To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, whom no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.
I'm not sure there's much left to say about Suzanne Collins' bestselling young-adult novel (and now box office-smashing film) The Hunger Games (2008). Abigail Nussbaum has collected a profusion of links over at the Strange Horizons blog, which between them dissect the story as shown on both page and screen in terms of its portrayal of violence, gender, race, reality TV (something Abigail has looked at in more detail in her own reviews of book and film), and more, together with fascinating meta-discussion of how The Hunger Games was marketed and the problems of selling female-fronted action films to Hollywood.
Coming to the phenomenon late - I read the book only last month, having rescued it from the TBR doldrums so I could read it before going to see the film - I was struck by two things. One: It's not, by any objective standards, a particularly well-written novel. Two: But goodness me it's compulsive reading, even so. Not since Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy (the first two volumes of which I wrote about here last year, and the last here) have I gobbled down a story with such alacrity. For three days in a row I found myself counting down the hours until I could go home from work, because being home from work would mean being able to read more of The Hunger Games.
At an unspecified distance into the future, north America has become a terrible, horrible, no-good dystopia named Panem - yes, 'bread' - in which freedom has been banned and the government controls food. (Hat tip, YA dystopia story generator.) After an unsuccessful uprising against the evil regime some generations back, most of Panem's population now lives in twelve Districts, subject to varying levels of deprivation and close police supervision. The people are forced to supplement their starvation-level diets with state handouts, which are earned by sending their teenage children to fight to the death in an arena during the annual, televised Hunger Games.
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch — this is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen."
For this, as on several occasions, the film does a better job of conveying the story's backdrop than the novel does. In the film, the history is presented semi-satirically, in a jaunty little propaganda film that is played each year before the ceremony in which the 'tributes' - the children to be sent to the arena - are selected by lot, and the audience is left to assume that things are probably more complex. In the novel, we must make do with the dour, earnest omniscience of our narrator (I'll come back to what I mean by this in just a moment), Katniss Everdeen, who becomes a tribute for her District.
As a setting, Panem is almost comically vague in its doominess and oppression: genetically modified 'mockingjay' birds allow the state to eavesdrop on its subjects, anyone stepping out of line is scooped up by a surprise!hovercraft that appears instantly from out of nowhere, and once we reached the privileged Capitol whole feasts materialise the instant they are thought of. (There is a good thematic reason for the latter, at least; having spent most of her life unsure of where her next, inadequate meal is coming from, Katniss obsessively catalogues what she eats whenever she has the opportunity, and derives real joy from simply being full. It's one of her many endearing character traits.) When Katniss embarrasses an arrogant judging panel during the build-up to the Games - shooting an arrow through the centrepiece of the elaborate buffet feast they're ignoring her for, in a moment of pure, in-your-face awesomeness - we get the sort of hand-waving haziness over consequences that reminds me of nothing so much as the essay of an undergraduate trying to bluff their way past a point they clearly haven't thought about at all:
"What about my family?" I say. "Will they punish them?"
"Don't think so. Wouldn't make much sense. See they'd have to reveal what happened in the Training Center for it to have any worthwhile effect on the population. People would need to know what you did. But they can't since it's secret, so it'd be a waste of effort," says Haymitch.
(Why would anything specific need to be revealed? Why would punishment for Katniss' disobedience need to have an "effect on the population" - as opposed to, y'know, on Katniss - and what does that phrase even mean? Above all, what use is absolute arbitrary power if you don't exercise it?)
Anyway, it all makes no real sense, but in the heat of the story it doesn't really matter. And the heat gets underway almost immediately: we begin in District 12 on the day of that year's pre-Games ceremony, the reaping. Twenty pages later, the name of Katniss' beloved waif of a sister, Prim, comes out of the reaping pot, and Katniss is pushing her way forward to volunteer in Prim's place. It's a striking gesture, both in-world - volunteers are vanishingly rare, except in some of the richer Districts where children are trained and fed for years to prepare for the Games - and for the reader, too: the impulsive, steely determination of Katniss to protect her sister sings through.
