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In Association with Amazon.com
The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic paperback £6.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

"Future generations will look back on TV as the lead in the water
pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad" - Kurt Vonnegut

Literary types, it is fair to say, have never really warmed to television as a medium. Excuses for this fundamental hostility are legion: books are said to provoke thought and invite peaceful contemplation whereas television merely titillates with mindless entertainment. Books inspire debate whereas television urges thoughtless exhibitionism. Books inspire while television merely degrades. Nowhere is literary culture's hatred of television more evident than in the history of dystopian fiction.

Orwell's 1984 (1948) used television as Big Brother's primary means of observation and control while works such as Nigel Kneale's The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1968), Stephen King's The Running Man (1982), and Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975), have all depicted television as a latter-day reinvention of the Roman circus. The future of television, we are told, is that of a brutalised humanity rendered docile and pliable by tyrannical governments who use their control of the airwaves to subdue the population with a constant stream of sex and violence.

"Television: The drug of the nation. Breeding ignorance and
feeding radiation" - Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy

The problem with this view is that it proved to be so accurate that it has lost its power to change our attitudes. Ninety or so years into the great TV experiment and we have not only heard all the arguments but seen the rise of racial bullying, ritual humiliation, emotional manipulation, and masturbation with wine bottles, as components of prime-time TV entertainment. Yet, despite reality-TV being one of science fiction's rare successful predictions, we are no closer to ridding ourselves of the one-eyed tyrant in the corner of the room. In fact, many of us are shelling out thousands of pounds in order to furnish our parlours with vast planet-killing high definition televisions that allow us to survey the blasted heath of the human condition with unparalleled detail.

Given that we are seemingly not too bothered by television's corrupting influence on us, attempts to demonise TV start to take on a decidedly reactionary tone. What was once grim prognostication about the future of our culture now resembles the worst kind of middle-class snobbery: is the problem really that television is awful, or is it simply that horrible working-class people are not spending their money on Jonathan Franzen novels? Which is really more likely to harm the human spirit: The Wire, or the collected works of Neal Asher, and Laurel K. Hamilton?

Obviously, there is a place for concern about the influence that television has on both our minds and our culture but this concern can no longer be voiced in such simplistic and reactionary terms. The dystopian genre needs to move on and the evil TV trope needs to evolve. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games - the hugely successful first book in a trilogy poised to become a Hollywood franchise - is an attempt to do precisely this.

The Hunger Games depicts a dystopian society built around a set of yearly games where young people are selected at random and forced to fight to the death for the amusement of their fellow citizens. Highly derivative in both its structure and its iconography, what redeems The Hunger Games is its unquestioning acceptance of the logic of the games. Collins' dystopian reality-TV show is not a warning of what the future will be like unless we change our ways, it is a comment upon the society in which we live. The world of The Hunger Games is our world, and it is the world that teenagers face every single day.

The Hunger Games is set in the post-American nation of Panem. Panem is comprised of the wealthy city of Capitol and 12 separate districts that Capitol controls using its brutal military peacekeepers. Katniss Everdeen - the book's protagonist - is a resident of District 12, a coal-producing region so impoverished that Katniss is forced to spend her days hunting in order to feed her mother and sister. Each of the districts is forced to provide two tributes for the hunger games, an annual reality-TV spectacular in which 24 teenagers fight each other to the death.

Sacrificing herself in order to protect her younger sister from the arena, Katniss joins Peeta Mellark - the better-off son of a local baker - as the tributes from District 12. Initially sceptical of their chances, the pair strike a chord with the audience by displaying an unusual degree of affection during their grand unveiling to the general public. Peeta then builds on this by revealing in interview that he is deeply in love with Katniss, thereby allowing the games' organisers to paint them as a pair of star-crossed lovers doomed to fight and kill each other in the arena. Combining good luck with good media and drawing upon wise council from their backstage prep team (comprising designers and trainers), Peeta and Katniss go into the arena as popular and well-sponsored figures.

