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In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before–and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
One Sentence Review: The Hunger Games is well-written, compelling, and poses many important philosophical questions.
Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review, so if you haven’t read the book I would recommend proceeding with caution, and avoiding the second-to-last paragraph all together.
I read so many reviews of The Hunger Games over the last few months, both good and bad, and finally decided that I had to read it myself to see what all the hype was about. I approached the book with a certain degree of excitement (the buzz about this book around the blogosphere is contagious), some reservations (the theme of forcing kids to murder each other is pretty heavy stuff, and the fact that it’s been compared to Twilight didn’t help any), and great curiosity about the philosophical questions that a book like this will inevitably raise.
The Plot, Characters, and Writing
Let me first say that I found The Hunger Games to be a very compelling book. I sped through it in less that twenty-four hours and was thoroughly captivated by it. The suspense is tantalizingly drawn out and the cliff-hanger ending left it impossible for me to even consider not reading the second book in the trilogy. I was also relieved to find that all comparisons to Twilight are superficial at best. Katniss is a stronger and much more dynamic character than Bella, and Peeta is way more relatable than Edward, not to mention refreshingly human.
As for the writing, Suzanne Collins did a brilliant job of illustrating the world in which Katniss lives without spending too much time on long, boring descriptions of futuristic technologies and historical background. (I know some reviewers wished that Collins had spent more time relating the historical events that led to the downfall of America and the creation of Panem, and I do hope that she provides this history in Catching Fire, but I think it was a good idea to leave it out of the first book; however, I do wish that a map of Panem had been provided.) I also appreciate the delicate way Collins describes the events inside the arena of the Hunger Games. She effectively communicates the horror and brutality of the Games without being too graphic.
The Hunger Games and the Culture
There are numerous historical and mythological parallels to the Hunger Games, the most obvious of which is the Roman Colosseum, where gladiators fought to the death for the entertainment of the populace and martyrs were torn apart by wild beasts as crowds jeered. Granted, children were not forced to participate in these blood sports (at least that we know of), but the fact that an entire city population could enjoy watching men of any age tear each other apart speaks to the frightening reality that all of humanity (including you and me) is perfectly capable of taking pleasure from the worst kinds of evil.
This fact still applies today as much as it did two thousand years ago. Some of the reality television shows Americans watch today prove that we still find purposeless violence entertaining, even if it’s not taken to the extreme it has been in the past. Video games like Rage, where players not only witness violence, but psychologically and visually participate in it, are an even more extreme example of our culture’s disturbing fascination with bloodlust.
The Hunger Games Compared and Contrasted
Perhaps the closest parallel to The Hunger Games in recent media is Death Race, a 2008 remake of the 1975 movie which depicts a post-industrial America where prisons are privately owned. To accrue revenue, one warden decides to create a reality tv show in which contestants from the prison are chosen to participate in a car race where they must kill each other off to win their freedom. The two stories closely resemble each other, but there is one subtle, yet significant difference that made me enjoy The Hunger Games, while being utterly disgusted by Death Race. The Hunger Games is character driven. The primary focus of the book is not on the atrocity of the Games, though it serves as the essential backdrop to the stories of our two protagonists. Death Race was just the opposite. Brief coverage of the character’s histories serve as the backdrop for two hours of graphic violence. The Hunger Games invites readers to consider the impact of war, violence, and political oppression on children–an acute reality in many parts of the globe–and to ask larger questions about life and morality. Death Race invites audiences to do exactly what the eager viewers of the Hunger Games in the Capitol do in the book–”wallow around” (The Hunger Games, page 354) in the gore and filth and evil of such ‘games’.
In this way I liken The Hunger Games more to Gladiator (2000). While there are not as many superficial similarities between the plots of these two stories as there are between The Hunger Games and Death Race, there is a marked similarity in the character focus and tone. Whereas Death Race is designed to give readers a thrill every time there’s a huge explosion or violent death, Gladiator, like The Hunger Games, gives readers a thrill every time the the protagonist does something noble in the face of such horror, like defying the sadistic authorities or sacrificing himself/herself for a just cause.
All of this is to say that I think The Hunger Games approaches the topic of brutality for sport in a way that asks all of the important questions (for example, what would you do if you were forced to choose between murdering someone and being killed yourself?) without promoting or condoning violence. The entertainment in this book (which is necessary in all fiction if an author wants to effectively communicate his or her message) grows out of the positive themes of the book–Katniss’s sacrificial love for her sister, Peeta’s sacrificial love for Katniss, and their quest to keep their souls, while all those around them are losing theirs (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling).
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The average reader will not take pleasure in reading passages that illustrate the heartless brutality of the government-mandated Games, such as the one where Cato is slowly tortured to death by canine-human mutations or when Rue is speared by a fellow tribute. Those descriptions, while relatively mild, are enough to make anyone’s stomach turn. In contrast, readers will feel great satisfaction when characters respond to such horrors by defying the people who designed them, like when Katniss decorates Rue’s body with flowers before it is taken away, or when Katniss and Peeta refuse to kill each other even for the sake of their own personal survival. To me, this is what sets The Hunger Games apart from similar tales. I highly recommend it.