The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins book cover
The Hunger Games (2008) is a dystopian novel that imagines a North American of the future, where the country has been split into 12 separate districts, which are presided over by the privileged people of the Capitol. Years ago the districts rebelled against their authoritarian masters. When the rebellion failed the Capitol imposed a cruel and barbaric punishment on the districts to remind them of their subservience. Each year a teenage boy and girl from each district is selected at random and sent to the Capitol to take part in the hunger games, a reality gameshow in which all contestants are abandoned in a carefully controlled environment and left to fight to the death – all for the entertainment of the Capitol’s populace. In some districts it is a privilege to take part in the games, the honour of winning enough for teenagers to volunteer to take part, but in district 12, the most impoverished district, being drawn to fight in the games is tantamount to a death sentence, and so it is that when her little sister’s name is drawn Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place in the games. With the help of district 12’s only surviving winner, the drunk, Hamytch, and fellow tribute Peeta, Katniss must use all her well-honed survival skills to politick and fight her way through the 74th hunger games.

The first thing to say about The Hunger Games is that it borrows significantly from other works, most notably Battle Royale by Koushun Takami; a far more complex book, aimed at a slightly older audience. Whether the hugely derivative nature of The Hunger Games is a problem, is a matter of personal taste, but as it’s written for a YA audience, adult readers may find Battle Royale a more satisfying read overall. Having said this, both deal with similar themes on different levels; rebellion from conformity, the Darwinian struggle to survive, and the strength of the human spirit when set against unspeakable horrors and impossible odds. The Hunger Games also explores the banality and voyeurism of reality television. However, it has to be said that none of these potentially interesting ideas are developed to the extent they could be, and most are vague themes, rather than well-observed critiques of society.

The novel is cleverly paced, with around half the book devoted to the build-up to the games, creating a connection between the reader and the central characters as they are, before the barbarising effect of the games. On the whole the writing feels too simplistic for the adult reader, with uncomplicated sentence structure, and little characterisation beyond the very central characters. Indeed, the potential for moral ambiguity is entirely shunned, with characters either being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. On the plus side, Katniss is a strong, rough, and yet at times, vulnerable heroine – a refreshing combination for a female YA protagonist. However, the central relationship didn’t work particularly well, with very little chemistry evident between Peeta and Katniss. In fact the book itself is oddly sexless, particularly when compared to YA fiction like Twilight. This strikes a discordant note with both Katniss and Peeta having reached sexual maturity and coming from an area of impoverishment; such areas often experiencing high levels of youth sexual activity.

Some parents have expressed concern that the book is too violent for young readers, but more troubling than the violence is the characters’ response to it. There is very little horror expressed by the contestants as they brazenly murder their fellow tributes, and even the ‘good’ characters show little hesitation in delivering the killing blow. There could and should have been so much more emotion attached to the gruesome situation and the horrendous acts that the children were forced to carry out; this is a huge failing morally and, more importantly, dramatically. There is also a strange juxtaposition to the central theme of rebellion against authority, as Katniss spends most of the novel killing the other contestants, each of whom is being exploited in the same way as herself, as required by the Capitol. It’s not until her final act in the games that Katniss truly begins to rebel against the Capitol, and there is a sense that this is building the momentum for the next book in the series.

The Hunger Games is an addictive read, and the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta as they try to engineer their survival is interesting, however adult readers may well find the book unsatisfying on the whole, with too simplistic approach taken for the most part, and some lazy plot contrivances. For young readers a fun and involving read, but for those desirous of something more complex and satisfying, Battle Royale is a far better option.

As a YA novel I think this works pretty well, although in honesty I think it's a little simplistic at that level too, with young readers perfectly capable of dealing with more complex ideas than are presented here. With a little more emotion and complexity this could have been really great, as it is I'd say it was a good read; quick and enjoyable.

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Reviews of The Hunger Games on Amazon (UK)
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