I’m on a bit of a dystopian literature kick at the moment – I’ve been working my way through Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – all books that I have always had in the back of my mind to read but somehow never got round to it. Now that I’m intending to take an exam on this genre it’s given me the extra impetus to get on with it. Pressure, in these situations at least, is a good thing.
I have always had a penchant for literary dystopias, even if I haven’t always been particularly conscious of the fact: a lot of science fiction and fantasy has a whiff of the utopian about it, and this brand of “what-if” coupled with astute social commentary usually makes for my kind of book. So when a friend of mine described the plot of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, I thought it might well have to be one of my first purchases on my newly-acquired Kindle…
I have to admit that the tagline from Stephenie Meyer was a little off-putting – I have actually read all of the Twilight books (why? That’s a portion of my life I will never get back!). But reflecting on them never fails to irate – largely because Bella herself is such an irritating “heroine” who can’t seem to function unless she has a boyfriend – and don’t even get me started on the vampiric nature of said boyfriend, because the underlying violence coupled with the troubling relationship between sex, pregnancy and death that Meyer subjects her heroine to is just too disturbing; it also continually took my mind away from the books to wonder about the author’s own issues…Aforementioned friend pointed out the part of one of the books where Bella has broken up with Edward and there follow a succession of blank pages – as if to say that Bella herself is empty and her life entirely worthless without him. What? Did feminism never happen? What kind of role model is Meyer setting up for a generation of young female readers? Because the books themselves are ubiquitous – I can only hope that the girls that read them have the intelligence to realise that boyfriends who beat them up, cause them to be estranged from their families, and make them want to kill themselves are not actually the romanticised perfection that Bella pines after. But enough about Twilight. This is meant to be about The Hunger Games, after all.
However – my knowledge of Twilight at least served to put Collins’s trilogy in perspective. Now, here is a heroine who – though she goes through the same ‘oh, which boy should I choose’ dilemma – manages to demonstrate a competence, survival instinct and self-sufficiency that is refreshing. She could run rings round – and shoot arrows through – Bella Swan. (One cannot imagine Bella lasting more than a few minutes in the Hunger Games arena; she’d probably fall over her own feet and be taken out almost instantly by a Career tribute.) What’s more, Suzanne Collins’s concept has an infinitely more interesting point to make. The trilogy is an amalgamation of the kind of bestial human nature – of children particularly – that Golding’s Lord of the Flies showcased, and an exposé of modern society’s capitalist nature and preoccupation with televised humiliation; the Hunger Games is really just the next level of shows like The X Factor, Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here… if you imagine Simon Cowell as the sinister Coriolanus Snow (same initials! Coincidence? I rather think not! Yeah…I’m definitely pushing this particular conspiracy theory…) and Ant and Dec combined as the games’ presenter Caesar Flickerman. And why not Davina McCall as Effie Trinket, while you’re at it?
The trilogy is set in the dystopian fictional world of Panem (once North America), where there is stark class division and the gladiatorial arena of classical times has returned – with the dual purpose of entertaining the citizens of the Capitol and keeping the plebeian District inhabitants firmly in check. The Capitol itself is very reminiscent of Roman rule, an atmosphere supported by the many Roman names of the Capitol’s cast of characters. There are also resonances with Orwell’s 1984, particularly in respect of constant surveillance and Panem’s brutal autocratic regime. The development of the world of Katniss Everdeen and the socio-political commentary that emerges lifts these books to a different level from Twilight, whose plot exists largely to allow Bella to experience as much angst as humanly possible (and the other supernatural characters to experience as much angst as superhumanly possible), whereas one gets the sense that Collins’s desire to make a point about our own society is the motivation for her novels.
Katniss has a good head on her shoulders and actually the outcome of the boy dilemma is less interesting than the mental processes she goes through in an effort to work out what she wants, and the arc of self- development that she undergoes. No doubt Hollywood will push the ‘Team Gale and Team Peeta’ thing to the max, but I for one hope it doesn’t develop in quite the same way as the rabid fancamp division between Bella’s paramours – largely because Katniss herself is overtly more practical in her outlook. As Gale points out somewhere towards the end of the third book, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without” – the ball is always in her court. Ultimately her devotion to her family and her desire to stand up against the Capitol makes her a more likeable character, and though she spends a lot of time thinking about her relationships, it is at least done in a psychologically realistic and satisfying manner.
The books are very much of the page turner variety; the story is well paced and the cliffhangers cleverly judged. I did wonder at the wisdom of the second book’s Hunger Games (I spent several chapters thinking, is this just a repeat of the first book?) but it provided the set up for an unexpected turn of events and the third book was a fitting and exciting conclusion to what had been painstakingly set up in the the first two.
I was totally unaware of the books before my friend described them to me, despite the fact that the first in the trilogy has been around since 2008 – I’m not sure whether this is simply down to my own ignorance or just the fact that the fever pitch surrounding them is/was less than the furore over the Twilight and Harry Potter sagas. No doubt the upcoming film will fan the flames, but I can honestly say that this is a young adult series that deserves to be taken seriously. And once you’ve read around the genre of dystopian literature there is an extra dimension to the trilogy that makes you think about whether such a future is so fantastical after all. I for one will be keeping a close eye on Simon Cowell… 😉