THE HUNGER GAMES is a young adult book with a science fiction twist: it is set in a near(ish) future, dystopian setting. Every year in the remnants of the United States, the conquered territories are forced to send randomly selected young people to the Capitol (somewhere in the Rocky Mountains) where they are sent to a remote area, provided weapons, and forced to kill each other while being televised until only a single “contestant” remains. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl from Appalachia who is an experienced huntress. I will refrain from providing any spoilers as to the outcome of this event (the annual “Hunger Games”).
The plot is more than a little reminiscent of BATTLE ROYALE (the anime series, novel, and movie) in which middle schoolers are randomly selected by their government, sent to an isolated setting, provided weapons and forced to kill each other while under observation. We have seen all this before — in a less controlled environment — in the classic LORD OF THE FLIES. There are many other works have used elements of the same idea. In this sense, the novel is completely derivative, since this is now a well-worn path. However, Collins is an engaging writer and THE HUNGER GAMES was an extremely quick read. At times, it’s a real page-turner.
Though I’m an adult, I do enjoy reading many young adult novels, but I can only provide the perspective of an adult reader. Thus, I have no idea if adolescents would enjoy this book or not. I imagine that I would have liked it when I was 10-14, but it’s hard to say. THE HUNGER GAMES contains relatively graphic violence happening to young people, so some parents might not want their children to read it on that account (my own family never controlled my reading in any way, so I don’t know if this is a concern for many parents). The romantic elements would have certainly been a turn-off in my younger days; nothing sexually graphic happens, just some kissing and angsting. I suspect that teenage/tween girls would probably find the book particularly engaging.
The book works as a self-contained novel, though it is the first of a series. The sequel promises to be quite a bit different, as it seems the survivor(s) of the Hunger Games will be used as propaganda piece(s) for a nascent rebellion seeking to overthrow the oppressive regime that has established the Hunger Games. I have not yet read the sequels, and don’t know if we can anticipate more scenes set during future Hunger Games in the sequels. I would imagine so, since this seems central to the premise of the story. This revolutionary/political angle also seems a bit tired and I’m not sure how well it will work. John Christopher had a very interesting take on something similar in his Tripods series, but frankly that had a more interesting setting than THE HUNGER GAMES.
I recommended THE HUNGER GAMES as an interesting read — the middle was particularly exciting — but this isn’t high literature by any means and the plot is both derivative and eminently predictable. It would be a shame if young readers read this future dystopia with a teenage protagonist fighting against a totalitarian state while neglecting THE HUNGER GAMES’ many, many literary antecedents. Like the Harry Potter series, we can only hope that new readers’ interest in THE HUNGER GAMES will spur interest in the genre as a whole.
And speaking of literary dystopias, I would like to bring your attention to this “infographic” posted at Goodreads that examines the genre. Note that I don’t put that much stock in the actual numbers of books involved — these seem to be idiosyncratic of Goodreads’ members’ collections — but the list of books is interesting and useful and offers a rough typology of dystopian books. I’m not familiar with most of the newer books listed, but it should offer some helpful tips on where fans of THE HUNGER GAMES could turn next.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers