Friday, 22 June 2012

Book Review : The Hunger Games


Book Review : The Hunger Games

          The Hunger Games is the first book of Suzanne Collins' best selling trilogy of the same name.  Almost everyone in the world has read it and the people who haven't have seen the movie. Should you happen to be reading this review but so far but have, miraculously, neither read or seen either I should make it clear that there will be spoilers. You have been warned.
          The book is roughly divided into three parts. The first part takes place in District 12, the deprived home territory of the main character, Katniss Evergreen and her family. The second is set in the Capitol, the glitzy city that controls the state of Panem and keeps the outlying 12 districts in brutal subjugation. The third part happens inside the vast set of the nation's most popular and savage TV show, The Hunger Games, where 24 Tributes (2 from each district) aged between 12 and 18 must fight to the death. Additionally, there is also a epiloguey fourth bit which occurs after The Hunger Games are completed.
          The first part is almost completely successful. District 12, the tough mining area in the Appalachian mountains whose inhabitants struggle simply to survive and who regularly succumb to starvation is impressively realised. Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen is a realistic product of this environment. After the early death of her father and the subsequent slump into depression of her mother, Katniss is left as sole provider for her mother and her younger sister, Primrose (Prim). She works with her only friend, Gale, hunting illegally outside the fenced confines of the district to kill animals they can eat or trade. She is alert, cunning and loath to trust anyone though extremely loyal when she does.  Above all, she is a survivor who, despite recognizing the injustice that blights the lives of pretty much all inhabitants of District 12, knows the harsh realities of existence means she cannot afford much compassion for those outside her family (save Gale).
          However, Her devotion to her sister is unconditional and when Prim's name is selected at  the Reaping to become one of the Tributes the older girl immediately insists on volunteering in her place. Prim represents innocence and Katniss will die to protect it. Surprisingly, I found myself reminded a little of the relationship between Holden Caulfied and his sister Phoebe in The Catcher in The Rye.  Like Katniss, Holden's dream was to keep his younger sister and her friends safe and ignorant of the true nature of the world.
          However, it is in the Reaping where  Collins makes her first mis-step in the book, which is the character of Haymitch Abernathy. Theoretically as an ex-victor of the games he is supposed to act as a mentor to the District 12 tributes. However, the murderous actions he was forced to take to win the games and his subsequent mentoring of numerous losing (and hence dying) Tributes have psychologically destroyed him and he is now a bitter alcoholic who is initially contemptuous of Katniss and her fellow Tribute, Peeta. This in itself is not problematic. However, his abrupt character change later in the book when he discovers the two District 12 tributes have a chance of victory and suddenly becomes a shrewd and supportive mentor is unconvincing. Katniss, in a bit of uncharacteristic musing, which hints that Collins herself was very much aware of this difficulty, suggests this change in Haymitch's character was due to all the previous District 12 Tributes having no chance and he was driven to drink by watching them die. Katniss and Peeta re-awaken his interest because they can compete. However, if a writer creates a character who has taken this level of mental punishment and clearly demonstrates it had almost destroyed him then to have him just snap out of it is poor and a little insulting to the reader. 
           The second part of the book takes place in the Capitol. This was the least interesting section for me but was nevertheless far from being a failure. Though some of the preparation for The Hunger Games parts dragged – notably the design team who didn't really work at all being crude lazily drawn stereotypes – it was more than defensible to build the tension for The Games themselves and make them convincing as a mega-budget television show where the hype and whipping up of the audience's anticipation is crucial. Katniss' cool perspective on the preparations is excellent because Collins' focusses explicitly on her hero as an experienced and sophisticated viewer of the series  – I particularly liked her knowledge of the show's history and her references to the fact that in its search for evermore cruel novelty it had not always satisfied the bloody demands of its audience – the memory of the year when the Tributes had nothing and so were too weak to fight and all ended up freezing and starving to death was a nice touch. Collins admirably refuses to let Katniss feel sorry for herself or become a victim in her own eyes whilst simultaneously making it clear that she is fully aware she is almost certain to die. It is this remorseless, cold-eyed, unsentimental realism that makes Katniss' eventual victory convincing.
          It is also during the Capitol sequence that Peeta reveals he loves Katniss He has loved her since they were children when he saved her from starvation by giving Katniss a loaf of bread stolen from his father's bakery. Katniss has never really understood why he did this. Again this is convincing. Katniss was poorer than Peeta and it was a feat of endurance just  to keep herself and her family alive. Altruism was a luxury she could not comprehend so his motivation mystifies her. Her suspicion of his initial televised declaration of love is also credible. But as we move into The Hunger Games themselves Katniss questioning of Peeta's motives become less and less satisfactory. Obviously, Collins intends the reader to recognise the sincerity of Peeta's feelings well before Katniss does and this begins effectively enough. In the end, however, Collins keeps Katniss doubting Peeta for far too long and stretches the reader’s credibility almost to breaking point. Katniss is simply too clever not to see what is staring her in the face. What does work brilliantly, however, is Katniss' use of Peeta's love (whether sincere or not) to create a narrative she feels will appeal to the viewers and give her the best chance of surviving. This is Katniss at her cunning and resourceful best.
          Finally, we come to The Hunger Games themselves. And Collins is faced with a big problem. The obvious “villain” of the piece is the Capitol and its cruel demands for human sacrifice. However, the Capitol is largely invisible in this sequence which leaves a “villain void”. Collins solves this problem cleverly by creating the Career Tributes. It is revealed that the richer districts such as 1 and 2 train Tributes from an early age to give them the best chance of winning and receiving the rewards that the Capitol bestows on the victors. Therefore effectively we  have “good” Tributes (those from the poorer districts) and “bad” Tributes (the Careers).  But whilst a neat solution it is also a cop-out as it means Collins dodges putting Katniss in any truly morally difficult positions – she conveniently only has to kill “bad” Tributes.
       This unambitious decision by Collins is what makes the book in the final analysis no more than a good thriller. The Career Tributes are just as much victims as Katniss (one could even argue more so as they are destined to fight to the death whereas she is simply unlucky). Despite their extensive training they are nevertheless children fighting for their lives and while it would be wrong to expect Katniss to show much concern for them – they are after all trying to kill her – the author should have worked harder to make the reader reflect on this. Instead Cato (the most dangerous Career) especially is depicted as a sort of robotic terminator invested with such blood-lust that he is deemed worthy of no sympathy at all. By mistakenly switching the reader's primary feeling to being anti-Careers rather than anti-Capitol, Collins wins the battle but loses the war. What I mean by this is that she succeeds in making The Games section a thrilling ride but by the time it is over the reader is no longer that bothered about the wider issues and the real “villain” - the Capitol.
          To be fair to Collins, she makes a valiant effort to undo this mistake with the final epiloguey section and the appearance of President Snow but it is not particularly successful – the reader exhausted after the climactic fight with Cato is in no mood to redirect their sympathy once again and the book fizzles out with the unsatisfactory ending having “there will be a sequel” written all over it
         

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