Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins
New York, Scholastic, 2008
374 pages,   Fiction

What? Not another blogger writing about Hunger Games! Yeah—I know, but…I had to get it read before the movie comes out or I wasn’t going to be invited to the Hunger Games party a friend is having.
Suzanne Collins is a genius, I think. She has taken the concept of the dystopian novel and married it to reality television with spectacular results. What I think I will focus on in this posting is not the dystopia, or the fighting and killing, the parallels with reality television, or the United States, or any of the stuff other people have talked about. What I would like to focus on is the concept of altruism and how Collins toys with the better natures of the characters and confuses us as well.

In a future United States called Panem, Katniss Everdeen is a smart girl who has to take over as the breadwinner when her father is killed in a mine accident in District 12. Her mother ceases to function well after the accident and someone has to take care of her little sister, Prim. Katniss uses the hunting, fishing, and scavenging skills that her father has taught her to support her family, and partners up with Gale, a neighborhood boy, to keep both families fed.

So, we feel good about the character Katniss from the very beginning. She has used her intelligence and survival skills to her best advantage and has the makings of the classic altruistic heroine. We also see a glimmer of altruism in the opening pages of the book in the character of Peeta. He is the baker’s son and gives a loaf of bread to Katniss one day when she is very tired and hungry. Much later we learn that Peeta has had a crush on Katniss for a long time, or so he says.

The first major altruistic moment in the book comes when names are being drawn for The Hunger Games, the sadistic annual event run by the “Capital” in which two teenagers from each of the 12 districts of the country much fight each other to the death for the televised amusement of the entire country. Fatefully, Prim’s name is called, and shockingly, Katniss rushes to the stage to take her sister’s place. This is something that never happens; no one volunteers for the Hunger Games! Katniss knows that her sister would never survive the games, and that she might have a fighting chance. Peeta, the baker’s son, is chosen as well, and for better or worse, the fates of Katniss and Peeta are forever connected.

It is at this point Collins begins to play with the concept of altruism. We believe that Katniss has made an altruistic decision in defending her sister, but can we trust her future decisions? After all, she is fighting for her life, and in effect, fighting for the future of her family. Things become complicated when we are reintroduced to Peeta, the boy from the district, who in the early interviews, tells everyone that he has a crush on Katniss, and that he has felt that way since the age of 5 or 6. When he makes a couple of defensive moves to protect Katniss, the country believes that he truly does love her and wants to keep her alive. The manipulators of the game decide it is to their advantage to keep them both alive, and now they have to function as a team.

Katniss doesn’t quite trust this turn of events, but because the love story is playing out well on television, she decides to go along with it as a way of maintaining her social capital and her television fans. Later, when she saves Peeta’s life, we believe again in her altruism—for the moment. At the end of the book, we are left confused as to whether she really does care for Peeta, or if she did everything she did for the sake of her own survival. We are even ambivalent when she attempts one last lifesaving ploy for both Peeta and herself after the Capital has in effect betrayed them. Did she do that for altruistic reasons, or did she attempt it as a way of thumbing her nose at the Capital?

Our skeptical natures believe that Katniss knows how to play the game; after all she has watched it every year of her life. We know that she is very smart and savvy, skilled with a bow and arrow, and has a lot of survival skills. This is what we have been shown. Is she also capable of being a true heroine, able to save herself and others?

I was as captivated by this book as my 12-year-old grandson and my son-in-law. Its themes are universal. One reviewer says: “Collins sometimes fails to exploit the rich allegorical potential here in favor of crisp plotting, but it’s hard to fault a novel for being too engrossing.” I have yet to read the other two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, but I can’t wait for the movie to arrive. How will the movie handle Katniss’s altruistic motives and heroic nature?  

Here is a review in The New York Times:
I will leave it to you to find all the online hype about the movie.

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