Friday, October 26, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Inc., 2008) 374 pages

This YA novel has achieved international recognition and is a surprisingly cutting metaphor for life in the modern world depicting a brutal fictional future world that skewers our current obsessions and neuroses.

The futuristic world of Panem is frightening (isn't it always so in speculative fiction?). The world has faced terrible droughts and devastation in North America - there are food shortages, civil wars, environmental disasters. People in the poorer districts must kill animals for sustenance with primitive weapons - knives, bows and arrows, to survive. They live off berries and bartered items like homemade cheese and bread and game.

Our heroine Katniss Everdeen is particularly proficient in this, she has had to be, as her father was killed in a mine explosion and her mother had a nervous collapse from which she has never fully recovered. Sixteen year old Katniss (Kat) is the defacto head of the family and must forage for food for her mother and sister Primrose (Prim).

After a thwarted rebellion in Panem (a word that immediately connotes pandemonium), the Capitol has decreed that each of the twelve districts of Panem must offer tributes of atonement to prove their loyalty. Each year, two youths, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, must fight in the Hunger Games unto the death - in a sort of gladiator style forum. The event is televised, the selected youth monitored by camera during the ordeal and "tributes" are groomed by the victorious predecessors from their district.

When Katniss' twelve year old sister Prim's name is selected in a random draw during The Reaping (selection process) as that year's participant from District 12, Kat steps forward immediately to take her place. The fellow competitor from her district, district 12, is Peeta, a tender-hearted boy her age who once showed her kindness by giving the near starving Kat some burnt bread from his parents' bakery. Kat is so jaded by her rough subsistence-level existence that she suspects every kindness he exhibits is a ruse to trick his opponents and her specifically. He must eventually square off against Kat during the games even though they are from the same district.

If the tributes win the district gains more food and privileges; therefore, some of the wealthier tributes train for years in anticipation of the games - almost like Olympians.

Peeta and Kat are both on their way to the Capitol in luxurious accommodations feted with ample, rich foods aboard a train. An image of fattening the animal before slaughter comes to mind. When they arrive they are groomed, plucked and cultivated by an aptly named crew of groomers - all with Roman or pseudo-Roman names suggesting the decadent Rome of gladiator fame - for their televised performance in the Hunger Games.

Those from the impoverished areas have more naturalistic names that remind one of flowers or nature - Katniss, Primrose, Peeta, Thresh. Those from the more affluent districts or the corrupt Capitol are imperious and Roman sounding: Cato, Portia, Caesar, Cinna ... 

This scene had an odd resonance for me ... it reminded me of the whole process of reality TV where you pluck someone from very ordinary circumstances, give them extraordinary privileges or access to extraordinary opportunities so that they might be offered up for mass consumption in a public spectacle and we watch with glee as they are destroyed by these circumstances.

Author Suzanne Collins
The Capitol is overflowing with bizarrely dressed humans in unearthly colours, Gothic makeup and elaborate clothes. Their faces are oddly distorted - they look "youthful" in that they have no wrinkles but bizarre like victims of botched plastic surgery. It sounds like a surreal world peopled solely by fashion addicts like the British heiress/fashionista Daphne Guinness and the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese. These are the affluent of the Capitol, exempt from the games but passionately devoted fans as they have nothing to risk.

Peeta and Kat undergo intense training. Oddly, under the ministration of Haymitch, a previous District 12 winner who initially appears to be an emotionally abusive, irresponsible drunk, the pair learn how to comport themselves before the judges and the public - how to display confidence, how to display strength, what physical skills to play up. Under their other mentor Effie Trinket's beady eye, Kat must learn how to walk and carry herself like a lady - how to walk in heels, how to eat in public, how to converse on television - as learning to walk in a ball gown will be a prerequisite for her televised appearances. 

In a trial before the judges, Kat is dead last to perform. When her feats meet with indifference, she furiously shoots an arrow through the apple of a roasted pig they are feasting on. That gets their attention and grudging admiration and she receives a score of 11 out of 12 - the highest score among the 24 contestants. Her defiance has paid off - she is now perceived as a fighter with spirit and a good bet to win.

Before they compete, the tributes are obligated to appear on a popular talk show featuring the aptly named Caesar as host who flatters and preens like the best of them - Kat fares well but Peeta overwhelms the audience when he confesses that he is in love with Kat and wins them over  (a clever ploy suggested by Haymitch as a survival tactic).

For his trouble, Peeta is roundly thumped by Kat after the show. And Kat is vaguely ashamed of her own performance, twirling and giggling in a red dress that lights up in flames. This strong, independent girl has been turned into a tittering Barbie doll for the audience and she knows it. It says much about modern celebrity and the bizarre adulation that follows people who have little to offer in terms of talent or achievement.

Her true virtues - physical and emotional strength, independence, brains - are smothered  over with the vestiges of shallow glitter - she is pretty, looks good in the gown, is considered desirable by Peeta and, therefore, likely other boys.

The middle to two thirds of the book are occupied with the sole purpose of describing how the tributes are picked off one by one by each other. And they do by various graphically violent means - stabbing with spears, attack by angry hornets, killed by rabid, mutant dogs, death by poisonous berries, etc ... This is not as interesting for me as why the games were created. At one point, in order to manipulate viewers when it is clear that Peeta is in love with Kat and this causes a surge in viewer interest, the powers that be declare that two winners from the district might win. This will enhance ratings Kat suspects.

This finally allows the two to work together to eliminate the other tributes. They do, they triumph, bloodied, wounded, nearly killed, but whole.

They are transported back the capitol, spruced up and put on display for a mass audience. Kat is now in peril because at one point when the rules were changed back (only one winner permitted), Kat threatens to kill both of them with the poisonous berries just to demonstrate that they will not be controlled by the Capitol. She eludes the expected punishment by feigning intense love for Peeta on TV. This is a dispiriting ending to book one as the imminent threat of death is so rapidly introduced into the plot and is so easily eliminated.

Peeta doubts Kat's love for him and yet they must return to District 12 where Kat's childhood friend Gale awaits, another possible partner for Kat.

In the future games (book 2 presumably) she faces two challenges: acting as a mentor for future tributes from District 12 and juggling two possible lovers - Peeta and Gale. Like all clever writers with an eye towards a sequel, and in this case trilogy, Collins has written an ending that is ambiguous and invites further interest from the reader.
The ultra photogenic Jennifer Lawrence 
as Kat in The Hunger Games

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