Taciturn, closed-off Katniss has been the family's literal bread-winner for years, illicitly hunting in the woods beyond the boundary fence using her late father's old bow and arrows, and swapping or selling her extra kills for grain and fuel. She has no patience with weakness in herself or in others. Her mother, who seems to have had a breakdown after their father's sudden death in a mining accident, is treated with distance and sometimes even outright contempt by Katniss:
One time, my mother told me I always eat like I'll never see food again. And I said, "I won't unless I bring it home." That shut her up.
Here we must head into one of the novel's major stylistic and structural weaknesses, though, because despite this unfair but understandable (given how young she is and how much much strain the situation has placed on her) frustration with her mother, Collins cannot resist having Katniss editorialise with an emotional insight beyond her damaged years, explaining to us how we should read these emotional tangles: the precise roots of this reflexive dislike ("some small gnarled place inside me hated her for her weakness, for her neglect") and how she knows she's not being fair, and so on and so forth.
This failure of will when it comes to the first-person narration - this inability to let Katniss be a character who expresses only herself and her feelings rather than being a clumsy mouthpiece for the author's preferred characterisation of others, or to let readers work out the omissions and ignorances and half-truths for themselves (or not) - became a recurring frustration for me as the novel wore on. For a taciturn, emotionally-damaged teenager, Katniss is almost preternaturally perceptive about motive, unless there is a specific plot reason for her not to be. Almost as soon as a character appears, Katniss has to tell us that they're a Good Egg really, as if somehow we aren't trusted to form our own judgements. Take this exchange, for example, between Katniss and the stylists assigned to give her a makeover when she arrives in the Capitol (appearances being everything in the quest to attract support, and thus sponsorship, during the build-up to the Games):
The three step back and admire their work. "Excellent! You almost look like a human being now!" says Flavius, and they all laugh.
I force my lips up into a smile to show how grateful I am. "Thank you," I say sweetly. "We don't have much cause to look nice in District Twelve."
This wins them over completely. "Of course, you don't, you poor darling!" says Octavia clasping her hands together in distress for me.
"But don't worry," says Venia. "By the time Cinna is through with you, you're going to be absolutely gorgeous!"
"We promise! You know, now that we've gotten rid of all the hair and filth, you're not horrible at all!" says Flavius encouragingly. "Let's call Cinna!"
They dart out of the room. It's hard to hate my prep team. They're such total idiots. And yet, in an odd way, I know they're sincerely trying to help me.
Strangely enough, I had worked that out, in fact: maybe it was the "distress", maybe it was the "encouragingly", maybe it was the fact that they're too silly and fluttery to be hateful? Who can say. And would it have mattered enormously even if I'd read them differently?
The only character whom Katniss consistently misinterprets is, of course, the love interest, her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta. Peeta is a bit of a charisma vacuum, frankly; tiny District 11-er Rue makes much more of an impression during her brief flowering of (manipulatively) endearing page-time, although apparently not enough of an impression on some readers that they noticed that she's repeatedly described as having dark skin, and thus it's not, in fact, political correctness gone mad that a black actress was cast in the film to play this innocent little girl who rouses Katniss' protectiveness because her delicacy and vulnerability remind her of Prim. (Sigh, world. No, really, sigh.)
But Peeta, however dull in his own right, is central to the novel's most interesting aspect. I don't mean the Games themselves. The Games are, as many others have said, basically just a watered-down version of Battle Royale, lacking that film's gruelling physical and emotional brutalism. It's clear from the outset of The Hunger Games that not only is Katniss not going to die, but also she's not going to have to kill anyone who doesn't deserve it in some way (trying to kill her, trying to kill someone else who's nice, generically evil). No; what kept me turning the pages so convulsively was a) Katniss herself, who - irritatingly over-explanatory narration aside - proves a smart, tough and resourceful heroine, and b) wanting to see how Collins was going to Houdini out of the narrative locked box she'd set up for herself. Sure, Katniss wasn't going to kill, but how would Collins get round that? There can only be one winner of the Hunger Games, and you only win by being the last child left alive.
