Monday, July 2, 2012

The Hunger Games

This marks the first review of a young adult book; I'm hoping to do one every other week. The plan is to be fairly flexible and take suggestions so I can get an overview of what the genre's doing. I read this one a few months ago, but I thought it deserved a closer look. Panem (Latin for bread because symbolism) manages to create an intriguing dystopia in a small amount of space, but it's also the home of the latest YA phenomenon. I can never resist trying to figure out why things get popular when they do, although for The Da Vinci Code I have no answer beyond "people like fake scandal and mediocre writing."

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Compact (374 pages in largish-print trade paperback)
Publication: September 14, 2009 from Scholastic
Premise: Katniss Everdeen has been struggling to keep her family safe when her sister Prim, who is only twelve, is selected as a tribute in the Hunger Games. Prim would undoubtedly die in the arena, so Katniss steps forward to take her place and try to live. Not only must she compete against tributes from the other eleven districts, but also against Peeta Mellark, a local boy who once saved her life but may have to kill her in the arena. Katniss must test her skills to the limits if she wants to survive....but can she win with her humanity intact?
Warnings: Many murders of teenagers, some of whom verge on being children; implied threats of torture
Recommendation: This one is short enough and popular enough to be worth reading just for the pop culture heads-up. It's far from the most excellent thing ever written, but Suzanne Collins does pacing magnificently; almost every word feels necessary, and it was hard to set down on the first reading. 

What gives this one a moment in the sun: 

As a general thing, it's hard to tell in advance which books are going to make it big and which ones are going to sink without a trace. That said, The Hunger Games does a great job of tailoring itself for mass appeal. The book opens on the sixteen-year-old Katniss hunting and preparing for the day of the reaping, when the victims (tributes) from each district are selected. Collins sets up the information well, providing enough background to let the reader know what's going on without giving an extended history lesson on the war. The scene is in some way reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in the way it builds anticipation, showing all the pageantry and nervousness before the reader clearly knows what's going to happen. The worldbuilding as a whole follows a similar arc, demonstrating the injustice of the system as well as the veneer of help that the Capitol forces over it. For example, poor children who cannot afford food are allowed to put their names into the drawing an extra time in exchange for tesserae, meager supplies of bread and oil. This keeps the richer members of the community relatively safer, but every teenager in the districts is still vulnerable to the drawing. Katniss doesn't start out with the same rage at the system that her friend and fellow hunter Gale does; she spends more time feeding her family and doesn't want to take the risk of being overheard saying something that could get them punished.

Although Katniss resents her mother for emotionally abandoning her and her sister after the death of their father, she still feels a sense of obligation to look after both of them, making sure that everyone is fed and clothed. Her mother gets very few lines, but the portrayal of her depression in a world where most medication for it is gone seems very real, and her failure to care for her children ultimately shaped Katniss into the kind of person who had to fight to survive every day and was almost used to it in the arena. That sort of character-as-catalyst writing is difficult to do without making the character in question dull, but Collins manages to write Katniss's mother as a real depressed person with a gift for healing, neither a saint nor a monster.

Katniss's relationship with her younger sister Prim is drawn in broad strokes early on but takes on more depth in the arena. Her attachment to her sister both makes her icily determined to win and anchors her human side. Katniss has kept her from taking on any tesserae, so she thinks that her sister is safe on reaping day. When the ever-peaceful Prim, who has only one slip out of thousands, is chosen as one of the tributes, Katniss takes her place without stopping to think twice, or even once. But Prim makes her promise to try hard to come home, so Katniss has to shape herself into a serious threat to the other tributes. That means trying to hold true to her nature while also playing to the Capitol crowds. If people sponsor her and send gifts, she may be able to survive the arena, so she goes along with her stylist to create the image of the girl who was on fire, pulling all eyes to her (in scenes with really lovely imagery) when all she wants to do is be at home. When she manipulates the crowd, it feels just as pragmatic as the way she trades for food; she knows what she needs and what the audience would find entertaining and tries to bring the two together. She doesn't relish the attention, but she does enjoy the sense of power and the increased publicity for District Twelve, which is normally knocked out quickly because the tributes are underfed.

Katniss plans coldly, drawing on her wilderness survival skills to hide while the stronger tributes hunt down the weaker ones. After one tribute dies on top of her in the first few minutes of the Games, she locks down her emotions in order to plan better. She's strategic, able to use everything from insect nests to emotional childhood memories to eliminate other tributes or draw much-needed gifts from an audience she can't see. Haymitch, her mentor, has been a drunkard for years after the strain of trying to save young tributes only to watch them die; they fight, and he dislikes her withdrawn demeanor, but they think similarly enough for her to understand what he wants because of the timing of the gifts. Making a character who spends so much time offscreen feel compelling is difficult, and it's rare to see it done well, but by the end Haymitch feels like a fuller character than many people who get more lines. He sends Katniss gifts most often when she's doing well at appealing to the audience, which helps her calculate what faces to make and how vulnerable to act so that she will seem sympathetic but not weak.

When she meets Rue, who is much like Prim except for being somewhat more adventurous, her more human side resurfaces. She respects Rue's talents and boldness, so the two make an alliance; normally only the stronger tributes ally for expediency early on, so two underdogs relaxing enough to share food and sleep in front of each other is unprecedented. They both know it's temporary, since only one person can win, but they stay together and talk about their lives anyway. Having someone to talk to and plan with makes both of them confident enough to challenge the alliance of stronger tributes, despite the danger, and seeing Katniss's humanity re-awaken at the worst possible time of her life ups the stakes considerably.

