Long before there was talk about the movie I was hearing good things about The Hunger Games and it’s been on my list of books to read since that time. I finally bought a copy, and copies of the other two books in the series – Catching Fire (BookDepository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and Mockingjay (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). I must admit that I can see why The Hunger Games has garnered so much attention – it’s good, it’s entertaining, it appeals to more than just a YA audience and I believe it’ll translate well into film.
The USA is long past, fallen in some not-quite-an-apocalypse calamity in a now distant past. The nation of Panem has emerged from the ashes, dominated by a single Capitol City that holds a dozen other cities hostage in a dystopian regime and very stratified society. Every year the Capitol reminds its subjects of the price of a long past revolt by holding the annual Hunger Games – a contest where a male and female representative from each of the 12 districts all gather for a battle to the death, crowning a single victor. Only these ‘tributes’ are children between the ages of 11 and 18.
Katniss is from District 12, a poor district that mines coal in a place once known as Appalachia. When her younger sister is selected to be the next tribute, she volunteers to take her place and is thrust into hypocrisy of the Capitol and the horror of the Hunger Games. The other District 12 tribute is Peeta, a boy who once gave her bread when she and her family were starving, and the two of them team up to battle for their lives.
The premise of The Hunger Games is one that shares many similarities with other works – in other words, it’s hardly unique. However, what it lacks in originality, it makes up in pure execution. Collins quickly and economically realizes the horror of Panem and the Hunger Games while creating a devotion to her main characters, particularly Katniss, whom is the sole view point in a wonderfully told first-person narration. Katniss is easy to relate to and equally easy to cheer for. She is a young woman who has been forced to lead an adult life through the harsh reality she lives in. As a result, she’s never had the time or opportunity to grow into a young woman and sexual creature. Now this book is not exactly a romance and there is no sex, but it’s as much a story of young woman struggling with her sexuality as it is a tale of survival in mad, dystopian world.
The Hunger Games is a perfect storm for the YA crowd – it’s about a young girl awakening as sexual being, it’s about rebelling against authority, it’s about a complicated relationship with parents, it’s about devotion to friends, it’s about a teenager thrown into stardom and it’s topped off with a good bit of gratuitous violence and death. And while these are the sort of things that appeal strongly to a YA age group, they are also just the sort of thing that those of us who have left those years behind us (even far behind) can also get behind and get excited about. In short, The Hunger Games is a near-perfect YA cross-over.
Combining the cross-over appeal with the relatively small cast and limited viewpoint, the result is a book that could translate well into film if given the proper treatment. Now, this is a review of the book and as of the time of publication of this review, the movie is not yet released. I have not seen the movie, nor have I been following the pre-release buzz, fan and author reactions. But it certainly appears that The Hunger Games is poised to be a wildly-popular book and movie. And while I’ve gone on record in the past bemoaning the potential consequences of books and similar media becoming movies and/or TV shows, it’s become clear that the positive aspects cannot be denied.
Knowing that this book is the first in a trilogy pretty much leaves the reader knowing the ending before they get to it. While I won’t spoil things directly, I will say that it ends more or less as expected – at least as far as Katniss is concerned. However, the ultimate ending (as in the last page or three) is a bit more complicated. While it’s tough to call it a cliff-hanger, it is somewhat abrupt and the reader can’t help but wonder about what will come next. And frankly, I think that the events in The Hunger Games will be very hard to top in the rest of the trilogy. This both excites me and makes me a bit anxious (in a negative way) – this either sets up the following books to be very rewarding as they top the first, or to be disappointing. And for whatever reason, I lean toward thinking I’ll be let down, making me want to leave the series now when I think so highly of it. I imagine that I will move on and read Catching Fire, but this (unfair?) trepidation is making it a bit of a lower priority.
The buzz surrounding The Hunger Games is deafening and in my opinion, deserved. Collins tells an engaging story full of near-universal challenges faced by teens across the Western world. It’s heartfelt and fun, in spite of covering some rather dark territory. It appeals directly to the YA crowd without excluding an older audience. And it presents a great template that could be a great movie. Read it now and endure the buzz, because it’s not going away.