As per usual, I was totally late to the game on the Hunger Games craze. I’d heard whisperings about it from early converts, and when the film was released in March I tried to maintain an air of cool disinterest, as I am generally put off by anything that is uber-hyped. But then I saw the film and fell in love. Knowing that the book is always a hundred times better than the movie, I went and bought the book the very next day and could hardly put it down. True, I don’t like to buy into hype, but The Hunger Games just serves to prove that sometimes hype is completely deserved.
The Hunger Games takes place in dystopian Panem, a future version of America that has been divided into thirteen districts and the Capitol, the center of power and wealth. Back in the day, when a rebel uprising threatened to topple Panem’s government, the Capitol rose up and crushed the rebels, destroying all of District 13 as a lesson to the remaining districts. Now, in addition to reaping the benefits of the districts’ resources while keeping them largely impoverished, the Capitol holds the annual Hunger Games: each district is forced to offer two “tributes,” one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen, selected by lottery to participate in the Games, wherein they’re released into an outdoor arena to try to kill their fellow tributes until one lone victor remains. And the Games are broadcast on television for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol and to remind the districts that rebellion has a steep price. Pretty messed up, right?
During the public Reaping in District 12, Katniss Everdeen’s twelve-year-old sister Prim is selected as a tribute. Horrified, Katniss jumps in as a volunteer to take her sister’s place in the Games, even though she knows her chances of survival are slim. Along with the male tribute, Peeta Mellark, Katniss is whisked away to the Capitol where she’s essentially paraded in front of the Capitol’s citizens and prettied for slaughter. She manages to make a big impression and garner adoration from the Capitol, which puts a huge target on her back that her fellow tributes are eager to crush. Once inside the arena, it’s a free for all, and Katniss must use all of her wits and skill to outsmart her competitors and stay alive.
Dystopian stories are the most terrifying of narratives because they put the darkest shadows of humanity on display and say “This is what we could become if we’re not careful.” This story feels so culturally relevant to me because when I look at the Capitol, I see the 1%, living decadently and blissfully ignorant, with no regard for the 99% who are struggling to survive. Collins describes Katniss’s initial wonder and subsequent disgust at the Capitol’s fineries so well, and it’s fascinating to watch Katniss slowly come to the realization that showmanship is key, and that the Capitol will be happy so long as they’re given a good show. It’s that reality television mentality of manipulating the situation into the most appealing storyline until it’s basically scripted, but Katniss’s survival depends on her ability to play her role convincingly.
In a world where fierce brutality and adherence to skewed rules is the norm, the moral quandries are endless and questions of identity and freedom of choice abound. The night before the Games begin, Peeta and Katniss have a deep conversation on the roof:
“I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
Can you still remain yourself while playing a role that someone else has set out for you? What are our lives worth? How far would you go to save your own life? Is it ever okay to take another person’s life? These are the central questions of the story, and there are a surprising array of answers depending on which character you ask.
The Hunger Games is pretty existential for a young adult novel, but it’s also written in a way that is incredibly accessible and engaging. Katniss is a relentlessly badass heroine with endless stores of ferocity, and Peeta is so likable and self-effacing and deep. There’s also a colorful cast of minor characters, from perpetually drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy to brilliant stylist Cinna to flamboyant tv personality Caesar Flickerman, that add a bit of extra humor and poignancy where it’s needed. I’ve read the entire series (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) and it’s beyond-words excellent. You’ll probably cry at the end like I did. But it’s important to start from the beginning. For a tale of rebellion, unlikely love and survival, I encourage you: read this book.