think. A thoughtful and accurate criticism of this book means I'm putting you in my reader.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting Neal! I'm glad to hear you found me through Amber. She's been following me since I started my blog. I am on my way now to check out your blog, too!