While The Hunger Games is billed as a quasi-science fiction trilogy targeted at the adolescent market, its message resonates with a much broader appeal. I dismissed it initially because I’m not much of a young-adult lit fan but after hearing one of my dearest friends gush about it, crack that baby open I did. The clean writing that acts as an unpolluted river swiftly carrying the story along is also home to denser, richer topics that poke their reluctant heads out of the water from time to time.
In the post-apocalyptic U.S., renamed Panem, the nation is divided into thirteen districts, which are ruled with meticulous ruthlessness by the Capitol. The fat-cat residents of the Capitol are products of an image-obsessed, politically apathetic, excess-driven society. Ring a bell? The Capitol hoards the nation’s wealth (material and otherwise) to divide among its elite and appeases the districts with the scant remains, thus breeding widespread discontent. The thirteen districts band together and there is an uprising, the outcome of which is the crushing defeat of Districts 1-12 and the complete obliteration of District 13. To ensure its iron grip on the nation, the Capitol cooks up the annual Reaping, which mandates that each district send a male and a female tribute between the ages of 12 and 18 to The Games. Each district draws two representatives from its pool of 12- through 18-year-olds. Those 24 tributes are then thrown into an arena designed to break each player’s spirit and from which only one victor can emerge.
The Games is an event that the tyrannical Capitol has devised to keep its twelve districts paralyzed with fear and hopelessness. Families are obligated to enter their children into the lottery drawing only once, but there’s a fascinating twist: families who are starving may enter their children over and over, each time receiving a pittance of grain and oil which is called tesserae. The wealthier districts, and wealthier families within the poverty-stricken districts, can rest assured that they’ve done their part by offering their children up only once. In the meantime, the poor families must face the wrenching dilemma of entering their children repeatedly into the lottery or starving to death. The children bear the burden of feeding the beast that is the Capitol; in this way, the author manages to re-imagine the concept of original sin.
If Suzanne Collins wants to win us over by centering the story on a winsome and charming creature, she certainly accomplishes that. In Katniss Everdeen, Collins creates a hero (I deeply dislike the “feminine” term heroine, natch) who seems to be an amalgam of the Hit Girl’s physical prowess (as glossily evidenced in Kick-Ass), Kill Bill’s The Bride’s iron resolve, and the tender vulnerability of a teenage girl. Katniss is propelled into the role of reluctant hero when she decides to selflessly take her little sister’s place in the annual Reaping. While Katniss recognizes the gravity of what she’s done, she does not play the martyr card nor does she expect a single thing in return; her love for her sister, Prim, is simply unconditional. For all the bravado that our hero displays, Collins does a fine job of continuously reminding us that Katniss is, in fact, only a sixteen-year-old girl. Maybe that’s why I am more willing to overlook the trite damsel-in-distress gimmick. Katniss is whip-smart, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and is mettle personified but she needs rescuing? Really? And just to make sure we get the picture, Collins flanks our hero with not just one teenage knight in sooty armor, Gale, but chooses Peeta (son of the wealthy bakery owners) as suitor/rescuer number two. While Gale holds down the fort and provides for Katniss’ mother and sister, Peeta is sent to The Games with our tough, yet delicate, teenage hero. And what of The Games, you say? Well, dear readers, this is where I pass the baton to you. Go. Read. Imagine. Feed your brain and your soul. And let me know what you think, yeah? I’ll be waiting.