The Hunger Games, first in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl living in a community known as District 12, one of a dozen that make up the country of Panem. Panem itself is a future version of North America, ravaged by war and natural disasters, a dystopian society set in the near(ish) future.
It is a society of haves and have-nots, the haves populating what is simply known as the Capital, the have-nots (or proletariat) inhabiting the rest of the country. While citizens of the Capital have all the amenities that modern medicine and technology (and wealth) afford, those in the other regions live lives of mere subsistence, each district tasked with a distinct function by the central government.
Katniss and her family live in what was formerly called the Appalachians–coal country–and eke out an existence supplying the Capital with fuel. Having lost her father many years before in a mining accident, Katniss has become a skilled hunter, supplementing their meagre supply of food with poached game and various nuts and berries, painstakingly collected day by day. It is a life of fear of starvation and starvation, interspersed with the daily struggle to make sure the former does not become the latter. Yet Katniss is content with her family, if not her situation, and shoulders the burden without much complaint.
However, there is one other thing each district must supply the Capital. Every year each district supplies contestants for the spectacle which is The Hunger Games.
Inaugurated 74 years earlier after a failed rebellion by the Districts, the Hunger Games pit two teens (between the ages of 12 and 17, one male–one female) from each District in a battle royale with their counterparts from the others. It is a battle to the death with only one possible “winner”. Used both as a means to terrorize the populace and demonstrate their absolute authority, the government of Panem ruthlessly exploits the children to keep the people submissive.
When Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen for the games, she makes the choice to volunteer in her stead, knowing that it’s a death sentence, yet willing to make that sacrifice for her kin. Within days she and the male contender of District 12, the baker’s son Peeta, are whisked off to the Capital for a bit of training and a lot of promotion. And then the games begin.
Dropped into an arena consisting of varied environments and climates, each competitor must rely on their wits and physical skill with (if they’re lucky) a weapon to eliminate the others. They also have to make it a show–if things get boring, the gamemakers will “move things along” by either altering the environment in an unpleasant manner or introducing deadly obstacles such as mutated animals, flame throwers, etc. Of course, without giving away too much, this is the story of Katniss and her time in the arena.
For a young adult novel, Collins has crafted a remarkably serious yet not overly graphic tale that manages to hold the attention of her market audience while appealing to those of us who fall into the category of adult. Not just a story for kids, Collins manages to explore several complex themes: oppression vs. liberty; authority vs. non-conformity; proletariat vs. oligarchy, etc.
Her novel can have different meanings to the reader depending on your political persuasion. A progressive might see it as the story of fascism stifling the free expression of the people, while a conservative might see it as an example of the intrusive nature of big government–the aforementioned liberty to live our lives without too much interference. I think Collin’s intent falls somewhere in between–more of a cautionary tale of how easily society can be controlled once they cede authority to a small minority, and also a condemnation of today’s “reality television” society.
It’s also a ripping good read that doesn’t require a huge time investment–just an emotional investment in several appealing characters, knowing that not all will survive The Hunger Games.