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    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Review: The Hunger Games

Like most people who have read it, I became absolutely smitten and fascinated by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I write about and teach film, and the buzz is that the adaptations of Collins’ trilogy are going to become the next big cinematic phenomenon. I thought I should be prepared. Also, it seems half of the avid readers I know have raved about it. So, lest I fall completely out of the pop culture conversation, I picked it up. Then I could not put it down. The past month has been – no exaggeration – one of the busiest months of my life, yet somehow I found time to read this book.

You’re likely aware of the premise. The novel is set in Panem, the land mass once known as North America. Panem is divided into the Capitol, a posh city that houses all of the wealth and power of Panem, and twelve impoverished districts, each of which contributes one signature crop or natural resource to support the Capitol citizens’ lavish lifestyle. This part of the premise is very similar to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and countless other dystopian narratives. There was once a thirteenth district, which rose up in revolt against the Capitol’s oppression. But the Capitol decimated District 13, and to remind the other districts of its supreme power over them, each year the Capitol hosts the hunger games, a battle royal tournament to the death. (That reference is intentional, by the way, the book owes a great deal to Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale.) Each district must hold a lottery of sorts, called the reaping, in which one boy and one girl, called tributes, are chosen to fight.

Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist, lives in District 12, the area once known as Appalachia. When Katniss’ frail, 12-year old sister is chosen as a tribute, 16-year old Katniss volunteers to take her place. Given that most tributes die in the games, this is virtually unprecedented. Katniss and a boy named Peeta, the other tribute, are soon transported to the Capitol, where they undergo a training and interview period. Then they are thrust into the arena, where the only goal is survival.

The novel is divided into three parts (Collins has apparently said she likes to write within the traditional three-act structure), each consisting of nine chapters. I have to admit that Part I dragged for me at times. It consists only of the events that precede the actual games. However, those nine chapters deliver crucial exposition and establish one of the book’s most significant themes: the reality TV-style coverage of the brutal hunger games. The Capitol seems to constantly be watching the citizens of the twelve districts, and the authorities respond to any action that bears the least resemblance to rebellion with swift, extreme brutality. This element evokes the specter of George Orwell’s Big Brother. But the citizens of the Capitol watch the games for the macabre entertainment of it, which mirrors our real televisual obsessions. We love to watch average people exalted to celebrity status, but we love it even more when those artificially famous people meet their downfall. The uglier the fall, the better. The more these and other subtexts are developed, the novel becomes less and less tedious and increasingly urgent, until you simply cannot wait for the games to begin.

Katniss, Peeta, and the other tributes are each assigned a team of handlers who create a distinctive image for each tribute. Katniss acquires the persona of the ‘girl on fire.’ The tributes are interviewed and highlighted during televised gala events that make everything seem glamorous and genial, when all the while everyone knows only one of these kids will survive. The others will be murdered, either by a fellow tribute or by one of the hazards concocted by the gamemakers to make sure the games remain exciting for the audience. The whole display is gruesome, but it rings true. If something like the hunger games really existed, I’m fairly certain it would be exploited very similarly to what Collins describes.

Speaking of exploitation, one of the most challenging, troubling elements of the book is the way 16-year old Katniss is exploited. Her team of handlers is lead by a fashion designer named Cinna, an adult man. Cinna treats Katniss respectfully and becomes a genuine friend to her, but the first time they meet, Katniss’ body has been scrubbed, exfoliated, and moisturized, and she is standing in a dressing room completely naked so that when Cinna walks in, he can see what he has to work with. Cinna at no point makes sexual advances toward Katniss, but this is still troubling. Later, Katniss and a male tribute kiss and embrace each other numerous times (I’m taking pains not to spoil anything here). That in itself is no big deal for a 16-year old, but the reason Katniss engages in this romance is problematic. She knows that the audience watching the games wants to see more of the romantic subplot of which she is the focus, and she knows that if she plays up the intimacy, she will receive more gifts from her sponsors. She is manipulated into physical intimacy by the game organizers, by her coach Haymitch, and by the need to survive. It is exploitation by definition.

Am I saying that the novel itself exploitative? No, merely challenging, which I consider a good thing, as long as the reader is sophisticated enough to distinguish between a work sexualizing its young characters and a work implicitly criticizing the sexualization of real young people. I think Collins is offering a bit of social commentary about the way real young girls, their bodies in particular, are exploited. Just this week, the United Kingdom banned a Marc Jacobs perfume ad featuring 17-year old Dakota Fanning because it “sexualizes children.” The ad is not by any stretch the worst instance of a young girl’s body being exploited. It’s not even the worst exploitation of Dakota Fanning. The movies Hounddog, made when she was 14, and The Runaways, released last year, both exploit Fanning’s body much more blatantly and uncomfortably (both do so to make a point, by the way). The Marc Jacobs ad just happens to be this week’s example. Collins never lets us forget that the hunger games are a politically oppressive, personal violation, and that oppression includes all the ways Katniss’ body is used as a means of entertaining spectacle. Hopefully parents and teachers help young adult readers understand that element of the novel.

Once Part II begins, the novel shifts into overdrive and rarely puts on the brakes. The mounds of exposition delivered during Part I now serve their purpose, because Collins never has to pause to inject back story. She is free to let her story and her characters develop, moving ever forward at a manic pace. If the book has grabbed you by this point, you should just surrender. Cancel any plans you might have made for the next few days and ride it out.

The Hunger Games is decidedly not the most original book you’ll ever read, but it pulls off a few rather impressive feats. The novel is an exciting, utterly addictive action story, yet it gives us plenty to think about – if you can make yourself read slowly enough to do some thinking. It’s also a young adult book that appeals just as strongly to mature readers. And even though it is built around a female protagonist, it isn’t written exclusively or even primarily for female readers. Men, women, and teenagers of both genders enjoy the book. That gives it one of the widest demographics of any young adult novel to come around in quite some time. Which bodes extremely well for the movie adaptation, which is slated for release next March.


One Response

  1. Reblogged this on Jeff Marker and commented:

    I originally posted this back in November, but why not join in the mass hyping of the movie? I’ll post my review of the film tomorrow when it goes to press. Let the games begin!

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