Just about everyone on the planet is foaming at the mouth – or is that just me? – to see the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel The Hunger Games, whether they have read the book or not. Those of you who have are lucky; for the rest of you, here is a no-spoiler review of the novel.
The Hunger Games is set in a remote future, where the nation of Panem has risen from the ashes of our United States. The Capitol is located in the Rocky Mountains (probably near where Denver used to be), and the rest of the country has been divided into 12 districts (there used to be 13), each specializing in a particular industry, say, fishing or agriculture. The old District 13 used to specialize in nuclear development, but they rebelled about 75 years ago and were wiped off the map by the Capitol.
Ever since those “Dark Days,” the Capitol has insisted that each district choose one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 to be sent to the Capitol as “tributes” to fight each other to the death, with the last combatant standing being crowned victor of the Hunger Games.
Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie) is a 16-year-old girl living in District 12 (which specializes in mining), who only truly feels alive when sneaks under the electric fence that rings her town to hunt with bow and arrow in the woods with her best friend, Gale. Her younger sister, Prim, has turned 12, so this year her name is eligible for selection during “the Reaping,” the process of randomly selecting tributes. As (bad) luck would have it, Prim’s name is drawn, and Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place in the games.
The story is told in present-tense first-person narration by Katniss, which makes her the reader’s surrogate. We only know what she herself knows, and witness what she witnesses. This adds a sense of drama and urgency, because the reader is just as confused as Katniss, and it helps the reader bond with Katniss quickly. She is a damaged young woman. She has been emotionally scarred by life, and so she comes across as very self-centered and petty. She is filled with so much crippling doubt that I was sometimes frustrated by her tendency to freeze or get lost in her own train of thought. She spends way too much time trying to analyze and assign values to everything other characters say, especially Gale and Peeta – the boy selected as the male tribute from District 12. Katniss usually finds a way to twist every word into a veiled threat or insult – and then either talk herself out of believing it, or just moving on. This tactic left me feeling like I was really getting a glimpse into the mind of a teenage girl, which is a major plus for the story.
Strangely, all this self-emphasis and doubt makes her an endearing character. Her fears make her seem vulnerable and likeable. And then there is her bravery. Katniss is the embodiment of that old saying that we are stronger than we know. The Katniss we first meet seems impossible to imagine killing other human beings, so entering the arena reeks of a death sentence. But Katniss understands what has to be done to survive, and what is necessary to make it back to her mother and sister.
On the other hand, the first-person narration is quite limiting as a storytelling point of view, because we don’t see anything Katniss doesn’t see. We get no sense of the larger picture of the world; only snippets of observations colored by Katniss’ jaundiced worldview. She sees everything through the prism of herself, asking, “What does this mean to me?”
As a result, there is a nagging sense of incompleteness, because so much happens “offscreen,” so to speak. Katniss doesn’t witness a lot of important stuff going down, but has to deal with the consequences anyway. I suppose in that way, it’s a lot like real life, which we never see coming.
Of course this is the first book in a trilogy, but the story does essentially end, leaving larger questions about the world and Katniss’ relationships open for the next two volumes. This book does most of the heavy-lifting as far as world-building, so the other books can move a little faster.
To read my non-spoiler review of the movie, click the link.
Follow this link to my review of the novel Catching Fire.
This link leads to my review of the third book in the series, Mockingjay.