Once in the arena, The Hunger Games shifts between the sort of brutal gladiatorial combat featured in Stephen King's The Running Man, to the more existential and introspective feats of endurance and hardship that feature in King's equally dystopian The Long Walk (1979). By engaging where possible and hiding the rest of the time, Peeta and Katniss navigate their way to the final day of the Hunger Games only for the games' organisers to start messing with the rules in order to engineer a situation where the couple are forced to turn on each other. The book ends with a victorious Katniss worrying about whether her attempts to outsmart the organisers of the games may not have marked her out as a threat to Panem's political establishment.

On a purely technical level, The Hunger Games is a decidedly uneven piece of writing as the fiercely derivative nature of its imagery is underlined by a prose style that is never particularly evocative and seldom more than adequate to the purposes of the plot: battles that should be horrifying and searches for water that should be phantasmagorical are dealt with in a style that can only be described as 'matter of fact'. There are also serious issues surrounding Collins' pacing both within individual scenes and over the length of the novel as a whole.

For example, in one early scene Katniss finds herself up a tree while the highly trained 'professional tributes' lurk at the bottom waiting to kill her. The second Katniss spots a large hornet nest, it is clear what it is that she has to do but rather than simply having Katniss saw through the branch and drop the nest on the other tributes, Collins drains energy from the scene by explaining at great length that these are not just hornets but genetically engineered beasties created by X for purposes Y and hunted in District Z for reasons A, B and C. By the time the info-dump is complete, Collins has exhausted all tension from the scene meaning that when the nest does eventually drop it is perfunctory rather than exciting. This tendency to over-egg the pudding, by having Katniss explain the danger or importance of her situation, is a constant thorn in the novel's side.

After the bulk of the tributes have been killed, Peeta and Katniss hole up in a cave and tend to their wounds. On a structural level, this is quite a sound move as slowing the pace down prior to the final confrontation not only allows a writer the opportunity for the sort of character-building that allows the readers to form an emotional attachment to the characters, it also cleanses the reader's palate before the grand finale.

Unfortunately, Collins allows this interlude to drag on for so long that we begin to lose sight of the fact that Peeta and Katniss are supposed to be fighting for their lives. Had The Hunger Games' set-pieces been well realised then this sort of misstep would barely have been noticeable but the lack of energy in Collins' prose means that, when the final confrontation does come, it completely fails to re-energise the plot, resulting in the novel not so much ending with a bang as with a long and drawn out entropic groan. While The Hunger Games is not original, well-plotted, or engagingly written, it does have one redeeming feature: Katniss Everdeen.

One explanation as to why it is that Collins' prose systematically under-performs is that the book is written as a first person narrative. While some authors use the first person as a means of exploring how a character feels and how they experience the world, Collins places her descriptive emphasis solely on what it is that Katniss thinks: The Hunger Games does not so much describe a world as it does its protagonist's opinions about that world and, because those opinions make up the bulk of the book, the book becomes an exploration of that protagonist.

We see the world reflected in Katniss' opinions and because the world is derivative and familiar to us, we learn a lot about what it is to be Katniss. Given that young adult protagonists tend to be a good deal smarter, resourceful and grown-up than real-world teenagers, there is something profoundly disarming about a YA protagonist who comes across as not only spectacularly naive but also seemingly completely oblivious to the feelings of the people around her.

The most fascinating thing about Katniss, and what marks her out as different to characters in most TV-focused dystopias, is her complete and unquestioning acceptance of the Hunger Games as an institution. Even before she is chosen as a tribute, Katniss accepts the Hunger Games as a fact about the world. She does not see it as something unjust or as something to try and weasel out of, she sees it as being as much a defining characteristic of her world as gravity, hunger and cold. Initially, one is tempted to see this as a sign of Katniss' world-forged realism; she is so utterly devoted to the cause of her own survival that she simply does not have the luxury of questioning the injustice of her situation. However, once Katniss is chosen as a tribute, her acceptance of the Hunger Games seems to increase.

Despite being a bit grumpy, Katniss reacts to the preparation for the Hunger Games in much the same way as most contestants on reality-TV shows: yes, she is exploited and yes, she is humiliated but it is all 'so much fun!' Despite her sullen demeanour, her fear and her hard-boiled desire to survive Katniss is soon reduced to the status of a beaming loon as she is plied with pretty dresses, scrummy stews, and lashings and lashings of media interest.

