"Well, I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies." -Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Each year 24 tributes, one boy and one girl from each district, are sent to the Capitol to fight to the death on national television. These are the Hunger Games, a part of Suzanne Collins's trilogy -- The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and The Mockingjay.
Suzanne Collins drops you into District 12 in the country of Panem after the rebellion of the districts. The Capitol ruled Panem's thirteen districts--each specializing in some resource--until the Dark Days when the districts rebelled. The rebellion failed; the population was decimated, resources depleted, and District 13 destroyed. The Capitol's punishment is the Hunger Games. Reality television meets the Roman Colosseum.
Collins has readers experience the story through the first-person narrative of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is a barbed unforgiving 16-year-old girl whose two thoughts are to protect her younger sister and to survive. She hunts for her family's food, making her an excellent archer and strong contender for the Games. She reads like the angsty Harry Potter from book five only less annoying.
Katniss is talented, two desirable men fall in love with her, through the Hunger Games she becomes famous, she is given an excellent stylist, she is an icon for the districts and a favorite pet for the capitol, and yet--I love Collins for this--Hunger Games is not a case of teenage wish fulfillment.
When we were younger, I had a friend who tried to break her arm. She had never broken a bone and coveted the attention that people got when they wore a cast. You could wish to be Katniss to receive the attention of a nation, but Collins will make you feel the break.
Katniss is often injured (to the point that I wonder if Collins really likes her), experiences horrors in the arena, and has emotional fall-out because of them. She has constant nightmares, wanders around looking for small spaces to fall asleep in, emotional episodes, and a possible psychotic break. The previous victors of the Games take to drinking or drug addiction--and this in an adolescent book. Not the all-better magical recovery of the movie Taken.
Katniss is glamorous, famous, and swooned-after, and Collins is good enough to write her situation honestly so that I do not want to be Katniss -- the girl who killed people to survive.
By the last book Katniss says, "I think that Peeta was on to something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences."
And as for glamor: "All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give. More food. [...] And at the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It's what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun."
Sci-fi. Dystopic. Hunger Games is an unlikely sketch of what could be with harrowing notes of what already is.