I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It took me less than two days because, as you’ve no doubt heard, it’s a page-turner. The last time I read a book so quickly was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go two years ago. Which is kind of odd because I generally think I don’t enjoy dystopian novels, but apparently I do, at least sometimes. I don’t actually mean to equate or even compare Never Let Me Go and The Hunger Games, other than to say that they are both entirely compelling. There are familiar or recognizable aspects and qualities of the worlds they depict, and the ways in which they are different from the one we live in has a lot to do with my level of engagement. I’m intrigued by the differences and want to know more.
All I knew about The Hunger Games before reading it was that everyone loved it, it’s been made into a movie, and people are forced to fight to the death at least in part as entertainment.
It’s sort of like The Lottery meets Survivor meets The Lord of the Flies.
Speaking of Survivor, and speaking as a one-time fan of the show, I couldn’t help but feel that a televised fight to the death among twenty-four participants, both willing and (mostly) unwilling, was the really the next logical step. Completely reprehensible and inhumane, yes, but at the same time it was all so very reasonable in some ways, with all the trappings of a civilized competitive entertainment event: clothes and makeup, coaching for interviews, the importance of first impressions, skills and strategies.
And all the time, never forgetting that the cameras are rolling and the world is watching.
I have to admit a fondness for situations that involve forced socialization (long car trips, Bel Canto, reality tv, riding the New York City subway). I’m curious about how people adapt to situations and work together, or not, for the good of the group, or sometimes just for the individual. I’m interested in the spoken and unspoken rules that develop as a means creating order out of chaos, making the trains run on time, and figuring out who is like you or on your side. Competition and cooperation are natural parts of those scenarios, no matter how contrived they might be, and I confess that I find it fascinating.
I always watched Survivor somewhat apologetically, as a guilty pleasure, as if I knew better but could somehow imagine myself to be above it. But reading The Hunger Games cast that voyeuristic pleasure in a slightly different light. Would I watch a show where people killed each other until only one was left alive? No, of course not. I can’t even watch boxing! Would I watch a show where people are hungry? Where they are cold? Where they have to compete and sometimes demean themselves for basic needs like food, fire, and water? Well, I have. The major difference, as far as I can tell, is the death factor, and other than that, it seems like there’s a pretty fine line between modern television audiences and ancient Romans.
And if that’s uncomfortable—which it is—I think that’s a large part of the point. Who is the reader in this scenario? As the story progresses, the reader is drawn in by the very factors that entrance the Hunger Games audience. What will Katniss wear and will it create a sensation? How will she do in her interview? Who will die next and how gruesomely? The reader is culpable in some way, as if our very interest is part of the reason such a world exists in the first place: we have an appetite for it.
It makes complete sense that this book would be made into a film; it’s perfectly suited to it. I can only imagine that being in the audience for the movie, as a viewer just like those in the book who are either forced to watch the Hunger Games or do so for pleasure, would be an even more disconcerting experience.
I enjoyed the unreliable nature of the narrator Katniss Everdean. She seems like such a direct person in some ways, certainly not like someone who would enjoy playing games. But she is forced to. Her whole life, she has been forced to take action in order to survive and to hide her thoughts and squelch most of her emotions—aside from her love for her sister. When she becomes part of the Hunger Games, this sort of deception is a requirement. Then there is the self-deception. She doesn’t allow herself to feel if she can help it, or she denies or ignores her emotions, seeming to truly not realize what they mean. Even her memories are unreliable, and it’s all thoroughly understandable.
There is the whole question of what is real and what is an act and who can be trusted that runs throughout the book but is really embodied in a personal way in Katniss and her experiences.
I thought many of the characters felt real, and I was invested in what would happen to them. My one moment of disappointment with regard to a character’s fate (not necessarily in what happened but in how) also turned out to be the moment of highest emotion for me, which is kind of saying something because I’m not generally demonstrably emotional when reading.
At one point in The Hunger Games, one of the characters expresses a desire to not lose who he is as a person, to find a way to prove to everyone watching that he remained himself in spite of the situation he was forced into, to prove “they” couldn’t control everything. That seems to be the key, the real reason I might want to watch or read something like this.
The question speaks to me as adult, and I suspect it comes across even more strongly to this book’s target audience of young adults, who present themselves in so many different ways to the world, even as they’re trying to figure out who they really are, even as who they are is changing. They are growing up in a very exposed way, and potentially a very unforgiving one. I would guess they would find this aspect of the book quite relevant to their lives.
I’m not planning to see the movie anytime soon, and I’m not going to rush out to read the rest of the trilogy. It’s a really contemporary conversation that this book begins, but I think the crux of it is the same question that people have always asked, just framed in a highly modern/futuristic context. But it does a great job, I think, of speaking to young adults, even if the ideas may not be entirely new. And for what it was, it was a great read.