Some reviewers are predicting that “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins, will be the next Harry Potter or Twilight Saga. It’s not as original or well-written as the Harry Potter novels, but the set up for the book will probably appeal to young sci-fi fans just as much as magic and vampires do, and its anti-authoritarian theme will resonate with many readers.
The book’s protagonist is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a slum resident in a dystopian future America, now called “Panem.” She’s an isolated loner, with a dead father, an emotionally absent mother, a little sister she loves more than anything, and a platonic male friend who helps her hunt for food on a daily basis. In this future, the haves and have-nots are sharply divided among the rich, pampered government people who live in the Capitol, and everyone else who has to scrounge for food and other scarce resources (a situation with which I’m sure many of today’s anti-government factions can relate).
In a plot device similar to the one in “The Running Man,” every year the Capitol forces children from the slums to compete in televised death matches until the last person standing wins and is awarded money and food for life. Unlike many similar stories, however, “The Hunger Games” uses this setting to remove the main character from her regular daily life in order for her to process her feelings of alienation and resentment among strangers instead in her own family. Her new environment also helps Katniss re-examine her relationship with her mother, and develop empathy with people from different backgrounds.
Like all reality game show contestants, Katniss has her own support team that wants to make her look good. At first she disdains them completely, but becomes more open to them when she realizes her ability to survive the games depends in part on them. As the story continues, she is forced to ally with other contestants, and starts to empathize with them in spite of herself. Her participation in the games breaks Katniss down emotionally and physically, and lets her repressed anger, vulnerability and longing to rise to the surface.
Katnisss character growth and attitude about the oppressive nature of her government is the most striking departures from so much of the young adult lit that is popular now. In books with similar settings, like the Stephen King/Richard Bachman novel I loved as a teenage, “The Long Walk,” the teenage participants blame unfair and unsympathetic adults for their predicaments. Initially in “The Hunger Games,” Katniss bitterly places the blame of her predicament on the machinations of government and society as a whole rather than on specific individual adults, which seems like a more insightful (if oversimplified) approach.
The growth and changes that Katniss undergoes during the games puts this novel in a better class than many similar speculative fiction novels, and her insights about her participation in her own oppression makes it a breath of fresh air compared with similar stories. Don’t shy away from this novel because it is set in a dystopian future, however; the action makes it a fun and easy read as well.