Three kissed fingers to The Hunger Games
Posted August 19, 2010on:
I go to Amazon, look at the cover. I’m not impressed. I read the description. “A story,” it begins, “set in a post-apocalyptic world where children are used as gladiators in a fight to the death.”
“Ugh,” I groan. Sounds just like Battle Royale. The Running Man. Another last-one-standing plot? But I read it. It’s written in first person present tense. I hate that, but find – to my surprise – that it quickly sucks me in, puts me right into the action. So, I decide to write this review the same way. It’s kind of fun.
The story is gripping and brutal. The characters, flawed and complex and gritty. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, is the sixteen-year-old head of her household after her father is killed in a mining accident and her mother is all but catatonic from grief. With her 18-year-old friend, Gale, Katniss sneaks out of the District 12 boundaries to hunt game, gather fruits and herbs, and fish so that her mother and beloved little sister, Primrose, don’t starve to death. I don’t like the names. Gale is a guy? But this, too, fades as I read further.
Reaping Day is a holiday in the country of Panem, all that’s left of what used to be North America. On Reaping Day, the names of children ages twelve and older are entered in a Jackson-like Lottery where the winners are forced to compete in a televised competition. But in this Survivor game, there’s no Jeff Probst, no tribal councils voting anyone off the island. In The Hunger Games, the only winner is the one still alive at the end. Champions enjoy a life of luxury and endless supplies of alcohol, judging by District 12’s last winner, Haymitch.
Katniss is a tough kid; she’s had to be since her mother checked out. There’s no magic. No fairy-godmothers, though there is Cinna, a very cool stylist. There are no supernatural beings to protect her. There has been only one time where Katniss ever had help. It was years earlier, when the baker’s son sneaked her a few loaves of bread. Starving to death would have been her fate, had Katniss not learned survival skills at an early age.
The Capitol, a city of excessive luxury, does not merely govern those in its twelve districts. It subjugates, crushes, and enslaves people to make sure none attempt to revolt, like the now-defunct District 13. There are no citizens in Panem – only subjects. More like peasants forced to perform District work. If day-to-day life weren’t oppressive enough, The Capitol forces each district to provide two tributes in the Hunger Games – one boy and one girl — in a horrific annual reminder of what happened to District 13. Katniss, Gale – everyone, perhaps – hate how they’re treated but they know better than to fight back. As Katniss takes the stage, her neighbors refuse to applaud and in a scene I find so moving, instead kiss three fingers of their left hands and silently hold them up to her.
When Katniss reaches the arena, I have flashbacks to MTV’s Real World. I used to watch Real World: Seattle back in the day, one of the original reality programs. One day, I read this interview with one of the cast members, who claims the whole program was creatively staged and edited. So much for real. Like MTV, The Hunger Games are carefully staged for maximum ratings-grabbing impact. When Peeta, District 12’s boy tribute and also the baker’s son, reveals a romantic interest in Katniss, ratings all but blow the roof off The Capitol and everyone exploits this development to its fullest. Katniss isn’t sure how she feels about Peeta, or Gale, her hunting partner. But she is a survivor and even she finds the situation can be worked to her advantage, one of the things I think makes Katniss leap off the page.
First in a trilogy, the rest of The Hunger Games focuses on the battle itself, paralleling futuristic details (mutant bees, genetically engineered birds or wolf-like creatures, and boxes that part, detangle and dry your hair in a single action) against atavistic needs like surviving hunger, thirst, hemorrhage and fever. The action is not sanitized; children die. And yet, I laugh at parts because Katniss is funny despite the horrid conditions in which she lives and then competes.
I also cry because children die.
Despite the intensity of the games, Katniss is never elevated to something beyond the sixteen-year-old girl that she is. That’s not to say she’s not changed by the games; she is. All the typical teenage insecurities are still there (Am I attractive? Does he really like me? Do I like him back? Can I do this? ) – magnified by the games themselves. Oh, and does she ever have a touch of teen rebelliousness in her! (My son has a Mohawk now; I KNOW teen rebelliousness.) First, there’s the arrow Katniss aims in the wrong direction. *Pumps fist* Then, the funeral she performs for one of the other competitors. *Mops eyes* Finally, what she does with a pocketful of poisonous berries *Gasps* – all her way of flipping off The Capitol. I found this masterful.
As I turn pages, I can’t help but compare the warped admiration shown to Tributes with the way our society hero-worships celebutantes and other screen teens, who’ve done little actually worth the nationwide admiration we heap on them except, perhaps, take a good picture. We say it’s wrong to fund the gossip rags that violate celebrities’ rights to privacy, but yet, we all take some sort of perverse delight in watching Lindsay self-destruct, Brittney shave her head, or Levi Johnston insult Sarah Palin. We may even laugh because it’s not us, right? The Hunger Games asks us to take a closer look at what we consider entertainment. *shudders*
I like this book. I like it so much, instead of giving The Hunger Games a thumbs up, I kiss three fingers of my left hand and hold them up. And then, I go read it again. In its honor, we choose Book Hungry for the name of our book club.