When The Hunger Games first came out I was interested – I had heard a lot of favorable reviews on the internet. So I picked it up and looked at the cover description in a bookstore and was immediately incensed. Unfortunately for Suzanne Collins, I had just finished reading Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which I obsessively loved, and the cover description made it sound like a complete rip-off. So even as the sequels came out, and the series grew in popularity, I clung to my annoyance and refused to read them. It wasn’t until I read an author interview, where Suzanne Collins discussed how she came up with her idea for the series, that I relented a bit. I decided I would see the films, and make my judgements then. Which is a bit odd for me, as I am someone who always likes to read the book first, but I figured if I wasn’t happy I would be wasting less time on a movie than on a book.
Suffice it to say I enjoyed the first film, and actually really loved the second, and found the premise and purpose of the story to be very different from my beloved Battle Royale, so I decided to give the books a go. My OCD wanted me to wait until I could buy the trilogy as a set in paperback, which apparently was a popular idea with a lot of people, because I had to wait several months after ordering the books for them to arrive. When they came I thought I might put them off and finish the other books I am currently reading, but curiosity got the better of me. And once I started I just couldn’t stop. I read the entire series in a span of three days – mostly during the zamboni breaks during the Olympic figure skating live streaming.
The Hunger Games trilogy is the story of Katniss Everdeen – a teenage girl growing up in District 12, a poor coal-mining region of the post-apocalyptic North American nation of Panem. The government of Panem rules its citizens through fear – they are forced to stay within their districts and produce goods and supplies necessary to run the nation. Seventy-four years prior to the start of this story, the Districts of Panem revolted, and were struck down by the Capitol. In remembrance of this disobedience, each district must offer up one boy and one girl to participate in the Hunger Games – a annual reality tv show battle to the death. In order to save her sister, Katniss volunteers to participate in the games, which eventually changes her life and the future of Panem forever.
I found myself really loving this story, even though the events in it are terrible and quite traumatic. One thing I really appreciated was that all of the characters are very smart. In different ways, certainly, but smart. It is a world where everyone is trying to survive, being perceptive is incredibly important, and I am glad that this came across in the novels. The books also emphasize the importance of individual choice, and often show the strength of human spirit through the actions of the characters. Collins doesn’t shy away from pointing out the strengths and flaws of everyone, and uses that to take her characters to the breaking point. The resulting tale is quite haunting in the mind of the reader.
The world of Panem is, perhaps, a bit too obvious of a juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots, though I was so swept up in the reading of it that I didn’t really care. The writing felt effortless – not beautiful or artistic, but I never questioned that I was viewing the world from the perspective of a teenage girl. I found myself unable to stop and take a break, because the characters were never able to stop and take a break. Which was a bit exhausting, but very effective in relaying the feeling of being in a deadly arena. I did have a bit of a problem with some of the plot devices in the final book of the trilogy, though I was more questioning of the upkeep rather than the existence of such things by that point in the story. Overall, though, I felt that the story had a nice pace and flow, and I found myself absorbed into the world rather than questioning the reality of it.
The one thing that is surprising is how engrossed I was with the story, despite not really falling in love with the protagonist Katniss Everdeen. The story is told from a first person point of view, which makes the books far more effective than the films in terms of experiencing the psychological horror of the Hunger Games. In the films Katniss is quiet and seems rather passive, but in the books she is constantly evaluating, questioning, and manipulating the situation to her advantage. Despite an obvious lack of ability to read people, she is otherwise very smart and strong willed. Which should be admirable traits in a main character. Yet I found myself overly annoyed by her character flaws. I expect, however, that this is because I find her personality very similar to mine. Our plans for dealing with potential pain is to avoid the problem or run away if possible. We both tend to over-analyze every situation. And we tend to want to protect people, but then fail to actually treat them well when we are around them. We are both overly self-aware, and question our own motives, usually assuming the most selfish to be the reason for action. I have found over the years that I tend to be less enthralled by characters in books that are very similar to myself, most likely because it is far too easy for me to see their flaws. Or perhaps it is painful being able to see what mistakes they are going to make, and knowing the reasons they are going to make them. I mean, granted, I certainly don’t posses the kick-ass survival knowledge that Katniss uses throughout the story, but personality wise? We are two peas in a pod. Which made it a bit difficult for me to be surprised by any of her actions during the story, because I came to the same conclusion hundreds of pages in advance (I knew the plots of the first two books from seeing the movies, but had no idea what was coming up in the third, which is the most dissimilar plot-wise).
And, since I brought it up, I have to do a bit of comparison with Battle Royale. Though the premise of both books is similar (governmental control by instilling fear through televising children fighting to the death), the execution and resulting message of the stories are quite different. In The Hunger Games, we see the entire affair through the eyes of only one character, and are only slowly introduced to the larger political implications of her actions, which results in seeing how one person can inspire change desired by many. The books focus a bit more on the social status of the characters before and after the games, and much time is spent exploring media sensationalization, and how strongly that can affect the perceptions of a population. In contrast, in Battle Royale an entire class of school children are forced to fight. Rather than knowing only one other competitor, the kids have all grown up with each other. They already have pre-formed opinions, friendships, and enemies before starting the contest. And we get to know all of the characters much more intimately before their demise than we do for most of the deaths in The Hunger Games. The world itself is much more similar to modern-day Japan, and so it is easier to envision a possible political shift resulting in the creation of the games, rather than a government killing off its population after a devastating apocalyptic event and revolution. In The Hunger Games, we see Katniss put through emotional and physical torture, and watch as this causes her to completely break down. In Battle Royale, we become invested in a large group of characters before they are cruelly taken away from us. Though the motives of the characters in the games are similar in both stories (they all just want to survive), the political actions and ambitions of the adults controlling the events are quite different. Despite starting with a similar premise, the execution results in very different messages by the end of the story. I have to say I really loved all of these books, though in different ways, and for different reasons. I think Battle Royale would be my preference if I had to pick one, but I would definitely consider re-reading all of these books because they are that good.
So, all in all, I have to say I really enjoyed and highly recommend The Hunger Games. It was a blindingly fast read, so it won’t be much of a time commitment. And it does a great job of sucking you in (Suzanne Collins loves herself a good cliff hanger). Granted, there is a fair bit of teen angst and quite a lot of talking about dresses, make-up, and being camera-ready, so if this sort of thing isn’t your boat then I highly recommend Battle Royale as an alternative. Actually, you should read that one anyway, just because it is fantastic.