By Suzanne Collins. Published in 2008.
I checked out a copy of Suzanne Collins’s well-reviewed YA novel solely because the premise immediately recalls that of the cult classic Battle Royale. For those who haven’t experienced the Japanese movie, it’s an elaborate, bloody melodrama about a group of adolescent schoolmates forced by a police state to fight to the death as part of a poorly explained effort to suppress dissent. When you watch Battle Royale in the United States, someone always notes that it was banned here (not true: it simply never found a distributor) or that it could never have been made here (OK, that’s probably true), so the existence of an American book aimed directly at teenagers with that exact forbidden plot cracks me up.
To my surprise, though, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games actually diverge in theme, mainly because the devices for choosing the “players” are different. In Battle Royale, the sick game is a way for the governing adults to subdue disaffected young people, and an entire classroom is selected, rather than individuals, which means that the players know one another well. The generational conflict doesn’t go anywhere (at least in the movie—I haven’t read the book on which it’s based), but as an exploration of teenage relationships, Battle Royale is brutally effective. In the best scene, for example, a tight-knit group of girls optimistically resolves to avoid the slaughter by hiding in a lighthouse—until one of the dominant girls in the clique is poisoned. The toxin wasn’t meant for her (the mousy, opportunistic poisoner intended the contaminated soup for an injured boy nearby), but in a matter of seconds, latent jealousies, suspicions, and rivalries emerge, and the sisterhood ends in a hail of bullets. Obviously, your everyday adolescent friendships don’t rack up a body count when they collapse, but the fragility of relationships among insecure, tempestuous young teens should be quite recognizable.
Suzanne Collins, however, seems far less interested in using her sensational plot to spin allegories about high school. For one thing, she goes into much more detail about the motives and mechanics of the fatal tournament. Her story takes place in a dystopian nation in which each subjugated district must send two teenagers, selected by lottery, as tribute to the powerful centralized government. Those teenagers are the players in the annual Hunger Games, televised throughout the country as entertainment for (and a demonstration of power over) the general populace. In other words, this is a story about the politics of intimidation and reality TV.
I cringed when I saw the reality TV critique coming, but Collins actually takes an interesting tack on the subject. The familiar subtext about the wrongness of using the lives and deaths of real people as cheap entertainment—fodder for modern-day Roman circuses—is there, of course, but Collins doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, she devotes a lot of thought to something more provocative: the ways in which reality TV narratives are constructed. In the Hunger Games, audience favorites have an edge, and all the players are coached not only on their survival skills but also, more subtly, on how best to win viewers’ sympathies. For the book’s protagonist—prickly, hot-tempered Katniss—that complicates the already astronomically high stakes considerably.
But though Katniss might not become an irresistible “character” for viewers of the Hunger Games, she’s an enormously compelling character for us, the book’s readers. She is brave and resourceful but, poignantly, so emotionally guarded that she can’t read her own emotions well, much less anyone else’s. We see through her eyes, but often we see—or suspect we see—more than she does. Mulling over other people’s motives, particularly those of Katniss’s handlers, who usually don’t bother to explain their reasoning to her, is half the fun of the novel.
Collins isn’t much of a prose stylist, but she has a great sense of pacing and suspense. Once the Games begin, the book takes on an almost cinematic quality, with Katniss—weaker and less-equipped than many of her competitors—playing a precarious, tactical game. Some of the “action” scenes are riveting, but Collins considers the ethical implications, too, of what “winning” the Games would actually mean. Katniss is bewildered when Peeta, the other tribute from her district, confides, “I want to die as myself,” but we know what he means, and as the Games progress—and it looks like Katniss might triumph after all—the significance of his wish begins to dawn on her, too.
Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games walks a very high wire. To some, no doubt, the premise is irredeemably tasteless, especially considering that both the movie and the book are, at some level, mere entertainment: simple, sensational thrill rides. But to me, at least, there’s enough substance and sensitivity in each to make them palatable. Collins creates an absorbing, frightening, richly detailed world for her novel, and Katniss makes a memorable heroine. Far from being repulsed by the end of The Hunger Games, I was rather pissed off to have to wait for the sequel (due out in September) to find out what happens next.