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The Hunger Games


First of all, let’s get something straight. I’m not going to tell you whether or not to read The Hunger Games. That’s none of my business. I am merely going to tell you my thoughts on it, discuss some good and bad points, and you’ll have to make your own decision. If you’ve already read the book and disagree with what I’m saying about it, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s talk about The Hunger Games. The book, written by children’s author Suzanne Collins, was published in September of 2008. Over the next couple years, it was on the New York Times list for over 100 consecutive weeks, and there are now approximately 26 million copies in print.

Have ever you wondered what has made The Hunger Games such a big hit? Why is it so popular? Why is it sparking so much discussion, and sometimes, controversy? In this review, I intend to explore some possible elements behind the popularity. Something in the book must have touched a nerve, and I want to know what it is.

When I read The Hunger Games for the first time, I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. Rather, I didn’t know what to think of the narrative contained inside. I liked the writing. It was simple, excellently done and very gripping. However, I was very disturbed - and moved - by the plot itself.

In case you haven’t read the book yet or done any research on the subject, here’s a short synopsis so that we’re all on the same page (this is what’s on the back of the book):

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 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 death 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.

So you basically get the point, right? The setting is a futuristic, dystopian world ruled by a merciless government called the Capitol, who punishes their people on a yearly basis by forcing twenty-four teenagers to fight to the death in a gladiator-type game.

Before I go any further with my thoughts on the book, let’s hear from a couple critics. Common Sense Media, an online organization that offers media reviews and advice for families, has this to say:

“A story of teens massacring each other, could, in the hands of a different author, have been sensationalistic and even sick but, by keeping the focus relentlessly on the personal, Collins makes it both moving and thought provoking.”

Charles McNair from PasteMagazine.com has another take on the story:

The Hunger Games left me gravely unsettled, as if I’d wandered all alone into a pitch-black maze where I could hear, now and again, a distant, blood-curdling roar, something coming in the dark.”

I’m sure that you’ve pretty much gotten the idea that The Hunger Games isn’t fluffy. It isn’t pretty. Beautiful, maybe, but in a terrible way. Yet it is still well-loved by countless fans. Why? What is so attractive about a sadistic government, starving citizens and teenagers killing each other in a brutal, sickening game?

One thing I noticed about the book is that the characters are very easy to relate to, and I suppose that is due partly to the author’s skill in her portrayals and descriptions. You can feel Katniss’s desperation, her hopelessness, as she struggles to make sense of a world that is falling apart. Teens in particular could easily sympathize with her emotions of love, fear, and confusion.

Scholastic.com rates the book as appropriate for grades 6-12. I don’t agree. Though the book is certainly written at a level a 6th grader could understand, adults, in most cases, will have more of a capacity to look past the surface and comprehend the messages and potential ethical issues that may be present.

There are several themes that permeate the book, some that I think are especially poignant for our current society. One of the biggest ones is government overreach. The Capitol had been allowed to grow so powerful that the citizens were no longer capable of resisting, resulting in the political mess we find in the book. (Just to warn you, at this juncture, my political views will make an appearance. If you suddenly feel a need to slap your forehead or swear at your computer screen, feel free to do so.) I think that our own country, the U.S., is moving in a dangerous direction. Numerous American rights are being threatened, among them our rights to bear arms, freedom of religion, and the ability to choose our own healthcare. The government is bigger and more powerful than it was ever originally intended to be.

Another main thread running through the book is violence in media. In the story, we see the Capitol being entertained by live footage of teens murdering each other, and we think how horrible it is, how cold-hearted they must be. However, can any of us truthfully say that we have never been entertained by on-screen violence? By the way, when I say “entertained” I don’t mean the chuckle-and-slap-your-knee type. One of the definitions of entertain is “to hold the attention of pleasantly or agreeably; divert, amuse”. I don’t mean to be morbid, but I have noticed that humans in general seem to have a sort of horrid fascination for blood and gore. Not that it’s anything new. Think back to the early A.D.s and the Roman Colosseum. Spectators would sit, cheering wildly, as people were torn apart by wild beasts or fellow human beings before their very eyes.

Gratuitous violence isn’t the only underlying problem in our media. Currently, one of the most popular television genres is Reality TV. A seemingly trivial example is “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Some of them are harmless, but if you think about it, most of the laughs either come from people getting injured or just being extraordinarily stupid. Doesn’t that reflect a rather warped sense of humor?

As American media gets worse, we will become increasingly de-sensitized and things won’t seem so bad anymore. We’ll start playing the comparing game. You know, “That’s pretty bad, but it’s not as bad as (fill in the blank).” In this way, we will justify our viewing habits until it ceases to matter anymore.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Hunger Games can serve as a warning. If our government and media continue on this downward slope, we may very well end up looking something like Panem in the future.

