Published by Scholastic in 2008, this dystopian novel aimed at young adult readers sold nearly 1 million copies in its first 18 months. Now part of a trilogy, it has won multiple awards and in March 2012 became an instant box office hit when it was released as a film. It poses some thought-provoking questions – how far would you go to survive and protect the people that you love? Would you show mercy or allow yourself to feel compassion if doing so made you vulnerable?
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic country called Panem which comprises 13 Districts, each of which is a separate command economy controlled by a totalitarian government centred in the Capitol. A rebellious District 13 has been annihilated and since then, by way of being reminded of who is in control, each District has had to provide one boy and one girl to fight to the death in an annual Hunger Game. Following a mining accident in which her father is killed the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has become a hunter gatherer, breaking the rules every day by hunting outside of the District 12 fence. When her younger sister’s name is drawn as a District 12 tribute for the 74th Hunger Game, Katniss volunteers to take her place and so finds herself first pampered by her mentors and lauded by the press, then dumped into the deadly arena to provide a TV reality show for a global audience.
The Hunger Game is played out in an alternative reality setting in which Gamekeepers manipulate the environment to force confrontations and the TV ratings of individual tributes determine what gifts they are given. Katniss eventually learns that fitness, quick wits and outdoor survival skills are not enough – in order to secure help through effective sponsorship she must also learn to play a completely convincing publicity game.
The controlled defiance of the central character stands in stark contrast to the passivity of many within her home community. She is so absorbed with the protection and survival of her family that she has little time to left to consider the motives of those around her. So when she enters the arena, she misses the self-sacrificing love of the antagonist, Peeta, her fellow District 12 competitor, instead interpreting his actions as betrayal. A full panoply of human characters is represented in the 24 tributes, from the brutal sociopath Cato and the empathetic Rue to the compassionate, but clever, Peeta.
The themes of the book are manifold – survival, starvation, oppression, betrayal, selfless love and anti-authoritarian stance. There are religious overtones (for example, Peeta’s embodiment of St John’s reference to Christ ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ and regular references to bread as a source of life). The text is redolent with Roman references too, the central plot a skilful combination of the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur and Roman ‘bread and circuses’. And still deeper in the consciousness of the reader are the echoes of other cultures which practised human sacrifice.
So what makes The Hunger Games such a compelling read? The narrative works
at several layers, from a good yarn which is well told to the rich complexity of the imagery and references. The characterisation is clever – few of the characters are fully drawn but names are skilfully used to suggest a back story for many of the lesser characters. The pink-haired Effie Trinket represents all that is shallow; the hypocritical Mayor Undersee remains on the right side of authority whilst purchasing Katniss’s illegally hunted meat; Rue and Primrose are fragile; while Caesar Flickerman is a skilful orator, but only on TV.
Occasionally the narrative jars – the parody figures of the TV publicists felt overdone and therefore failed to be believable and the sudden introduction of the muttations created a violent denouement but lacked congruity (they also, in my mind, became wildly malevolent Ewoks). However, the pace of the novel more than compensates for such issues.
From the first page, the timeless battle of good and evil is played out with subtle and shocking cruelty. If Peeta represents the essential goodness of humanity and the occupants of the Capitol represent pure evil, then Katniss stands between them, fiercely loyal but pragmatic to the point of betrayal,. And nobody wins – the story ends with an uneasy truce, preparing the way for Catching Fire, Book 2 in the trilogy. In spite of the controversy which now surrounds this book, it is highly recommendable for readers from 11 to adult.