Taking on the Hunger Games

Object of love or death wish?

“A few hours later, the stampede of feet shakes me from slumber. I look around in bewilderment. It’s not yet dawn, but my stinging eyes can see it. It would be hard to miss the wall of fire descending on me.”

I mean, you have to admit it’s engaging. Captivating, really.

This is a line from “The Hunger Games,” the first book in the best-selling trilogy of the same name. “The Hunger Games” is a riveting story of death, despair, courage, love, hate, murder, betrayal and rebellion. It is an addictive book, nearly impossible to put down. Oh, and it is sort of intended for middle school-aged children.

According to Amazon, “The Hunger Games” is for “ages 12 and up.” The New Yorker called it “fiction for young people” and Time called it a “young adult novel.” Its main character is a 16-year-old girl, and the main cast of the book is between the ages of 12 and 18. Yet I contend that “The Hunger Games” is an enthralling book for someone of any age — even my age.

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian society located where the United States once stood. In this society, Panem, 12 poor districts are ruled by the powerful and opulent Capitol. To keep the districts in their place, the Capitol forces them to participate in an annual “hunger games,” in which each district offers up two “tributes” — adolescents for sacrifice, one boy and one girl — to fight to the death in a televised spectacle. Twenty-four go into the arena; one emerges alive.

The protagonist of “The Hunger Games” is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old resident of District 12 who loves to hunt but isn’t too fond of the Capitol. When Katniss’s younger sister, Prim, is chosen as the tribute from District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol, where she learns to hone her combat skills and meets the other tributes. Katniss is still hunting, but she now has a new prey: humans.

Katniss’s fellow tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, a boy to whom she has never spoken but with whom she has a complicated past. As more time passes, it becomes difficult to tell whether Peeta loves Katniss or whether he is planning to kill her. In either case, Katniss enters the arena trusting no one and certainly not expecting to survive. Let the games begin!

Of course, many aspects of “The Hunger Games” seem contrived. The concept of young people fighting to the death in a mysterious arena is as old as the myth of Theseus and the minotaur. The government always watching, turning life into televised entertainment? Sounds like “The Truman Show.” A dystopian society targeting its own citizens? So “Brave New World.”

As Laura Miller wrote in The New Yorker, “An advantage to having young readers is that most of this stuff is fresh to them … To thrill them, a story doesn’t have to be unprecedented. It just has to be harrowing.” “The Hunger Games” is harrowing. But can its popularity be dismissed because it is read by so naïve an audience, unaware of the triteness of its plot? How then to explain that “The Hunger Games” is popular among readers of all ages (including, notably, Stephen King)? Maybe it is popular just because it is so “harrowing” and so captivating.

Suzanne Collins, the author, has stated that she based “The Hunger Games” on televised scenes of carnage from the Iraq War. These transformed battle scenes — often pretty gory — are one reason why the book is so harrowing. But “The Hunger Games” is also captivating because it goes beyond the trope of young-adult-novel-as-morality-tale. It is a none-too-subtle critique of the titilating yet deadening effects of war as televised entertainment. Residents of Panem who watch the gore of the hunger games look deservingly absurd. But the heroes are not pure enough to make this a simple parable. The “good guys” — Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Haymitch — are all flawed and fully conscious of their own flaws. “The Hunger Games” is an interesting commentary on what a young adult novel can accomplish and who will learn from it. It’s just not simplistic enough to be disregarded as mere young adult fiction, which may be why so many older readers have enjoyed it.

I read “The Hunger Games” a few weeks ago, mostly because the movie is premiering in a few months. I found it hard to put down, and finished the first book in a matter of hours. I moved on to the second and third installments of the series in short order. Having read “Brave New World,” “The Giver,” “1984,” the myth of Theseus, and many other works with similar premises, one could assume that “The Hunger Games” bored me. Not being a middle school-aged child, one could assume “The Hunger Games” annoyed me. But it didn’t.

“The Hunger Games” is an outstanding book — and good for people of all ages, even jaded college students — for two simple reasons. First, the plot is really captivating. A fight to the death in a dystopic society, a deeply flawed protagonist, a love triangle and a coup d’etat are all present in the book. Second, the writing isn’t terrible either. “The Hunger Games” may not go down in history as a classic work of literature, a Proustian masterpiece. But its narrative speaks to a quest for captivation that doesn’t have to end with childhood.

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