Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thoughts on "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games", by Suzanne Collins, is a futuristic dystopian horror. By horror, I mean not the sort of horror that comes from zombies, vampires, evil sorcerers, axe murderers, and the like, but rather the evil side of human nature.

Like any horror, it should be read on an empty stomach. If you are prone to throwing things in anger, I suggest surrounding yourself with soft items like pillows and stuffed animals, as opposed to glass, ceramic, and other hard and breakable objects, before settling down with the book. Do not begin reading if you are not in the mood for a good cry. You know, the standard safety precautions for reading horrors.

In Collins' world, a city called the Capitol rules over 12 Districts. There used to be 13 Districts, but apparently the 13th was obliterated by the Capitol following a rebellion. As punishment for said rebellion, the 13 Districts are required to send two children -- a boy and a girl -- every year to compete in the Hunger Games, which are a fight to the death. The winner is the last boy or girl standing. Yes, they make kids fight to the death. That's why you shouldn't read this book on a full stomach, lest you lose your lunch. The children sent to this fight to the death are referred to callously as "tributes".

 Any child from the ages of 12 to 18 can be chosen, although the deck is stacked such that the older children are more likely to be called. The poor are also more likely to be called, as children can volunteer to be entered into the drawing additional times in exchange for year's meager supply of food and oil for them and their families.

However, the kids are not simply chosen and then thrown into the arena. No. Before they can do that, they have to get dressed up, appear publicly, go through a training and a test, and appear for an interview. And when they finally get thrown into the arena, they don't just get to be themselves. No, there is a continued need to please the audience, particularly the wealthy citizens of the Capitol, as wealthy sponsors may elect to pay for gifts to give a child a better chance at making it through.

I think the way they dress children up is grotesque. Alright, so I also think child beauty pageants are grotesque. So I'm a prude. So sue me. But this is even worse. That said, the stylists who do the dressing up are trying to give their children a better chance of getting sponsors -- a better chance at survival. But all that does is shift the blame from the stylist, trying to give his or her child a better chance at survival, to the society that approves of children being all fancied up like that. So it's still grotesque.

The training is also sort of creepy. Perhaps it helps balance the odds, by ensuring that no one is thrown in there completely unprepared. But it also feels like the Capitol is trying to ensure a more vicious, entertaining conflict. The test after the training is conducted privately, so that the children don't have to reveal any secret skills to their competitors, but a score is provided so that the gamblers can place their bets and the sponsors can decide who they want to send gifts too. Again, betting on which CHILD is going to survive seems hideous to me.

And then there's the interview. Even here, it is dangerous for a child to, for example. express righteous anger at being forced into this gladiator-style combat. To display how openly that child may hate the Capitol for doing this to them. Because then they probably won't get any sponsors, which will reduce their chances of survival. So, the children who want to live have to play to the crowds, to present a false face, to lie, to please the very people who are hurting them. It's really hideous.

And as I said, having to please the crowds doesn't stop when the children are finally thrown into the arena to kill each other and die gruesome deaths. The main character of the book, Katniss, is repeatedly thinking of what she has to do in order to get sponsors to help her. She even ends up having to fake a romance. Which is really screwed up. Also, the Capitol continues to mess with things in the arena to ensure an entertaining, gruesome fight.

As for the ending, well, it's slightly less tragic than it could've been, which isn't saying much. So don't neglect to keep a handkerchief handy, for the tears.


  1. Good analysis. I liked how you used the words "child" & "children" to describe the victims of the Capital's vindictive oppression. Katniss seems so grown-up in the book. Are you going to read the rest of the series?

  2. Hi Eri! :-)

    Well, yeah, calling them "tributes" just seems really callous and dehumanizing to me. Sure, kids can grow wise quickly when they lead hard lives, but they're still kids who haven't had much time to enjoy life on this planet yet, especially since they've spent so much of their childhood leading hard lives rather than having fun, like a person from a wealthy nation might stereotypically expect children to.

    Perhaps Katniss is "grown-up" in terms of being able to take care of feeding her family, facing dangers so that her younger sister doesn't have to, but she's still emotionally vulnerable. It hurts her that her mother doesn't look after them more. And she really isn't ready yet for the type of romance she pretends to have. She sounds like she's more in the crush stage. It's possible, given time, she could've grown to actually love Peeta, but the whole thing is staged for survival. Even her understanding of how to fake the romance is based on what she's seen of other people in love, not anything she's ever felt. Because she's simply not ready yet. Nor should she be, at her age.

    I wonder if the author read about the child soldiers being used in some of the third world countries and got angry about it.

    I think I would like the next book I read to be somewhat less depressing.

  3. I haven't read the book, but from your review I just can't shake a feeling that something's not right in that city.

    They bombed a district into oblivion, the "subjects" have no weapons and presumably little hope of getting anywhere close of assassinating anyone of importance (what with all the surveillance and police), but they need to make children fight to... what, make the others fear them?

    Of course one has to think of Rome, but I've never heard of kid gladiators - not that that's any proof. Sure, there's psych warfare involved, but I'd think one feared the legion(s) in the province more than the blood-thirsty plebs of Rome.

    I for one would be even more enraged if they took my kids to fight. I find it callous, gratuitous violence and abuse, and though I get this is fiction, and books need controversial plots, I like my fictive universes a bit more logical, and I can't find any reason for these "contests".

  4. Hello Cosmin! :-)

    For some reason, the book made me think of child soldiers, which actually does happen in some countries, although I think that's more because so many of the adults have gone to war and died already than because they actually prefer for children to fight their wars. But it's still really horrifying.

    Congo is one country that apparently has child soldiers:

    Nero might have used child gladiators, but I can't find a trustworthy website to confirm that. Even if so, Nero was pretty screwed up. It's hard to imagine an entire city of people that depraved -- or almost an entire city, not including the traitors mentioned in the book. I mean, you would think, especially after all the trouble dressing the children up prettily and interviewing them prior to the fight, that the populace of the Capitol might develop some compassion. :-(

  5. Some people will question the morality of the situation. But I think that was Suzanne Collins's point.
    Katniss, through whose voice we read the story, never says a word about any other kind of social-political structure. She says nothing about what was there before the country of Penam. Perhaps she thought Penam always existed.
    True, she mentions that there was a rebellion 75 years earlier, but she never says a word about how the rebellion might have changed things, or whether a new rebellion might change things. Perhaps she thought there could be no other way of running a country.

    She never used words like democracy, court systems, lawyers, justice. equality, elections, freedom, goodness, spiritual things, God, afterlife, or anything like that that makes our lives good or meaningful. By extension, we can guess that the author wants us to understand that all the people in Penam were similarly totally ignorant of everything that was good. They could not imagine that life could be different or better, because they knew nothing else.

    This is what makes the book worth reading. It shows us how important it is to understand and take care of all the good things that make our existence worthwhile.

    "You can only be what you know you can be. You can only do what you know to do." -- Theresa Hartley, in Empress Theresa

  6. Collins is making a social commentary. I think she uses children to represent innocence, helplessness, and lack of power in a society.
    As a literary device this works extremely well to illicit empathetic outrage and horror from the reader for the plight of these individuals, where there may not have been otherwise.
    Quite a lot of allegory in this book! Some intended...some imagined. But that is what makes it art.