Several years ago a Japanese movie called Battle Royale created some controversy both when it opened in Japan and then again at art houses in the United States. Battle Royale, based on the manga series of the same name, took place in a alternate Japan where an annual competition glued everyone in the country to their television sets. The competition featured one class of graduating middle school students, chosen at random, who were flown to a secured island camp, given weapons, and told to kill each other until only one student remained. That student would be lauded with prizes and made a national hero. To ensure a competitive game, the students had explosive rings placed around their necks which would go off if they didn’t make enough of an effort.
Battle Royale really is an over-the-top gore fest, but it also makes a point about the competitive nature of Japanese society and the pressure to excel that is placed on Japanese students. There’s a reason why the suicide rate in Japan is so high.
In her novel The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins takes this basic idea and cleans it up enough to avoid the controversy that stalked Battle Royale and to safely market it to the younger ends of the YA spectrum. In spite of it’s horrifying theme, there are only a few moments of PG, maybe PG-13, violence in The Hunger Games. This is a Scholastic book, after all.
The setting for The Hunger Games is the distant future. North America has become a wasteland, devastated by years of war and famine which have left the continent divided into 12 districts. The central ones were the victors, and they control the outlying districts through an oppressive system based on continual famine. Katnis, aged sixteen, lives with her healer mother and her 12-year-old sister. She has done all she can to make sure her family has food to eat including hunting in quarantined zones others are afraid to enter and accepting extra rations handed out by the government. These extra rations come at a steep price. Each year, beginning at age 12, the name of every child is entered into the drawing for The Hunger Games. At age 16, Katnis’s name would have been entered four times, even without the extra rations. But each time she took the rations, her name was entered in once more.
The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event, shown on large screens in the town square in District 12 where Katnis lives. One boy and one girl are selected at random to compete. They are taken to the capital city in District 1, feted as national heroes before they are thrown, unarmed, into the Hunger Games playing field. Once there, they must fight first for weapons, then each other until only one remains.
Lately, The Hunger Games has been getting a lot of play on several of the book blogs I read so I came to it with high expectations. It largely delivers the goods. The story is compelling, the characters are real characters with much more than the standard cookie-cutter backgrounds you’ll find in similar novels. The workings of the Hunger Games are described in enough detail to always be interesting and believable in the context of the future Ms. Collins has created. The contestants in The Hunger Games do not know each other ahead of time, except for Katnis and Peeta the boy chosen from district 12, which makes the premise a little easier to take than it was in Battle Royale where the students had all spent many years together. The violence in The Hunger Games is also much easier to take. There are no shocking scenes of graphic death in The Hunger Games. In fact, almost all of the deaths occur off-stage, out of sight of Katnis, our first person narrator.
All of which puts me in the uncomfortable position of preferring the more violent story, the one I hesitated to admit I’ve seen when I started writing this review. Battle Royale shocked and offended the viewer, but shouldn’t a story like that shock and offend? Friends forced to turn against each other to fight to the death makes an emotional impact on the viewer and offers a comment on a system that pits students against each other in academic settings. The deaths, with one or two exceptions, fail to move the reader in The Hunger Games. Through a series of rule changes, that almost feel like cheating on the author’s part, the main characters fall in love and then escape having to fight each other to the death. The resulting novel is entertaining, and will probably be very popular, but it fails to say much of anything about our times.
And then, in the end, I found out that The Hunger Games is the first part of a trilogy. I hate when that happens. But, I’m sure, many of the younger readers The Hunger Games was written for will be happy to hear that volumes two and three are on their way.
Some reviews by people who liked The Hunger Games more than I did:
I seem to stand alone in my lukewarm reaction to The Hunger Games. But that’s okay. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think and please feel free to leave a link to your own review, whether you liked it or not.
It’s kind of fun to read this old review which first ran on my previous blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009 just about a day or two before The Hunger Games became household words. I certainly would not write the same review were I writing a new review today. Now that everyone in the world knows the story so well. I do, however, stand by my lukewarm reaction to the book.