what i'm reading: youth fiction: the hunger games

This is the first in a series of reviews of youth (formerly called YA, or young-adult) novels, which I will be reading in no particular order and with no particular method. I love youth literature, and it's simply a pleasure to read what I want once again, with no schoolwork hanging over my head. As with all my "what i'm reading" posts, if it seems that I like everything I read, it's because I only write about books I enjoyed.

I finally read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I've been intensely curious about this book since it was released to great sensation in 2008.

I think most readers know the basic plot of this dystopian novel. The Hunger Games is set in the future, in what was North America, now called Panem. A lavishly wealthy Capitol exercises totalitarian control over an apartheid-like system of districts. The competition of the title is an annual event in which one boy and one girl from each district are selected by lottery. The contestants all fight to the death. The Games and everything associated with them are broadcast live.

That much I knew. What I didn't know is how rich with meaning the book is, and how good. In short: I loved it.

I'm so pleased that something so wildly popular is also such a quality novel, and so political. The Hunger Games is no polemic, it contains no billboards, but it fairly begs for a Marxist analysis.

The Hunger Games is very consciously about poverty, class, and oppression. About how the ruling class divides the poor and - in this case, literally - pits them against each other. The workers in every district have more in common with each other than with their wealthy, capricious, and dictatorial rulers, but with communication and travel controlled and forbidden, they can only envy and resent each other. Workers in the coal district die of starvation and envy the workers who farm the fields, not knowing that workers in the agricultural district are forbidden to eat the crops they grow.

The Hunger Games is also about war, and a poverty draft. Although every teen's name is entered in "the reaping" - the lottery from which Hunger Games contestants are drawn - the children of poor families end up with a much greater chance of being selected. Katniss, the narrator, explains.
But here's the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager year's supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well. So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times. Once, because I had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for myself, Prim, and my mother. In fact, every year I have needed to do this. And the entries are cumulative. So now, at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping twenty times. Gale, who is eighteen and has been either helping or single-handedly feeding a family of five for seven years, will have his name in forty-two times.
The chance of a young person from a wealthy family being selected, Katniss says, "is very slim compared to those of us who live in the Seam. Not impossible, but slim." Conveniently for the Gamemakers, most people in the districts never have enough to eat.

(The reaping itself is a conscious nod to Shirley Jackson's immortal story "The Lottery". The premise also recalls The Long Walk, by Stephen King, which I have not read, but read about.)

The games themselves are a futuristic reality-TV version of gladiator contests, and the book is also rife with allusions to marketing, advertising, image-making, and mass manipulation. Collins comments pointedly about our own complicity in our violent society: what drives the games more than anything is ratings. The Capitol invented the Games, but without the district viewers' lust for brutality packaged as entertainment, the Games would stop.

I'm writing about themes, but The Hunger Games is an action-packed adventure story, with a strong female hero who must tap into her own inner strength, and overcome a series of obstacles both external and internal, in order to survive. I never found the novel preachy or overly obvious. The pacing is perfect, the teenage voice completely authentic, the mix of internal monologue and action-adventure dead-on, the ending more exciting and more gripping than I anticipated. A triumph.

If you want to talk about the book, please don't worry about spoilers from the rest of the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I'm also interested in reflections on the movie, as I am unlikely to see it. Folks wishing to avoid spoilers should stop reading now.

I will close this post with this image of political awakening. Katniss finds the dead body of a girl who was her ally, someone she had tried to protect.
I can't stop looking at Rue, smaller than ever, a baby animal curled up in a nest of netting. I can't bring myself to leave her like this. Past harm, but seeming utterly defenseless. To hate the boy from District 1, who also appears vulnerable in death, seems inadequate. It's the Capitol I hate, for doing this to us all.


James Redekop said...

I love that books like this are popular.

The upcoming Matt Damon film Elysium (by the director of District 9) has a similar theme about social classes: the elite live in an orbiting utopia (named Elysium) while those who make them rich are down on the crowded, over-exploited Earth.

laura k said...

Yes, I agree. It's wonderful to see class consciousness in mainstream culture.

And wonderful that so many young people have been (and will continue to be) exposed to these ideas.

Dharma Seeker said...

I'm so glad you loved it! Are you going to read the rest of the series? You don't want to miss out on the rebellion!

laura k said...

I know this seems odd, but even though I loved this book, I have no real desire to read the rest of the series. The list of books I want to read is impossibly long. I got the point, and now I move on.

Similarly, I recently read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, really liked it, but am not reading the rest of the trilogy.

laura k said...

I would be content with a plot outline of the next two books, which I'm sure won't be hard to find online.

laura k said...

There are so many pirated versions of the book online, in almost every format. Is that typical for popular novels now?

James Redekop said...

It's pretty common for a lot of books these days. Especially one with a nerdy/geeky following.

laura k said...

Hunger Games has a nerdy/geeky following? That's interesting, because it had a very hipster following, at least for a time, like the Twilight saga crowd. More fashionista than geeky.

laura k said...

I was looking at this site, which looks very professional, but has no publishing or contact info, etc.

deang said...

My youngest niece loves this book, but I had misgivings about it because of the violent reality-show aspect of it. I thought it might make violence and cutthroat competitiveness seem too appealing. Glad to hear that that's not the case and that you liked it.

I'm not surprised to hear that the book is political, because my niece is turning out to be somewhat political-minded. She recently got in an argument with some history classmates at her high school on the subject of Korea. The classmates were saying we should "bomb them before they bomb us" (this is in the Dallas area) and she told them that doing that is sick because it would kill lots of Koreans who have no say in what their government does. She even added that the US attack on Korea in the 1950s was senseless. And this is someone whose parents and grandparents are so right-wing they could almost be listed with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

laura k said...

