Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Hunger Games

I first became aware of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games at Aussiecon when every YA panel mentioned it as the hottest property on the market. Sparked by the buzz, I decided to have a look at it.

The Hunger Games is set in a post apocalyptic United States called Panem. What happened is never directly referenced, but the reader can pick up that something fairly catastrophic took place. The country is divided into 12 Districts, controlled from the Capitol. The people of Panem are kept under control by being kept poor and hungry, and they seem to exist in an almost pre industrial society. There is some technology however and TV exists, so they have access to electricity. Once a year the Capitol puts on a blood sport for the entertainment of the masses, this is the Hunger Games. Each District sends 2 tributes; one male, one female. All the participants are between the ages of 12 - 18 and are chosen at random by ballot, every inhabitant between the age of 12 - 18 is entered into the ballot. Although the risks in the Games are great, the rewards are also substantial. The winner never has to work again and their district will also benefit from the victory.

The story is narrated by Katniss Everdeen; a tough, jaded, 16 year old, who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the Games, when the 12 year old's name is chosen from the ballot. The story is not only told in first person, it's also told in the present tense. I can't last remember when I read an entire novel written that way and at times it was kind of odd. Suzanne Collins was a script writer for TV, and it shows in the book, a lot of it is written very visually. One thing Collins excels at is action, she does these sequences, and there are a lot of them, very well. Her romance and human interaction scenes are often painfully clumsy and they'd need to improve in future books.

The Hunger Games is very reminiscent in both concept and execution to the Japanese film Battle Royale and the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit The Running Man (based on a Stephen King story). The participants in Battle Royale were all teenagers and it took place on an island, the rules allowed for one winner, the lone survivor. The battle was also televised. In The Hunger Games, all the participants are aged between 12 - 18 and there can only be one winner, 24 enter the arena, one walks out, the arena is a large environment controlled by the Gamemakers, and it is televised all over Panem. The host of the Games; Caesar Flickerman, was not dissimilar to Richard Dawson's sleazy Damon Killian in The Running Man. You know that Katniss, being the heroine, will somehow survive, it's just how she'll do it and at what cost? Collins builds suspense well and is very good at ending the chapters on cliffhangers. She's got some clever ideas and some very nasty tricks, including genetic mutations, used by the Gamemakers to make the whole thing more interesting for the viewers and harder for the unlucky participants, however some of the names she gives her monsters are laughable, eg: tracker jackers (poisonous wasps with an internal tracking system) and muttations (genetically enhanced wolves). Giving a scary monster a stupid name somehow makes them less threatening to the reader.

The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy, although it is relatively self contained. Katniss is a rebel and an individual and Panem's totalitarian regime doesn't like that. I can see the next two volumes being about her fight with the Capitol. The Hunger Games doesn't quite justify the hype, but it's an entertaining and involving action adventure and I'd like to see where Suzanne Collins takes it in the next two volumes as she fleshes out the world and the characters she's created in this first book.

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