Now, themes aside, there are several possible ethical dilemmas within the plot of the book itself. Many people who object to The Hunger Games bring up the fact that, in the story, Gale, Katniss’s friend, advises her to think of the other Tributes (contestants) as game that she needs to hunt:

   “Katniss, it’s just hunting. You’re the best hunter I know,” says Gale. 
   "It’s not just hunting. They’re armed. They think,” I say. 
   "So do you. And you’ve had more practice. Real practice,” he says. You know how to kill.”
   "Not people,” I say. 
   "How different can it be, really?” says Gale grimly. 
   The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all.

Now, I admit that telling Katniss to think of the other teens as game wasn’t the best advice Gale could have given her. But give him a break. He’s a scared, 16-year-old boy, trying to be encouraging to his friend. And do you notice Katniss’s reaction? She is obviously disturbed by the fact that, if she can forget the Tributes are people, it will, indeed, be as if they were animals.

A seriously debatable element about The Hunger Games are the killings that take place. For the first portion of the Games, Katniss manages to pretty much stay out of the way and avoid any contact with the other Tributes. Eventually, however, Katniss gets trapped up in a tree by a group of Tributes. She drops a nest of deadly “tracker jackets”, genetically modified hornets created by the Capitol, on top of the teens below, resulting in two deaths. Next, after forming a partnership/friendship with a fellow Tribute, a 12- year-old named Rue, the young girl is murdered by another contestant and Katniss kills him. In the last instance, perhaps the most questionable of all, Katniss shoots a fellow Tribute to end his misery.

To be honest, these occurrences in the book opened up some tough questions for me. What it comes down to is this: when is it permissible to take someone’s life? Personally, I believe that defense of self, loved ones and country are the only cases in which it is right to kill another human being. Therefore, I don’t have a problem with the first two instances in which Katniss kills her fellow contestants. In the first, dropping the bee’s nest was the only way Katniss could get out of the tree- alive, that is. In the second, killing Rue’s attacker was in legitimate defense of her friend. She saw the weapon enter her friend’s body, and she incapacitated the source of the weapon. That brings me to the third instance, when Katniss shoots a fellow Tribute (Cato) out of “pity”. I disagree with her decision in that situation. However, I must say that most human beings would do the same thing if they were put in her place. Cato was enduring unimaginable, horrific pain, and Katniss did what she did only out of mercy.

I came across an interesting thought in another review of The Hunger Games, one which questions a technical aspect of the plot as well as another moral issue:

“. . .While Katniss’s ultimate triumph is hailed as a victory over the establishment, the book never explores another option. . .what would have happened if all the Tributes just refused to kill? Fighting to the death in the games is presented as a given, a necessary evil of life (or rather death) in the arena. In establishing rules like these, the responsibility is lifted from the kids’, and our, shoulders. If we blame the establishment, everyone is innocent. What’s more, the book and film call for us to root for a winner, yet never force us to question that when we cheer for any Tribute to win the Hunger Games, we are also, therefore, cheering for the other children to die. . ." 1

My response to this is as follows- some of the Tributes (specifically ones nick-named “the Careers”) had been trained from childhood to be killers, all in preparation for the Games. Therefore, they would enter the Games determined to win and with no qualms about killing. Because of this, it is unreasonable to expect that it would be possible for all the Tributes to suddenly unite against the Capitol and refuse to kill each other. (No doubt the Capitol itself had something to do with that.)

As for the second portion of Mr. King’s thoughts, as I was reading the book, I was not, as he puts it, “cheering for the other children to die”, though I think that is something we need to make sure we avoid. I was frankly sickened by each subsequent death. I think, though, that Collins handles the death scenes well- they are gratuitous or overly gory, but dynamic and heartrending.

In conclusion, The Hunger Games is a raw, arresting work of literature that, while portraying a future that is the work of the author’s imagination, also unveils a disturbing possibility that we must strive our hardest to avoid.

1 Excerpt from Hungry for More: The Hunger Games Misses the Mark on Teen Violence by Tim King,
President and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-king/hungry-for- more-the-hunge_b_1374055.html> accessed 4/27/12

1 comment:

Marlene E. said...

Wow. Celia, I am impressed. I read the books with the same questions and attitude, and I'm glad you came out with pretty much the same conclusion I did.
Bravo! Wonderful review, and THANK YOU for not telling everyone in the beginning to read the books because 'they were so good'. I'm sick and tired of reviews that either downplay the books or tell the reader that they simply MUST read the book. ;) Thanks!