There’s something beguiling about this book from the start. Perhaps it’s the title. The Hunger Games. Or the cover: a fire-gold bird symbol.
Or the first few lines:
‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.’
I wonder if the author knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote the words, “the day of the reaping”. It looks and sounds like the “raping”. The connotation is subtle but firm. Something is going to happen, you can feel it, and it’s not going to be pleasant.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in a country called Panem. Panem is a totalitarian society that stands where North America once stood, made up of the technologically-advanced Capitol and its subordinate Twelve Districts. Each District is responsible for a particular task that keeps the Capitol functional and healthy, ranging from the production of luxury goods and products, to coal mining and agriculture.
Life in the Districts is tough. While some enjoy the Capitol’s favor for being obedient, others are poor and oppressed. There’s little room for dissent. Order is kept by force, through armed Peacekeepers stationed on the ground, and by spectacle i.e. the Hunger Games.
The premise is simple. Each District sends two Tributes to the Games every year, a boy and a girl. Twenty four Tributes in total, to be thrown inside an arena the size of many acres where they fight each other. The last person standing is the victor, to whom go the spoils. He or she is taken care of for the rest of his or her life. Glory falls on his or her home District, which get acknowledged and rewarded. The victor is kept in the limelight for a while, taking the victory tour round Panem, now rich and famous.
The catch? The Games are a fight to the death.
Many people love the Games, especially the rich Districts. They view them as a chance to shine, and send well-trained Tributes to excel in them.
Others hate the Games, deeming them barbarous and pretentious, a control mechanism to keep everyone terrified and under control.
Despite widespread resentment, the TV ratings are stellar. Everyone tunes in. The Games are televised and broadcasted live, 24 hours a day, across Panem, from the day of the reaping, when the ballots determine who participates, to the Tributes’ transfer to the Capitol where they’re groomed and interviewed and rated and paraded in front of sponsors and audiences, to their actual insertion in the arena and the battle that ensues, up until the bitter end.
You can see how the premise strikes a number of chords in the real world. Reality TV rings all too familiar in this story, taken as it is to a whole new level: this is The Apprentice and Big Brother combined, meeting Gladiator and Spartacus: Blood and Sand for young adults – a clever transliteration of what we do in real life. Our obsession with shows and violence, all of it part of our civilization’s entertainment, here it is, exposed in this novel – how we love to watch these shows to satisfy our hidden frustrations, our pent-up primal instincts. Underneath today’s popular culture is great violence and schadenfreude, and The Hunger Games calls us out through a scathing analysis of the psychological dynamics behind our favorite reality shows. The exposition of a candidate’s personal details in front of millions of people. The acts that candidates put on to win audiences over, the ruses they play to win favor. The endless parade and charade. The machinations on the producers’ part to enhance tension and keep the ratings high. The formation of alliances on stage that are destined to turn against each other. The screwing with people’s heads and the insanity behind an audience’s fascination with such scenarios, the inherent and cultivated cruelty in them, the vicious circle of savage entertainment.
The Hunger Games is a book that touches on all the above with effortless simplicity. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, from squalid District 12, a simple girl with significant outdoor skills but with no understanding or respect of the ruthless and self-indulgent Capitol, finds herself on the way to the Games, and we get to see through her eyes what that means. We get to experience her emotions, her moods, her determination to win, her love for her family, her attempt to find something to hold on to as she’s whisked into this terrifying but exciting world.
It’s the story of Theseus told all over again. Those familiar with Greek mythology will recount that Theseus was one of the youths sent from the kingdom of Athens to King Minos of Crete as tribute for having lost the war. The youths were to be fed to King Minos’s beast – and foster son – the Minotaur.
In The Hunger Games there is no Minotaur. There are twenty four of them, fighting each other until one is left breathing.
Clearly, there’s more to the story than fighting and reality TV. This is a tale on what happens to the child contestants during the contest. How they’re changed when forced to kill. What they become in their effort to survive. How they emerge when victorious. Is the victory drenched in pride or shame, glory or monstrosity? Is their soul intact, or has it been ‘r(e)aped’?
The allegories are thick and rich, but the book falls short on that front. There are times when one feels that the themes are built up to encapsulate the entire human condition of the 21st century, from the spectacle of reality TV to the authoritarianism of centralized power, to the division between rich and poor states, to the chasm that separates urban and rural realities, progressive and regressive, liberated and suppressed, to the compromise of people’s values as they try to rise up the ladder and become established – the narrative touches on those issues, but it falls short. One can’t help but expect some greater angle, which never materializes.