In fact, so accepting is Katniss of her plight that she even comes to see her prep team as being something akin to a family even though these people are simply doing their jobs by keeping her happy and willing to perform for the cameras. The only time that Katniss ever questions either the need for the games or the way they are run is when one of her early allies die and even then her scepticism is quick to depart as the need to survive and win swiftly reassert themselves. Katniss' complete acceptance of the Hunger Games as an institution even colours her perception of the other tributes.

One of the more paradoxical aspects of reality-TV as a genre is the extent to which it is made up. Indeed, while TV programmes like Big Brother, and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, may not be pre-scripted, the fact that they reach their audience principally through highlight shows means that producers routinely fashion the raw facts of contestants' lives into more accessible and entertaining narrative forms. By carefully controlling what footage gets shown and how, TV producers can transform unhappy people into villains and low levels of sexual attraction into epic love stories.

Filtered through the lens of narrative, reality-TV never reflects reality. The Hunger Games shows a real awareness of the contrived nature of reality-TV and this awareness filters down into Katniss' omnipresent fear of how her actions will play with the audience. However, while Katniss is more than happy to mug for the camera and to play along with popular storylines, she routinely gets confused as to where the TV show ends and real life begins.

Collins allows for little socialisation between the tributes from the different districts and so both readers and Katniss alike are reliant upon the staging of the Hunger Games in order to learn about the other tributes. However, because this staging is done in such a way as to entertain and entice the TV audience, there is no gap between the tributes as they appear on screen and how they appear to Katniss. For example, the professional tributes from the wealthier districts are seen as savage and scary while other tributes include a mysterious one, a strong one, an insane one and a stealthy one.

We know these personas to be affected because we see Katniss struggling to come up a persona that will play well and attract sponsors when she appears on TV. However, despite being aware that her own TV persona is only a crude media-friendly approximation of her real personality, Katniss never bothers to question the show's depiction of her fellow tributes. As far as Katniss is concerned, the professional tributes really are scary, the fox-faced girl really is mysterious, and these personas are all that needs to be said or thought about any of the other tributes. It simply does not occur to Katniss that the other kids might be just as terrified and vulnerable as she is.

When Katniss does take a few steps back from the narrative of the games, she does so for completely the wrong reasons. Indeed, we know almost from the start that Peeta harbours strong feelings for Katniss because we know that he received a beating from his mother for giving her some food while in the district. Despite both their shared history and Peeta expressing his love for Katniss on live TV, Katniss remains convinced that Peeta hates her and that he is merely pretending to be in love with her as a way of securing sponsorship. Taken together, these two sets of attitudes produce in Katniss a character who is completely incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction.

Katniss' questionable relationship with the truth reflects the hideous realities of contemporary teenaged life. Born into a media-saturated age where they are constantly being photographed, filmed and measured by authorities, parents and friends alike, today's teenagers live their lives playing to the gallery. Like the inauthentic sinners of Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit (1944), and the permanently on-display wannabes of Rudy Rucker's Postsingular (2007), teenagers live-for-others to the point where they lose track of their true selves. Savvy enough to realise their own condition, teenagers develop their critical faculties but these faculties take time to bed in, and so many teenagers find themselves trapped between extreme cynicism and childish naiveté, utterly incapable of navigating a complex world where everyone is play-acting whilst also struggling to be true to themselves.

While The Hunger Games is not sufficiently well written to function as an adventure story, the novel does an absolutely wonderful job of laying bare the hideous social world inhabited by western teenagers. The true greatness of the novel lies in its realisation that reality-TV is not some hideous entity independent of our society but rather an exaggeration of values and social structures that are already in place: these days we are all Big Brother housemates. The thematic power and depth of human understanding displayed by Suzanne Collins makes all of the clunky prose, weak pacing, and boring action sequences seem worthwhile, and the fact that Katniss ends the book still needing to grow up suggests that the other books in the series may well be worth investigating too.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins



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