I'm not really a bandwagon jumper when it comes to these pan generational novel/movie franchises. I still proudly boast that I've never seen or read a Harry Potter film, or Twilight, and I have no intention of changing that really. So I never really intended to start Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy either, that is until I picked up the first book - in excellent unread as new condition - in a charity shop for just 50p.
I guess it was the futuristic dystopian setting that intrigued me, as regular blog readers are no doubt aware, it's a genre I really enjoy. As such my interest was piqued, though with an ever growing 'to read' pile, this book stayed on my shelf for some time.
For those of you unfamiliar with this book or the trilogy, here's the general plot as found on the blurb at Amazon
Katniss Everdeen is a survivor. She has to be; she's representing her district, number 12, in the 74th Hunger Games in the Capitol, the heart of Panem, a new land that rose from the ruins of a post apocalyptic North America, To punish citizens for an early rebellion, the rulers require each district to provide one girl and one boy, 24 in all, to fight like gladiators in a futuristic arena. The event is broadcast like reality TV, and the winner returns with wealth for his or her district.
As you can tell then, there's nothing new or original about the plot. Competitive fights to the death played out as sport or reality TV for a bored dictatorship have littered fiction in the last forty or so years - Series 7: The Contenders, The 10th Victim, and Battle Royale are all similar examples. Indeed many critics have accused Collins of plagiarism from Battle Royale author Koushun Takami in that both their novels concern children being forced to kill one another in the name of sport.
Such accusations aside however, there's still much to enjoy from this novel. It's certainly capably written in a manner that the reader finds very easy to follow, digest information and turn pages rapidly. I started the book sometime at the beginning of last week, but found that I wasn't in the right frame of mind for a fictional narrative, so instead I picked up Danny Boyle by Amy Raphael and then after that a book about the making of Cagney and Lacey and how US TV networks operated in the 1980s. I only really returned to The Hunger Games proper on Tuesday of this week and have just concluded my reading of it this afternoon, sat out in the sun in the garden. So yes, it is eminently readable.
Collins mixes up very familiar scenarios such as the intricacies of the gladiatorial arena and the practicalities of having to survive out in the wilderness and the wild on very little but what nature can provide for you. She also handles the satire of primetime reality TV rather satisfyingly too and there are moments where the games sound rather like Big Brother or I'm A Celebrity. We witness all of this through her heroine Katniss, a sombre somewhat humourless 16 year old girl and hunter who is naturally lacking in brevity due to her tough existence. It's not difficult to empathise with Katniss and we see the horrors the Capitol enforce upon her and her fellow 'tributes' through her eyes, responding equally to the cruelty in the way she would. Unfortunately some of the more moral conundrums that such a setting can throw up, certainly when our characters are in the arena, are all too neatly sidestepped at times by Collins in favour of the hand of fate and moving the characters into the next plot development.
It is really only when Katniss et al reach the arena that the story gets interesting. Sure, Collins paints and interesting picture of Panem, her dystopian vision of America, with each district having a particular industry to represent (12 is mining, 11 is agriculture etc) and she scores a real triumph in keeping her villains, the gamemakers of the Capitol as a largely voiceless and vague entity of supreme power as befits their unavailability to the likes of Katniss, but if you're anything like me you're willing to get to the games and to see just what threats lie ahead.
Inevitably for a fiction that is largely marketed towards the teen audience, a degree of romance and a love affair creeps in with Katniss becoming aware that her fellow tribute Peeta has feelings for her. The complexity that this is someone she may have to kill to survive herself is never shirked away from (though the hand of fate does offer a pat get out of jail solution) nor is the mixed emotions she herself feels as a young woman only just becoming aware of her sexuality. I imagine that this strand in the otherwise fantastical story is one that the teenage readership will certainly appreciate and be able to sympathise with.
The book isn't without its flaws and sometimes I feel Collins takes things a step too far in her attempts to ratchet up the excitement and perils - did we really need the mutant wolf characters who were in fact hybrids of the previously fallen tributes? Just writing that makes my eyes roll once more at how stupid that inclusion was and how it served little point at all - especially when they're usually left unexplored and so swiftly discarded by her a page later, so as not to back herself into a corner or be considered too dark for her audience. But despite such flaws this is still a rattling good quick read that would have only benefitted from a bit more depth. Perhaps if it was written exclusively for an adult market such depth would be allowed?
I managed to pick up the third and final book in the series for a pound in a charity shop in Settle Yorkshire whilst on my holidays so I've every intention of following the trilogy now. Just need to find book 2 at a good cheap price as well!
I believe the movie made of this first novel however is pretty poor.