Spoiler Alert: I’m going to discuss some details of the book, including naming a few names of characters who die (hint, it’s pretty much everyone) and some key plot points. I won’t spoil the ending. But if you don’t know anything about the plot and don’t want to know anything, don’t read on.
Like most things, I’m late to the Hunger Games bandwagon. I’m not sure why it took me so long. It’s certainly not because I thought I was too good for YA fiction, and it wasn’t because I’m not drawn to strong female characters (as vague a term as that is). I guess I didn’t think I’d find dystopia particularly appealing. I can barely handle how messed up the world is in the present, do I really want to see how bad it could potentially be?
But The Hunger Games doesn’t read as all that futuristic (hovercrafts aside). As the Globe and Mail put it, “the script borrows as liberally from Roman epics and medieval lore as it does from reality TV and apocalyptic sci-fi.” It’s human animal nature confronting modern society, with some class warfare thrown in for fun. But it is a creepy concept and it doesn’t feel as outlandish as it should.
The children of the districts are forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy. It’s survivor, essentially, only without an immunity idol, and well, you vote with a bow and arrow instead of an over-sized crayon. But the games are mostly about maintaining power. By forcing parents to give up their children, and by forcing those children to fight each other — turning their attention away from fighting of The Capitol– the power of The Capitol is not challenged. It’s very clever (if you’re into a brutal fascism kind of thing). At it’s roots, it’s a lot like modern politics where divisive rhetoric is used to pit citizens against each other so they don’t stop and say “Hey. How come you guys in charge aren’t actually taking care of us?” The Hunger Games just takes it to the next level.
The concepts in the story aren’t particularly original. Its power is in the way it can demonstrate all of these things without seeming preachy. Sure, it’s about unfairness and the brutality of humanity. But it’s also about human dynamics and what’s at our cores. More importantly, it’s about how easy it is to let go of what you think you believe in when you have to protect yourself.
What I love about the book:
The reality TV aspect is the most intriguing part of the book to me. It’s the first book I’ve read where reality TV is so prominent, and so blatantly contributing to a toxic society. To the people of The Capitol, the games are fun. The viewers don’t have to think very hard about the consequences of their actions, their society, or their privilege.If you think too hard about most reality TV on now, this rings pretty true.
I loved the way “The Gamechangers,”who are essentially the producers, affect the game. They throw fireballs and dry up water sources. They create games and challenges to force play. They keep things interesting for the viewers by making The Tributes’ lives harder. It makes the reader want to scream at the unfairness of it all. It inspires emotion. It’s thoroughly disgusting, and completely compelling.
In current reality TV, not only to producers affect the content, dialogue, etc, but they also have the ability to edit the content to show something they want, and what the perceive the audience wants, without caring how it makes a contestant – a real person – look to the world. They can make or break careers. They change lives.
I also love the way Katniss consciously manipulates the audience. It’s unique in that we see the decisions through her eyes. We are privy to her thoughts as she plays up the romance between her and Peeta, knowing that the audience loves the story and will likely provide her with supplies if she feeds their appetite for smut. Reality TV has been around long enough that we all know that it is less reality, and more clever editing, line-feeding, and heavy-handed producing, but we never know how or what is being edited and what heart-string the player is trying to tug as he/she makes a move. There’s no need to speculate on Katniss’ motivations. She’s working the crowd to her advantage because she needs it to survive.
Writing a book about children murdering each other is a bold premise from which to start. Strategies have to come into the writing process that manipulate the reader in such a way that the story is digestible. In the way that Katniss tries to prevent herself from feeling for the other tributes because she knows that she must kill them (and that they want to kill her), the reader can’t be allowed to care for just any character. The author also had to a) keep the book from becoming so horrific that no one will want to read it; b) protect the main characters from not only too much physical harm, but to a certain degree, from too much emotional harm in order to keep the characters believable; and c) maintain appropriate perspective.
What this means is that characters were written in a heavy-handed way. Our loyalties were forced. There was no opportunity to grow to love the Careers, or to ever want a Career to beat Katniss. I knew when I was given the opportunity to love Rue, that it was so I would feel the pain of her death. Out of 24 Tributes, I only remember the names of the few who received the most story-time so I felt little when they died.
Was it necessary, in some way, to guide a reader’s feelings? I think so. But would it have been a better story if our allegiances weren’t presented to us on a platter, and instead we were allowed to have complicated feelings about 3-dimensional characters? I think yes to this too. After all, Katniss had to reduce the other Tributes to enemies in order to save herself, we should have seen this as a struggle. Peeta and Rue’s characters are the only ones who challenge this concept in Katniss. What of the others? A little struggle could have gone a long way.
Update – July 2012
I like these two videos analyzing Katniss, and the movie/book battle.