The twists and turns of Katniss' adventures in the Games arena - her struggles to find enough water to keep herself alive as much as her brushes with more violent death - are entertaining. But what impressed me was the emerging theme of how the Games are played out: not just through killing and avoiding being killed, but also by playing to the vast unseen television audience, who are watching the selective feeds from the arena's omnipresent cameras. Before the Games, Katniss gets a crash-course - semi-successfully - in how to perform for the crowd: primped and preened and dressed in fabulously ridiculous but eyecatching outfits by her chief stylist Cinna, she and the other tributes are paraded through the Capitol, and interviewed in a flashy TV studio before an eager audience.
Remember, heads high. Smiles. They're going to love you! I hear Cinna's voice in my head. I lift my chin a bit higher, put on my most winning smile, and wave with my free hand. I'm glad now I have Peeta to clutch for balance, he is so steady, solid as a rock. As I gain confidence, I actually blow a few kisses to the crowd. The people of the Capitol are going nuts, showering us with flowers, shouting our names, our first names, which they have bothered to find on the program.
The pounding music, the cheers, the admiration work their way into my blood, and I can't suppress my excitement. Cinna has given me a great advantage. No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire.
Win the crowd, and you win tangible support in the arena: gifts of food, weapons, first aid supplies. Fail to entertain, though, and you're in trouble, as Katniss finds when she spends the first few days of the Games just hunting for food and hiding from the other tributes a couple of miles away on the other side of the arena (her strategy for much of the novel is simply to find enough resources to survive while everyone else kills each other, although she has a couple of very enjoyable moments where she puts her smarts and her survival skills to more pro-active uses). One morning she awakes to a forest fire, which drives her back towards the action, the Games' controllers (she realises) having decide to push her into doing something that will excite the viewing public a little more. Before she goes into the Games, Haymitch - a washed-up former winner of the Games and the District 12 tributes' chaperone and advisor in the Capitol - teaches her something that will prove to be the key to her survival:
"All right, enough," he says. "We've got to find another angle. Not only are you hostile, I don't know anything about you. I've asked you fifty questions and still have no sense of your life, your family, what you care about. They want to know about you, Katniss."
"But I don't want them to! They're already taking my future! They can't have the things that mattered to me in the past!" I say.
"Then lie! Make something up!" says Haymitch.
"I'm not good at lying," I say.
"Well, you better learn fast."
Delight the viewing public enough - give them surprises, give them pluck, give them someone to root for, give them a story - and you might be able to tip the scales in your favour. Katniss gradually discovers that she can use Peeta's very public declaration of affection for her - stammered out between blushes during his pre-Games TV interview - to her advantage. Audiences lap up the drama of, as she puts it, "Poor tragic us", the star-crossed lovers who cannot both survive the arena. And so Katniss plays along, performing desperate heartbreak for the cameras as she protects the badly-injured Peeta and plots her survival.
Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words. This is probably overdue anyway since he's right, we are supposed to be madly in love. It's the first time I've ever kissed a boy, which should make some sort of impression I guess, but all I can register is how unnaturally hot his lips are from the fever.
The conflicting layers of Katniss' emotions - her play-acting, her (entirely baseless and plot-convenient) conviction that Peeta is play-acting too and secretly out to kill her, and her inexorably growing feelings for him regardless - are sensitively and subtly drawn, and as a sideways looks at both the artificial narrative arcs of reality TV and the performative self-identity and lack of privacy of the internet age, it's very effective indeed, with Collins juggling the ambiguities and painful compromises required by the situation extremely well:
"Either that or he's got very generous sponsors," says Peeta. "I wonder what we'd have to do to get Haymitch to send us some bread."
I raise my eyebrows before I remember he doesn't know about the message Haymitch sent us a couple of nights ago. One kiss equals one pot of broth. It's not the sort of thing I can blurt out, either. To say my thoughts aloud would be tipping off the audience that the romance has been fabricated to play on their sympathies and that would result in no food at all. Somehow, believably, I've got to get things back on track. Something simple to start with. I reach out and take his hand.
So, yes: recommended, with reservations. Because it hooks, and it won't let go.