The Hunger Games (2008) is the first book of the wildly popular trilogy of young adult novels from author Suzanne Collins. The series is set in the country of Panem, a post-apocalyptic version of North America. Every year the government in the Capitol organizes an event known as the Hunger Games: a bloody, gladiator-style fight-to-the-death battle between 24 randomly-selected teenagers from the oppressed Districts of Panem. To top it all off, the carnage is broadcast live on television – as entertainment for the residents of the Capitol and a reminder to the residents of the Districts of the totalitarian government’s ultimate power.
With all the violence and gore and killing of people on live television, these books have been nothing less than a best-selling sensation. The second novel of the trilogy, Catching Fire, was published in 2009, while Mockingjay, the final installment of the series, was released in August of 2010. The books read like a fast-paced movie, and from all the hype we’ve heard about them, this series might just be the next Twilight (but with better fight scenes).
In the first book of the trilogy, The Hunger Games, we meet our heroine and protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. An experienced hunter, Katniss is a killer with a bow and arrow from District 12, a poor coal-mining region in the country of Panem. Katniss is a tough-as-nails survivor with a rebellious streak a mile wide (assets in the Hunger Games, needless to say.)
The other lead character we meet in the first book is Katniss’s co-tribute from District 12: the charming baker’s son, Peeta Mellark. Unlike Katniss, Peeta is a bit of a softy, is great at decorating cakes, and is very much infatuated with his co-tribute, Katniss. That’s, of course, where things get complicated: Katniss and Peeta begin to play up an on-camera romance between the two of them in order to win over the audiences at home and gain sponsors. While playing star-crossed lovers for the camera proves to be a powerful and effective strategy – what exactly happens when those cameras stop rolling? When the stakes are high as they are in The Hunger Games, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not.
The Hunger Games is a thrilling mash-up of great dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World and the current reality television scene. Think George Orwell meets Survivor and hangs out with Gladiator. According to author Suzanne Collins, she “was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage” when she got the idea for the story (source). We believe it. Bringing to the fore issues such as power, identity, celebrity, and politics, the novel manages to comment on both the dangers of totalitarian government and the perils of living in a celebrity-obsessed culture where reality shows make entertainment out of the grist of everyday lives.
Three Reasons Shmoopers Should Care About The Hunger Games:
1. It’s ancient.
Have a thing for Roman myths? Did Russell Crowe’s Gladiator get you going? Then this is a book for you. Suzanne Collins has said that Katniss, the heroine of The Hunger Games, is an updated version of the Greek hero Theseus, and Panem is an updated version of classical Rome (source). All fans of Colosseum-style violence should apply.
2. It’s modern.
While Katniss’s character might be based on the ancient hero Theseus, the world in which she lives feels very alive and contemporary. Katniss – like us – lives in a society saturated with video cameras and television sets. The citizens of Panem’s Capitol are totally crazy about the whole reality show television thing – even if it means watching their favorite contestants meet untimely deaths on the small screen.
Katniss Everdeen, then, faces many of the same questions that we do in our own contemporary moment. What does it mean to live in a reality TV culture? What constitutes entertainment? Because of the dystopian (a.k.a. a utopia gone way wrong) setting and the cruel totalitarian government on hand, The Hunger Games taps into these issues and then magnifies them by about a million.
3. It’s popular.
The Hunger Games is a best-selling book that’s been translated into 26 different languages. LOTS of people are reading it. And maybe – just maybe – you should too.
Well, because books that are extremely popular really strike a chord with people – and that means that those books can tell us something about who we are and what we’re feeling as a society. Popular fiction can reflect a culture’s concerns and anxieties. By thinking about why something is so popular, we just might learn something about the world outside of the book – our own world.