I’m not the target audience for The Hunger Games, and in fact, I’ve never read any of the wildly popular YA novels with crossover appeal like the Twilight books or the Harry Potters; I first heard about Suzanne Collin’s dystopian trilogy thanks to a New Yorker profile. But if these books about a post-apocalyptic North America (renamed Panem) and the annual gladiatorial contests that pit 24 children against each other in an outdoor arena to fight to the death before a live audience could catch David Remnick’s eye, it sure should be able to catch mine.
I started reading, and couldn’t stop. Here’s the idea: At some point in the future (we never know when), after the world has been trashed by every conceivable phenomenon (basically, everything we now fear will destroy us all), Panem emerges, consisting of twelve districts ruled by the Capitol, a decadent and amoral city that rules the rest of the country with an iron fist. The aforementioned annual contest-slash-reality-TV-show, known as the Hunger Games, are punishment for the districts’ failed uprising 74 years before the start of the first book. Each year, one boy and one girl from each district (the kids are called Tributes) are chosen by lottery and sent to the Capitol to compete; all contestants are between twelve and eighteen; the last child left alive is the victor and is (ostensibly) feted for the rest of his or her life. Collins says she got the idea for the books from the myth that used to fascinate me as a child: that of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete wages war with Athens and wins. As retribution, he demands that every nine years, Athens send seven boys and seven girls as tributes, all of whom will be eaten by the Minotaur, who is half-man, half-bull. Theseus volunteers, and as we all know, Minos’ daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, gives him a ball of string to take with him into the Minotaur’s labyrinth to mark his path, and helps him conceal his sword—Theseus then kills the Minotaur and finds his way out. (Unfortunately, he forgets to change the flag on his returning ship from black to white and his father, King Aegeus, believing his son to be dead, hurls himself into the sea. That’s the part that always got to me the most.)
But I digress. The first half of The Hunger Games focuses on the twisted oppression of the Capitol; the protagonist, a sixteen-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen volunteering to compete in the games when her little sister’s name is picked; the wining and dining of Katniss and her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark, who’s had a crush on her since forever; and the training sessions that will teach these kids to machete, spear, knife, shoot (with bows and arrows), chase, starve and outwit each other to death. And I mean brutal, brutal death.
Then the actual games begin, and I found myself truly haunted by the detailed world Collins has created. Each of the 24 children begins the games on a circular platform that lifts them into the arena; if any child steps off his dais before the gong sounds, his legs are blown off by land mines. The arena can consist of anything; the one Katniss and Peeta are tossed into includes a lake, an open plain and dense forests, but every contestant begins in front of the Cornucopia, a gigantic horn filled with all the “survival essentials” like food, bottles of water, medicine, and weapons. When the gong sounds, most kids head straight for the Cornucopia, so there’s always a bunch of fatalities right off the bat, for the audience’s enjoyment. If things are getting too “slow”—that is, if not enough kids are dying quickly enough—the Gamemakers will send in their own weapons, like mutant dogs trained to kill, or “tracker jackers,” wasps whose venom distorts memories at best and is immediately fatal at worst. Or they’ll just dry up contestants’ water sources to send all the survivors closer together and force showdowns. It’s highly, highly disturbing, and while Collins isn’t exactly Shakespeare, she can certainly spin a good yarn.
The reviews I’ve read all claimed the second book was the weakest of the three. I disagree; I thought the third installment was the least gripping, and genuinely liked the second. The violence in Book Three is almost unfathomable; more than a few times I thought “This is supposed to be for teenagers?” and, sure enough, my mind shifted to Columbine. (Though, as one review pointed out, exceedingly violent literature targeted toward young adults always gets a pass; the Joe Liebermans and Tipper Gores of the world just shrug and say, “Well at least they’re reading!”) I also found the ending gratuitous, which I can’t explain in further detail without ruining the story, and oddly anticlimactic. I also did my best not to draw some grand significance from the plot, or from why teenagers love it to the extent that they do—are the Hunger Games a metaphor for high school, as one reviewer suggested? Do teens love these books so much because they know the world is heading to hell in a handbasket and they’re familiarizing themselves with the worst-case scenario? Collins is not Orwell; I honestly couldn’t connect much of Panem, nor of the Hunger Games, to anything remotely resembling reality in the here and now (though the whole Nietzchean he-who-fights-monsters-must-see-to-it-that-he-himself-does-not-become-a-monster thing did come up in the middle of the third book, which was semi-interesting). Basically, I just thought it was a really great story. Even if the Greeks did sort of get there first.