But it’s good enough, and it works. Don’t take it too seriously, or expect too much from it, and it delivers. The book was written for young adults, after all. Not delving into depths is an asset. It stays pretty much on the surface, where it ought to be, telling the story as Katniss sees it, letting the reader make the associations on a looser level, if one so wishes.
The formula is crisp. The strength of the main characters carries it through, as does the power of the set and setting. There’s something unrelenting from the start, something compelling that keeps upping the stakes, and the reader hooked. The prose is smooth, the storyline thrilling and suspenseful. There’s always something happening along the way. A few of the lulls are a tad slow, but it’s a necessary part of the process, since the whole story is told in an unbroken flow, from Katniss’s eyes in more or less real time, from the morning of the reaping onwards. We have to go through these lulls with her, breaks and respites she has to take for the story to have legs and her character to be credible and relatable.
And somewhere in the midst of all this, there’s a subtle and brilliant exposition of the pretenses and appearances a girl is forced to keep up in society in order not to set off alarm bells and red flags: what she is expected to look like, sound like and behave like, despite what she really feels.
But I will say no more about that, you can find out more about it for yourselves. Being a man, I’m not inclined to comment on it, not now. I choose not to step into that arena, while at the same time making a point of it. Such is the world we live in, gladiatorial and treacherous, that I’m not willing to express myself openly, not as openly as I would otherwise have done.
Another way in which our world resembles The Hunger Games. The book has taught me to pick my battles and not settle for confrontations that are rigged against me. I have plenty of amazing things to say about the female condition, as I see it and understand it, but I won’t go there, not until an atmosphere of openness is restored – until the idea of a man speaking about female things is not automatically deemed an outrage, or placed in a never-ending audition.
Yes, this YA novel may be a tale about young people, especially women, dealing with corrupt elites and the panopticon of society at large, the crush of reality-TV life and the inhumanity of arena-driven entertainment, but its message is universal: don’t cast yourself in the wrong light. Play the narrative in a manner that works for you. Don’t let the people behind the lens convince you that you’re something you’re not, don’t let them manipulate your emotions and self-worth. Don’t fall victim to situations that are designed to prey on you. Don’t let others use you to confirm their biases and prejudices. Set your agenda, the stage for what your performance. Do and say what you think is right. Make a stand, speak your mind, point out the injustices, and work toward a better world, even when it means going against the grain, spoiling it for those watching you, waiting to catch you out.
If you don’t have a choice, be ready to do what you have to do to make it through.
Having said that, let me point it out that the novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the way our society of appearances-slash-impressions works, tracing out our crushing standards concerning women, reminding us men to be a little more mindful of the female condition, while at the same time cautioning us not to fall in the same trap i.e. not allow ourselves to be lulled into a disadvantage. A robust society, the book insinuates, is one in which everyone has a say, and where we don’t deem ourselves better than the next person/group/city/organization. We each have something to offer, and we’re better off when we go about our business without threat, respectful of each other’s positions, willing to take a little risk to get things done, eager to see things work. In that respect, The Hunger Games is a beautiful allegory, if not a revelation.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it, projecting my worldview to the narrative.
Then again, don’t we all?
One person’s wall is another’s prison
This last part was tangential, perhaps not altogether necessary – and may have taken the reader out of the story – but it highlights today’s polemics, which is what the book is about. In the story, everyone is subject to a bubble, whatever is shown on screen is reality, and it’s very hard to break through the boundaries and communicate on an open basis, especially between districts. Adding a little of that tension to this review, as it applies to gender issues, is one of way of revealing invisible barriers, and how tricky it is to challenge them. One person’s wall is another’s prison. Don’t take my word for it, but believe me when I say this, I do feel hemmed in, aware that my voice won’t be taken seriously on a number of issues, on account of a situation that has become political, and which comes with collateral damage. I may be reaching, but at the same time I’m paying tribute to the themes of the book, and tribute is the right term, apt in every way. I’m paying tribute to the book’s themes so that I don’t end up as one, one more tribute in the grand scheme of today’s culture wars, the bad blood that fuels them and the appearances that drive them.
This book is a platform for debate. Remember when I said it stayed on the surface, letting the reader read into it, bringing out what bubbles under the surface?
On the whole, The Hunger Games is worth its money. It’s a compelling read, full of zesty angst mixed with good old fashioned action, a tale of young heroes in a world of unyielding cruelty. It’s not Dickens or Austen, nor does it pretend to be, but it’s true to itself and the genre it serves. It’s sleek, lean, sharp, edgy, and it will keep you entertained and thinking throughout.
PS – For those who prefer films to books, here’s the trailer from the film adaptation…