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The Hunger Games Phenomenon

The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic £7.99 each
The Hunger Games movie Cert. 12A out now

I experienced one of those strange adult moments recently while talking to a little group of sixteen year
olds. Having listened to them enthuse at length about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games I then had to
endure their barely disguised pity and contempt when it became apparent that I had no idea what they
were talking about. I then went home and compounded my misery by asking my ten year old daughter
who rolled her eyes in embarrassment that her own flesh and blood could be so pathetically out of
touch. Feeling a bit rubbish and, frankly, very old, I took myself off to the bookshop to make amends.
Imagine my horror when I discovered that I hadn’t just missed one book but a complete trilogy that has
clocked up over 50 million worldwide sales.

Just shy of 1500 pages later I now feel like part of the human race again and able to have an informed
opinion. So, this Hunger Games thing, then, is it any good or what? Well, yes, it is actually. Very good

The premise is a very simple one. In a post-apocalyptic not-too-distant future the remnants of the
human race survive in a brutal society that gets its kicks by watching people fight in the arena until one
warrior stands victorious. My hopes weren’t high to begin with. Surely I’ve seen this before, I thought,
it’s just Battle Royale, or The Running Man or Death Race repackaged for a new generation. And so it
is, up to a point. There’s nothing new about using nightmare futures to satirise the excesses of our own
consumer/entertainment driven culture. Equally there’s nothing very original about reminding ourselves
that we aren’t too far removed from the violent voyeurism of our ancient Roman ancestors. I’m not
going to argue that Suzanne Collins isn’t recycling old ideas. I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if I tried.
But I will admit that what makes these books so engaging is the energy and imagination with which she
breathes new life into them.

Collins’ dystopia is Panem, situated around the Rockies in post apocalyptic North America. Panem is
governed by the Capitol where the inhabitants live in the lap of luxury, their every need catered for
by the produce of 12 districts. Each of the twelve districts serves the Capitol and their inhabitants live
in hardship and fear, working like slaves and monitored by a brutal military police force called the
Peacekeepers. Years before the districts had rebelled against the Capitol and been defeated. To ensure
they never rise up again they are ruled with an iron fist and tormented by reminders of their inferiority.
The worst of these punishments is The Hunger Games, an annual bloodbath where each district must
offer a teenage boy and girl to fight and die for the entertainment of the Capitol. It’s a horrific cruelty
made all the worse by the fact that the starving population can exchange entry for the games for
additional rations. You can feed your family, but only if you increase your likelihood of being selected to


Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 where she helps her family survive by hunting illegally in the
woods with her friend Gale and trading their contraband catches on the black market. Life is hard but
manageable until her whole world is turned on its head at the ‘Reaping’ for the Hunger Games. When
her little sister Prim’s name is selected Katniss volunteers to take her place. Along with her fellow
tribute Peeta she is soon on her way to the Capitol to be prepped for combat.

What happens next is prime satire on the excesses of reality entertainment. The tributes are dressed
and beautified to be paraded for the audience by a Prep team who know everything about fashion, hair
and make-up but don’t have the first understanding of the reality of blood and sacrifice. Before the
games begin there is one more shock waiting for Katniss. Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute, declares
his love for her on television. Can she believe what he says? Or is it just a ploy to gain an advantage in
the arena?

For a horrible moment the shadow of an interminable Twilight style love triangle between Katniss, Gale
and Peeta rears its ugly head but, thankfully, cloying teen romance is not on Collins’ agenda. This is a
love story of sorts, but it is the love of friends and family, home and community. Katniss’ feelings are
mixed. Maybe she does love Gale but it is a confused naive affection and she isn’t looking for romance
even if that’s where her feelings might have led her. The feelings thrown up by Peeta’s declaration are
more bemusement and annoyance than anything. Her emotional responses feel right and it makes
Katniss an all the more sympathetic and believable heart of the story.

From there it’s into the Hunger games themselves and they are as brutal and shocking as they need to
be. Some districts encourage ‘career’ tributes who charge into the arena driven by the desire for glory
while others are simply terrified kids who just want to hide and survive as long as they can. It is a very
powerful and disturbing concept which offers horror but also moments of selflessness, courage and
nobility. One of the most brutal sequences, focused on one of the smallest and weakest tributes, is also
one of the most touching and beautiful, proving that Collins’ intentions are a lot more complex than
simply offering the gorehounds an excuse for gratuitous violence.

The novel’s concept seems to offer only one inevitable finale but Collins has one more trick up her
sleeve, throwing in one last unexpected twist that feels satisfying when it arrives and also skilfully
establishes the direction of the sequels in a way that has an appealing logic to it.

The first book remains the only one that will stand on its own as a novel in its own right but that isn’t
to diminish the quality of the other instalments. Not to give too much away for those who haven’t
got past part one yet, the sequels expand and explore Collins’ creation and showcase the scale of her
creative vision. The second part, Catching Fire, explores the culture of the Capitol and the Districts in far
greater depth before throwing Katniss back into the Hunger Games arena, and the concluding chapter,
Mockingjay, while lacking the addictive quality of the other books, more than makes up for this with
sheer inventiveness and ambition.

All in all this is a saga that will reward your time and attention. The Hunger Games is that rarest of things

– a ‘new big thing’ that genuinely lives up to the hype.

And so to the film filling cinemas right now.

The danger with adaptations of books for the screen is that often they are simply bland retreads of the
texts, too concerned with slavishly sticking to the page instead of trying to make something that works
as a movie in its own right. It’s very refreshing that The Hunger Games doesn’t fall into this trap at all.
It delivers Collins’ tale accurately enough to please devotees of the book but also allows an exploration
of the world that the first person narrative of the novel wouldn’t allow. We are allowed glimpses of the
other districts, all distinct and different, defined by their industrial background. The depiction of the
Capitol is particularly strong, highlighting the moral vacuum of a voyeuristic society that exists only to
consume and discard, even when the commodity is children.

Gary Ross’ direction is lean and taut, capturing the bleakness and barbarism of Panem’s ruined society
perfectly. The performances are uniformly excellent, headed by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence whose
Katniss is a tricky but pitch perfect balance of brittleness, sensitivity and aggression. Donald Sutherland
is the embodiment of dead-eyed evil as President Snow, while Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks
threaten to steal the whole thing every time they appear as the double act of Haymitch and Effie
Trinkett. The young supporting cast don’t let the side down either, and when the games take over and
the teens are called on to carry the film they do so superbly, bringing the brutality of the arena to life
with an unflinching and terrible realism. Ross never backs away from the grim savagery of the games,
using all the tricks in the book to fool the viewer that they have seen much more carnage than is actually
shown. Which brings me to a word of warning. Despite its friendly looking 12A Certificate The Hunger
Games is definitely not a film suitable for younger children. The violence is harsh and real with little in
the way of fantasy or humour to offset it. There won’t be many under 10s who won’t be disturbed and
upset by watching this.

Nevertheless, this is highly recommended, a slice of satirical dystopian science fiction that often comes
uncomfortably close to our own humiliate-them-and-ditch-them reality TV culture.

Not heard of The Hunger Games? Where have you been? Bread and circuses, anyone?

David Stonehouse

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