In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before -- and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
After committing heresy in library land by not reading the Twilight series, I decided to succumb to Hunger Games fever and read the first book in this wildly popular trilogy. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, fast-paced, original and exciting, and it's easy to see why it's become a cultural phenomena. Collins develops her post-apocalyptic world just enough to give the reader a basis for understanding how things work and what it meant to be chosen to participate in the games. As is typical in modern young adult literature, Katniss is a strong female character, a survivor who uses her intelligence to survive and her heart to guide her actions. She is someone the reader easily identifies with and cheers on at every point.
I expected Katniss to be conflicted about having to kill other competitors, especially her District 12 neighbour, Peeta Mellark, who helped her and her family survive. But for the most part, Katniss doesn't seem distressed about this, instead focusing on winning so that she can return home. Realizing that she has to kill if she is going to survive, Katniss devises a plan to let the other competitors kill one another off. It's a brilliant plan that demonstrates Katniss' ability to assess a situation and use her survival skills to the utmost.
The reality is though, that in Hunger Games, Katniss kills only two competitors and in both of those situations, the reader feels sympathy and identifies easily with her motives for doing so. One killing is done out of revenge for the brutal death of a much younger competitor and the other is essentially a mercy killing.
Strangely, Katniss is more concerned about having to fake a romantic interest in Peeta. This is where the real conflict lies for Katniss because she can't be true to what she feels and believes - that she loves Gale Hawethorne, her hunting companion back home in District 12. Or does she? During the Hunger Games, Katniss ends up returning Peeta's favour and saving his life. She is shocked to learn that Peeta is not faking his love for her. This underlying romantic tension adds greatly to the overall storyline if Hunger Games and is a brilliant stroke by the author. Not only do we have young teens in a brutal life and death contest, but there is the tension of a potential love triangle to carry on through the remaining books.
When the rules of the games are changed once again at the very end, Katniss knows she cannot, will not kill the one person who was responsible for saving her and her family years ago. She defies the Capitol, resulting in repercussions that will extend into the next book.
The only part of the story I didn't like was where the wolves were sent into the arena to attack the remaining tributes. This was completely unexpected and yet it somehow felt contrived. But the twists and turns as the games come to their bloody finale certainly enhances the tension experienced by the reader. Although the end of the book is anti-climatic, Collins manages to devise the beginnings of another conflict - that between Katniss and the Capitol, based on her defiant act at the very end of the games.
I'm eagerly awaiting the movie which opens on March 23, 2012. I hope it's a good movie, unlike many young adult novels recently brought to the screen. The clips I've seen so far, appear promising. Although I'd been warned that the book was violent and brutal, I didn't find it overly so. Collins manages to convey the brutality of the games without being too graphic. The movie however, might be another thing.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
New York: Scholastic Press 2008