What if there was a trend and I wasn’t paying attention?
I actually did notice The Hunger Games when it came out in 2008, but I did not read it then for two reasons. First, though I love the genre, I am wary of reviews of fantasy literature, with words like “Breathtaking,” or “Original,” because I’ve been burned too many times. In addition, when I read the synopsis, although The Hunger Games did sound original, but we had just had a round of serious layoffs at work, and I wasn’t in the mood for a story of hard times in the not-so-distant-future.
Last weekend, at the SCBWI conference, I heard repeated praise of The Hunger Games from sources I trust. Later, one of the speakers cautioned the audience not to write a story just because it is trendy. He cited a current mass of “dystopian fiction” as an example.
Looking again at reviews, and watching the the trailer of the movie that is “Coming Soon,” I realized The Hunger Games must have sparked the trend. I downloaded the ebook and to my surprise and delight, could not put it down. I devoured it this week. It seems strange that in the fantasy genre, real originality is so rare, but this book has it. It isn’t perfect. I thought that at a key moment, Suzanne Collins held true greatness in her hand and let it slip away. Still, The Hunger Games is one of the very best reads I recall in YA fantasy.
I didn’t just read this book for pleasure. It is one of a half-dozen new books I plan to read once for pleasure, and again with an eye to look under the hood and try to see how the author creates the magic. Observation one – Suzanne Collins takes all the time she needs to introduce us to Katniss Everdeen, 16, and let us bond with her. We rise with Katniss, learn that she loves her 12 year old sister Prim but despises her cat. Very human stuff like that. We learn that times are hard. We learn that to get into the woods to hunt for squirrels to eat or trade on the black market, she has to pass through an electrified fence, which isn’t really that dangerous, because the power is seldom on. We aren’t in Kansas anymore! We meet Katniss’ best friend and hunting partner, Gale, who despises The Capitol, which runs things, and we learn he could be killed by the Peacekeepers if such talk is overheard. We learn this is the day of “The Reaping” and that does not sound good.
Panem rose from the ruins of America. Katniss’ District 12 used to be called Appalachia. The Capitol is totalitarian, and attempts to flee result in death or slavery. Earlier worlds of this sort, like 1984, reflected the cold war mentality, while Panem is firmly lodged in 21st century fears. Large chunks of the coastline are gone. There have been famines and other ecological disasters. The Peacekeepers bring to mind Homeland Security, and the iffy electricity has an eerie resonance to what is happening right now in Japan.
But all that is nothing compared to the Hunger Games and what happens if you are selected as a “Tribute” at the “Reaping.”
As punishment and a warning to the 12 surviving Districts that unsuccessfully tried to revolt, the Capitol demands a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to be chosen by lottery once a year. The are trained and pitted against one another in a huge outdoor arena as gladiators. One victor will be set up for life. Twenty-three others will die for the amusement and “instruction” of the population, which is forced to watch – there is always enough electricity to televise the Hunger Games.
When her baby sister, Prim, is chosen, Katniss rushes forward to volunteer to take her place. We had come to like her before, and now we love her. Her chances do not seem very good. Her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, is a baker’s boy, who doesn’t seem much of a warrior. To make things worse, Peeta once saved her life with the gift of a loaf of bread, and both know they will eventually have to fight to the death to survive.
By now, of course, we are really into the story, and incredibly, as their training unfolds, we begin to think Katniss and Peeta may stand a chance. As a strategy to deceive the others, they feign love for one another – except Peeta may not be pretending. Katniss wins the affection of the crowds and the all-important sponsors. The odds-makers give her good marks for her skill with a bow. Their trainer, a past winner and a drunk goes on the wagon and dedicates himself to their survival.
Then the games begin and all hell breaks loose – literally.
Lets face it, we know Katniss will survive, but to her credit, Collins keeps up the nail-biting doubt. The most poignant moment comes when Katniss teams up with Rue, a twelve year-old slip of a girl, who reminds Katniss of her sister. They bond in a hurry, and Katniss briefly basks in the luxury of not feeling alone – never mind that they will have to fight each other later. But after a daring raid on another team’s food supply, Rue is mortally wounded. Katniss sings her a lullaby as she dies, for her greatest love had been music. And then, as the greatest protest she dares, Katniss covers her friend’s body with wildflowers as the hidden camera’s broadcast the image all through the land. Gladiators are not supposed to care for each other – it is the closest thing to open defiance Katniss can imagine.
At this moment, The Hunger Games transcends genre and reaches the level of tragedy – that which is grave and constant in human affairs. In particular, it reminded me of that heartrending day, Dec. 25, 1914, that we now call the Christmas Truce. Two armies of young men defied the old men who sent them to kill each other, by celebrating the birth of Christ with friendship. The generals promised a firing squad to any who tried it again.
How It Ends
Things tapered off from there, perhaps inevitably so, for how could such a moment be sustained? Still, the genetically mutated zombie-werewolves who end the contest were over the top – they seemed like an add-on, a patch to ramp up adrenalin by borrowing from the horror genre. For me, it had the opposite effect.
The book also ends with romantic teasers. Katniss went out of her way to save the badly injured Peeta, but until now, she had been a hard-luck tomboy, fond of him and grateful, but not in love. Her last moment inner conflict does not seem to grow “organically” from her earlier thoughts about her friendship with two young men – maybe I am too cynical, but I took it as a carrot to get the masses of Twilight readers to buy the next book of the trilogy. Club Peeta or Club Gale?
Still, I plan to read and enjoy the final two books of the trilogy. Even if the series comes off as an “ordinary” romance and battle of good guys against an evil empire, if that’s the worst thing we can say of The Hunger Games, it is still in very good company. Suzanne Collins has given us a vividly imagined and wonderfully crafted story.