The Hunger Games - Suzanne  Collins
The Hunger Games is an excellent speculative novel set in our dystopian future that is a mirror and scathing commentary on our dystopian present. Its socialist theme of brutally exploited workers is spot-on for our time and will resonate with open-minded readers of the "ninety-nine percent." But it's also a well-told, exciting tale of imagination that author Suzanne Collins melds agreeably with its weighty theme. Doing so while writing at a Young Adult level is a testament to Ms Collins' skill, though I have some technical criticisms in that area that cause me to withhold a fifth star from my rating.

Ms Collin' story tightly follows the point-of-view of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager living in our future where the US has become a nation called, "Panem," that is divided into 12 districts ruled from the capitol city simply called, "Capitol" (located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains). Capitol rules brutally and at one point the districts rebelled. Capitol's win in that war resulted in the establishment of the annual "Hunger Games" as a punishment of the districts. Every year, each district is required to send one boy and one girl, referred to as "tributes," between the ages of 12 and 18, to a designated expanse of ground where they must fight to the death. The winner is simply the single surviving tribute.

The games are Panem's annual humiliation of the districts and a reminder to them of their place in the scheme of things. They exist only to supply the material needs for Capitol (crops, coal, etc) with each district specializing in some basic item. This is a picture of globalization, where the "developed" West conquers and exploits the "third world" to supply its material needs (oil, minerals, cheap labor, etc). As in the real world, the producers don't benefit from what they produce, it's all shipped off to market and the workers are left hungry and in want. They are not allowed to feed themselves; food is to be bought from Capitol with earnings from their life-consuming labor. If people in the districts feed themselves by hunting, trading in the black market, or otherwise providing for their survival, they are breaking the law. That's what Katniss does in hunting in the forbidden forest with her friend, Gale, and then taking advantage of the corrupt officials by selling them game (this kind of gray-area subtlety is what gives the book its power).

Tributes for the Hunger Games are chosen by a lottery in an event called, "the Reaping." It is done separately for the boys and girls from names entered for those within the eligible ages. Names can be entered multiple times in exchange for extra allocations of grain and oil. Though Katniss has her name in multiple times, the bad luck of the draw falls on her little sister, Prim. As the frightened Prim makes her way to the stage to stand as this year's "winner's" for the girls, Katniss volunteers to take her place, which the rules allow. From there, Katniss, and the boy tribute, Peeta Mellark, are swept away by train to the Capitol where they are groomed to participate in the preliminary hoopla before the fight-to-the-death spectacle.

Part of the humiliation visited on the districts by the Hunger Games is the way Capitol treats them as an entertainment and something akin to an athletic competition. Athletic skill, however, is in no way a qualification--twelve year old girls are thrown in the arena with 18 year old young men who have trained all their lives to win the games (these are known as "careers"). Much pomp and ceremony surrounds the tributes and the lead-up to the games is highly publicized. The tributes are interviewed on TV and treated as celebrities, with no mention of their impending deaths, simply the prospect of winning or losing. This death denial on the part of the Capitol public fits with their depiction as self-absorbed, artificial, and materialistic.

Once the book gets into the actual games, the action is fast and gritty as we watch Katniss trying to survive, evading the careers, making "alliances," playing to the audience for support (cameras are hidden everywhere in the "natural environment" of the arena and the whole thing is televised), and working out her uncertain relationship with her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta. It all leads to a satisfying conclusion that sets up the storyline to continue in the next book (Catching Fire).

What impresses me most about The Hunger Games is its subtle depiction of the overwhelming power of Panem and Capitol. There are no scenes of pitched battles with the oppressed populace (in this book) or of people just talking about how bad the Capitol is. Often, dystopian stories will use such scenes to show the badness of the rulers, but they are usually too contrived to be believable. Ms Collins shows Capitol's malevolent power in the sheer unwinding of the games according to the yearly program. The people just go along with it because they have no choice, and so their sons and daughters are taken from them for slaughter. The tears of the tributes are a stark contrast to the jubilations of the Capitol spectators who, in shallow delusion, view the games as just games. Over it all, the rulers of Capitol are in control, working out their program to keep the districts under submission. All through the story, you get the feeling of irresistible power and inevitable control by the rulers (represented by President Snow). It makes the instances of resistance by Katniss feel even more heroic, if futile.

As I said, The Hunger Games is written as a Young Adult novel and the language is at that level. At times it seems a bit too YA where I think it would only have helped to elevate it some. The narrative is also written in the present tense ("I am doing this" instead of "I did that") which I found annoying at times. I think a normal past tense would have worked better. Also, the point-of-view never leaves Katniss and so Ms Collins misses some opportunities to round out her story with perspectives that beg to grow from her otherwise excellent storyline. The movie acts on this and so provides a greater spotlight on the Capitol citizens' deluded callousness (especially in the character of the "talk show" host, Caesar Flickerman who is so wonderfully brought to life by actor Stanley Tucci), and on the cruel duplicity of Panem's rulers as represented by President Snow (brilliantly played with a subtle ominousness by Donald Sutherland).

I think the three books in The Hunger Games series will constitute a dystopian classic in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. As such, I am much surprised that it was even made into a movie (I'm less surprised that the movie has been a huge success, since it is faithful to the book). I guess the elites feel a fiction set in the future can be easily dismissed in the present. I would advise you not to dismiss The Hunger Games, however. It's an exciting and thoughtful story, and a picture of our times.