For all the online talk about the relationships in this series, the whole Gale/Katniss/Peeta dynamic doesn't feel like a love triangle so much as a realistic exploration of teenage emotions. Gale has been Katniss's best friend since they were both young, and they share a rapport based on that shared experience and an alliance to keep their families fed. He mentions the possibility of running away together near the beginning, but nothing comes of it and Katniss isn't sure what to think. Peeta may be in love with Katniss, and she's grateful to him, but not even the glamorous fake relationship during the preparation weeks or the adrenaline of the Games can make her return his feelings. She isn't sure what to feel or how much of her affectionate fa├žade could be based in something deeper, or even how much of Peeta's love is an act; the open-ended nature of her feelings is much more real than any sort of glossy romance could ever be, and very few sixteen-year-olds are good at understanding their emotions even in low-pressure situations.

A similar sense of foreboding uncertainty dominates the Capitol's actions. The standing system of the Hunger Games has been going on for many years, and Katniss's actions in the arena upset the balance. No individual person in the Capitol steps into a villain role; instead, we see everyone, from President Snow to the Gamemakers to the ordinary pampered citizens of the Capitol, casually reinforcing the structure of the Games that crushes most of Panem into the mud. Katniss is so desperately focused that she can't think beyond the next few hours when she's in the arena; she can predict the reactions of the general audience, but really understanding social trends is beyond her, and understandably so. The resolution of the Games feels like an entrance to the larger world, which is perfect for setting up the sequels and puts the cap on the masterfully controlled pacing throughout the book. 

The red pen: 

Although most of the emotional tension in the book works well, some of Katniss's pre-Games jitters slide into almost painfully blunt telling. Her reactions are really understandable, so having her collapse into tears and spend pages at a time explaining what she did wrong just feels...odd. She's going to have emotions, of course, but seeing her have breakdowns over comparatively trivial things when she's later so ice-cold just leaves her character as more of a blur. One can argue that the tension of the arena makes her hyper-focused all the time, without the space to let things out, but even when she's certain that she'll have a day of peace she's focused on planning above all else.

That problem unfortunately creeps into other aspects of the book, with the more emotionally fraught relationships swinging between over-explanation and baffling attitudes that are never explained. Peeta's affection for Katniss is probably the worst offender here because we never fully understand what motivates his affection or even what sort of person he is underneath all the masks. He's been watching her for years, taking note of her skills and trying to work up the courage to talk, saying that "she has no idea, the effect she can have" when Haymitch talks about her being appealing to sponsors, but the crush feels like an idealized picture of a relationship rather than the real thing. Peeta loves the sound of Katniss singing, but she sees music as a waste of time and has only sung in front of him during school, and they have literally never had a serious conversation before they're chosen as tributes. Katniss has kept an eye on him because he saved her life by sneaking her bread when her family was starving, but that was years ago. Somehow their tiny interactions have formed the foundation of an undying crush on Peeta's end, but it's unrealistic verging on ridiculous in its intensity. He is willing to do anything to keep Katniss alive, even sacrifice his own life, for no more than a crush on the idea of who she is; it comes off much like the dynamic that leads to Aragorn telling Eowyn that "it is but a shadow and a thought that you love."

Rue shines in so many ways, going beyond filling her role as sort of a temporary sister for Katniss to protect, but the delicacy of the parallel shatters when Katniss thinks "Prim, I mean Rue" when making a plan. She's an intelligent person, capable of planning, and her liking for Rue really feels as though it's made of more than the girl reminding her of her own sister. Reducing it that way makes both characters feel shallower, as though the friendship is nothing more than Katniss needing someone to care for, first Rue and then Peeta. Given how powerful many of the scenes with Rue can be, Collins is doing her own writing a disservice. Emotions rarely boil down to just one cause, and trying to pretend that they do tends to take some of the spark out. The world as a whole sometimes falls victim to the same flavor of simplicity

The parts of the world that we see make sense. People can't travel without special permits, and the Capitol controls the flow of information so that people know very little about the other districts; however, some of it starts to feel like a shallow painting of a world. Each district is characterized by its primary industry; District Twelve is coal mining, while District Eleven is agriculture. But any society without full access to transportation via trains or a highway system is going to have to produce things locally, so every district would have at least some agriculture and hunting or fishing. It would have been easy to show Katniss wondering about these things, or pointing out that a few people in District Twelve scratch out a living with gardening; that would be perfectly plausible in a place that's supposed to be Appalachia. Without that sort of depth, the world seems to revolve entirely around the Capitol's conception of the districts, which limits the story. Teenagers of any era face identity crises and want to try out parts of life away from their families; do people try to run? Has anyone seen another district on authorized travel? Is it possible to immigrate across Panem? Was Panem the only part of the world to survive the past disasters? Collins leaves quite a lot of material untapped here, and that makes the hopelessness of this dystopia feel hollow.

All in all, there are plenty of worse ways to spend an afternoon. The Hunger Games is spawning its own sub-genre of dystopian YA fiction, and I would be delighted to see that overtake the teen paranormal romance section that Twilight spawned; I die a little inside every time I see that area in Barnes & Noble. At any rate, Katniss reads as a protagonist who is motivated by love for her family first and foremost, standing up to the Capitol second, and by romantic feelings almost not at all. That set of priorities feels real, and it's refreshing to see a heroine who has so much else to do before crushes and kissing can scratch the bottom of her to-do list.

Prospects: The third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, came out in 2010. The first movie came out in March, and given its open weekend there will doubtless be adaptations of the other two as well.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
 ~Until I get around to reading some of the similarly-flavored ones and add more to the list, try Ender's Game. Especially later in the Hunger Games trilogy, Collins examines how violence can destroy and reshape adolescents' personalities. Orson Scott Card takes on a similar challenge with younger children who are specifically trained to that violence, so looking at how empathy and stress work in both situations would....honestly make yet another one of those mini-thesis papers that I don't have time to write. 

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