‘The Hunger Games,’ Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular 2008 novel, challenges the reader’s conception of love and reality

December 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 14, 2016

If hearing or seeing the words The Hunger Games doesn’t spark at least a flicker of recognition in your mind, then you probably were not literate, conscious and residing in the United States for most of the years 2008 through 2015.

That first year, of course, was when American TV writer and young-adult novelist Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, her tale of a teenager in a post-apocalyptic United States who is essentially drafted as a competitor in a televised life-and-death battle of adolescents from across what used to be known as North America. The book and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were enormously successful, selling 4.3 million copies in 2010, the year the finale was published.

Book sales grew exponentially, reaching nearly 28 million copies by 2012, when a movie adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence was released. Three film sequels appeared in late November of the following three years. (The last book, rather notoriously, was split into two films.)

I’ve watched and enjoyed the first two movies, and I toyed with the idea of reading the books, but I never acted on the impulse until I saw a copy of The Hunger Games sitting on the small shelf of free books at Joe Van Gogh’s Broad Street store in Durham.

I can now report that the Hunger Games book is a lot like what I expected. Like the movie, the book is briskly paced and enjoyable. Collins’s novel feels more nuanced than the film adaptation because some of the story’s emotional beats develop more organically here.

On the first night of the titular Hunger Games, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen is awoken in the middle of the night by a fellow contestant (known in Panem parlance as a tribune) who has lit a fire for warmth.

[H]ere I am a stone’s throw from the biggest idiot in the Games. Strapped in a tree. Not daring to flee since my general location has just been broadcast to any killer who cares. I mean, I know it’s cold out here and not everybody has a sleeping bag. But then you grit your teeth and stick it out until dawn!

I lie smoldering in my bag for the next couple of hours, really thinking that if I can get out of this tree, I won’t have the least problem taking out my new neighbor. My instinct has been to flee, not fight. But obviously this person’s a hazard. Stupid people are dangerous. And this one probably doesn’t have much in the way of weapons while I’ve got this excellent knife.

The sky is still dark, but I can feel the first signs of dawn approaching. I’m beginning to think we — meaning the person whose death I’m now devising and I — we might actually have gone unnoticed. Then I hear it. Several pairs of feet breaking into a run. The fire starter must have dozed off. They’re on her before she can escape. I know it’s a girl now, I can tell by the pleading, the agonized scream that follows. Then there’s laughter and congratulations from several voices. Someone cries out, “Twelve down and eleven to go!” which gets a round of appreciative hoots.

So they’re fighting in a pack. I’m not really surprised. Often alliances are formed in the early stages of the Games. The strong band together to hunt down the weak then, when the tension becomes too great, begin to turn on one another. I don’t have to wonder too hard who has made this alliance. It’ll be the remaining Career Tribunes from Districts 1, 2, and 4. Two boys and three girls. The ones who lunched together.

For a moment, I hear them checking the girl for supplies. I can tell by their comments they’ve found nothing good. I wonder if the victim is Rue but quickly dismiss the thought. She’s much too bright to be building a fire like that.

“Better clear out so they can get the body before it starts stinking.” I’m almost certain that’s the brutish  boy from District 2. There are murmurs of assent and then, to my horror, I hear the pack heading toward me.

The action in The Hunger Games is exciting, but two things really set the book apart. One is how Collins introduces some of the tropes of romance novels into more mainstream fiction.

Everdeen is very close to Gale Hawthorne, her handsome 18-year-old hunting partner, but she owes her life to her handsome fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son. Years ago, Mellark deliberately burned some loaves of bread so he could give them to Everdeen when she and her family were starving. Moreover, once the Games begin, he subtly maneuvers to shield her from the other tribunes.

Mellark’s favors make Everdeen uneasy; since the death of her father in a mining accident, she’s not accustomed to being in anyone’s debt. As the story progresses, her natural suspicion of and hostility toward Mellark are tempered by gratitude and by a growing appreciation for his gentle disposition and genuine affection for her.

Being a competitor in the Hunger Games force Everdeen’s hand. Panem loves a love story, and it falls heels over head for the narrative of an apparently doomed romance that Mellark crafts with some help from Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s only living prior Hunger Games champion, and the “Gamemakers” who run and televise the competition. The more Everdeen plays along with this storyline, the more likely she and Mellark are to win favor from sponsors, who can parachute valuable resources into the arena to help the duo get out of scrapes.

But how “real” can Mellark’s feelings — and Everdeen’s gradually warming response — be when they’re motivated by survival? Now that America is on the verge (through the mechanism of electoral college) of elevating a reality-TV host to the highest office in the land, The Hunger Games’s interrogation of the authenticity of televised reality and artificial narratives seems all too relevant.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the last two books or watch the last two movies in the Hunger Games series. But the first volume certainly is a worthy read for people who want an enjoyable diversion that also raises some deeper questions about the nature of love, TV and reality.

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