There is certainly a lot of violence in the book, but there's a distinction between violence for survival and the violence of sadism. The young people are forced into hyper-competitiveness, but for survival, they must cooperate. I think one of the overall messages is that cooperation is necessary for survival. (Like the movie 28 Days Later, if you saw that.)

Perhaps your niece's rebellion from her right-wing upbringing will lead her to leftist political explorations... or the other way around. Either way is good!

James Redekop said...

The book is doing well among the Fantasy/Science Fiction nerdy/geeky crowd. There's often a lot of respect there for smart YA works, mostly because most F/SF types get into the genres as teens (if not earlier).

Here's the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook from ThinkGeek. :)

laura k said...

Actually... I want to revise my comment above about themes of violence/cooperation/survival in THG. The Capitol uses violence to control the population, and the general population is forced into violent acts by the Capitol.

But Katniss and other contestants don't relish the violence. They imagine killing a human will be like killing an animal for food, but they find it is nothing like that. Katniss' acts of resistance involve the refusal to be violent, and the refusal to kill.

johngoldfine said...

I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie, always trying to keep up with the zeitgeist among my students.

I didn't think the movie would raise political consciousness. It personifies the evil in its world in the form of a few smirking toadies and one brooding politician--but our problems are systemic, not the result of a few malefactors of great evil. We have no Hitler or Stalin to point to--plenty of toadies, no obvious Big Brother locus of mischief.

The movie is a very clever construction but cynical to the point of unwholesomeness. It was designed to tease out feelings of resentment and victimhood in its young adult audience, much as teen movies like 'The Breakfast Club' used to do. But 'The Breakfast Club' is no more a serious critique of American education than this is a serious call to see our politics in a fresh way.

In the movie the adults are all buffoons or wicked (but, a nice ironic touch, dressing in a particularly silly fashion while the teens dress soberly.)

The protagonist is pretty but not absurdly Hollywood glam, pretty enough to reasonably have two handsome lads attracted to her.

She also has two male adult mentors who do not put the moves on her.

She can control all her emotions other than her compassion which is overwhelming. She is indomitable.

She faces down the bullies, who are just your average school bullies writ large, and protects their hapless victim as best she can.

She even gets to participate in a suicide pact that, somehow, turns out for the best. (This is when the unwholesomeness of the movie finally turned my ethnographic curiosity into simple disgust. I prefer the ending of Romeo and Juliet where nothing goes right for the star-crossed lovers, except the love.)

In other words, she is a fantasy confection, a very effective one, but not for me uplifting.

Put it another way: "The Hunger Games' is a hunger game for today, a vicarious, violent thrill show tricked out in social commentary drag.

Always regret disagreeing with you, Laura, but as you haven't seen the movie and I haven't read the book, perhaps that would explain our divergence here.

laura k said...

Thanks for your perspective on the movie, John.

You certainly have not disagreed with me. I haven't seen the movie and wasn't writing about it. There's no reason to assume the movie and the book carry the same messages.

laura k said...

but our problems are systemic, not the result of a few malefactors of great evil.

That's exactly what the book is about. An evil system, not evil people.

Almost none of what you write about the movie resembles the book. You might read the book and maintain the same opinion, but - quite obviously - you cannot comment on a book you haven't read.

You obviously know that without my saying so.

laura k said...

Another difference, based solely on your take on the movie. The suicide pact is not between star-crossed lovers. They are not actually in love. They have been manipulated into playing the role of star-crossed lovers in order to increase their ratings, which will help them survive. The suicide attempt is a final stand against that manipulation. They are resisting being forced to kill, and making a stand for their own identity, autonomy, and volition.

laura k said...

It's very common for Hollywood to eviserate a book, scrubbing political themes in the process of bringing it to the screen. That's one reason I have little interest in seeing the movie - that, plus how good the book was. Usually if I really like a book, I avoid the movie.

laura k said...

And another one... John, I see my initial reply to your comment came out snippier than I intended. Sorry about that.

I only meant to say that, as you suggest, we're analyzing and reviewing two totally different things. So to my mind, we're not disagreeing.

johngoldfine said...

For me, and perhaps for you as well, word-intoxication is always fighting a guerilla action with tact.

Over the years, I've schooled myself at WMTC to take a little more care in the tone of the writing and to take a little less in the joy of argumentation, a besetting sin perhaps passed on by ancestral rabbis and lawyers.

johngoldfine said...

...and I'm grateful to wmtc for being that school of tact, to the extent I've managed it.

laura k said...

For me, it's about rushing an answer vs answering when I have time. For reasons unknown, I often feel like I must respond to comments immediately, no matter what I'm doing or how much time I do (or don't) have. So I bang something out... then later see that it doesn't represent my thoughts very well. It's a lesson I learn over and over and over.

laura k said...

I'd love it if you read the book and then let us know if you feel it squares with my interpretation. But since you didn't enjoy the movie, I imagine that is unlikely.

johngoldfine said...

Oh, I enjoyed the movie! It would be hypocritical in the extreme to claim that the very clever work on this movie was beneath my (really rather low) tastes! They knew what they were doing and hooked me!

But, on a simultaneous and parallel track as I watched, I was aware of the manipulation, annoyed by it, and, as I said, in the end a little yucked out at the faux-suicide.

I doubt I'll ever get to the book though....

Dharma Seeker said...

Laura in book 2 there is the Quarter Quell, where previous winners from various games are sent back to the arena.

At the end of the book SPOILERS>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
the surviving contenders are extracted from the "game" to join the rebellion to take down The Capitol. The rebellion itself is in the third book, Mockingjay.

Dharma Seeker said...

One of my favourite characters is introduced in book 2. He was a former winner that The Capitol forces to become a prostitute for wealthy Capitol ladies.