When I introduce this book to people, in short, I describe it as “Ender’s Game meets The Running Man meets Lord of the Flies“.
Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen year old girl living in “District 12” of what was once the United States of America. The districts are brutally ruled by “The Capitol”. As punishment for a rebellion, three quarters of a century earlier, the Capitol destroyed the 13th District and instituted an annual game called the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a gladiatorial fight to the death between twenty-four competitors (two from each district). The catch isn’t just that the competitors are selected via a lottery, but that the competitors are all children between the ages of 12 and 18. Competitors are celebrities and receive sponsors. The wealthy Capitol keeps the districts poor, so earning sponsors can be of great service to their home districts. The games take place in a vast outdoor arena, with wilderness and ever-present cameras and microphones.
It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal that Katniss is selected to be a competitor. The entire book is told in first person, from the perspective of Katniss. Katniss’s home, District 12, is composed largely of what is today Appalachia. The primary product District 12 provides is coal. Katniss frequently breaks the law by sneaking out through the District border fence and hunting for food for her friends and family. She risks a death sentence by doing so – but it is this risk that has provided her with a set of skills that will give her a chance of surviving the games.
Katniss is surprisingly bright and well spoken for a girl from such a dystopic environment. It makes her a gifted narrator, but it provides the one fault I have with the book – Katniss is just way too savvy about the politics involved in the games. She has the insights and cynicism of a 40 year old, not a 16 year old. She will need this wisdom as she becomes embroiled in a game of will and trickery with the game-runners while fighting for her life against her peers. Other than that, Katniss is very well written. She is human and honest and entirely sympathetic. We are with her every step of the way as she faces obstacles ranging from extreme thirst, to fire, to physical attack, to her own teenage emotions and insecurities.
There’s a strange irony in the voyeuristic experience of reading this story about the games and simultaneously reviling the spectators of the games, within the story. The only difference between the two of us is that we know the children are fictional creations, whereas for the people of the districts these are real children they are betting on and watching die. I don’t think it would be too presumptuous to say that Suzanne Collins is setting forth a little allegorical comparison between the people of the Capitol and our own reality TV obsessed culture. Most of the people from the Capitol, that we meet, are extremely superficial. The one clear exception is Cinna, the stylist assigned to make Katniss appealing to the audience.
The Hunger Games is defined as a young-adult novel, but it is surprisingly brutal and horrific as the twenty-four children are set upon each other. It isn’t gratuitous, but Collins via Katniss, describes the events so well that they are easy to imagine.
I found The Hunger Games to be enthralling – very hard to put down and I recommend it.
The story has become a trilogy. The remaining two books are called Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I’ve started book two, but been temporarily sidetracked to real the Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs biography. The books have also been picked up for adaptation to film and the first teaser trailer, introducing us to Katniss (as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence) has been released: