I have to confess that when any book is mentioned in the same breath as Twilight, that would be enough to put me off and run away screaming from anybody waving it under my nose. So when I heard about this for the first time last year it barely registered on my radar. Whenever I hear “young adult fiction” now I tend to think (unfairly admittedly) of simpering emo vampires, huffy teenage girls and a lot of romanticised and idealised sexual tension. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do not dislike young adult fiction so this isn’t literary snobbery on my part. His Dark Materials qualifies under the YA bracket and that is my favourite novel. I also love Philip Pullman’s other series The Sally Lockhart Mysteries and Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. Let’s not forget Harry Potter either.
Even when people were lauding Jennifer Lawrence as being the perfect Katniss (I thought she was excellent in X-Men: First Class), that wasn’t enough to encourage me to investigate. I did look into the story and came to the conclusion that it was going to be a watered down mish-mash of Battle Royale and The Running Man. Hardly original and with the strikingly beautiful Lawrence looking stereotypically troubled as teenage girls tend to in these things (as well as being a 22 year old playing a 16 year old… sheesh, the cliches just stack up sometimes don’t they?) I decided to file under “watch if bored and nothing else is on”.
But something changed. People who read regularly seemed to enjoy these books. Bad reviews were few and far between, reviews mentioned “plot”, “characters” and a “positive role model”. Okay, my ears pricked up – slightly – but still Jennifer Lawrence looked rather troubled as a 22 year old playing a 16 year old. Then I saw the trailer and decided to give it a shot.
To draw comparisons with Twilight, even if it is just in terms of commercial success and a young adult market, is doing the story an injustice. It would be like comparing a Big Mac to a prime steak because their contents both come from a cow.
I love the concept. Somewhere in the near future, North America (named Panem) has been divided into 12 Districts by an oppressive regime following a rebellion. This regime operates out of a place called Capitol that lives in luxury while the Districts struggle to eat. Capitol is a capitalist utopia that is a kind of homage to Brave New World while the Districts suffer a 1984esque existence ever fearful of those in power. Every year as a tribute, each District must surrender one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight in the titular Hunger Games, a fight to the death for the sole purpose of the entertainment of the citizens of Capitol. Each contestant is interviewed prior to the games, asked mundane questions, paraded at an opening ceremony and treated as minor celebs much as you would see with the vacuous non-entities on Big Brother. This is Roman Gladiators fighting to the death in the Coliseum in a Twitter world.
Their success in the arena doesn’t just depend on their ability to fight or to evade their opponents, but also on their ability to entertain the audience. Much like Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here! contestants can earn rewards – weapons, food, medicine and the like through sponsorship. To form an alliance or fall in love (or to pretend to) can earn supplies as the viewers want some sort of human story amongst all the fighting.
So much time is devoted to developing the world and demonstrating the difference between the brutal reality in which the Districts live, the decadence of the Capitol and the inappropriate level of showmanship that surrounds the bloodthirsty games. You really become absorbed in the story and the futuristic world which makes the Games – when they begin halfway through the film – an edge of the seat thrill ride far more engaging than Battle Royale and The Running Man.
Katniss Everdeen is a highly likeable character. Yes she is brave for volunteering in her sister’s place (she looks terrified at having volunteered), yes she is driven (she has to be or she’ll die yet she is calm and calculated throughout), yes she is for more intelligent than her fellow contestants (she tries to outsmart her opponents without bloodshed over and over again – killing when there is no other choice), yes she is caring and protective and honourable and all the other things that a hero should be. I’ve said before that heroes are difficult to write but in Katniss we are exposed to very real and honest flaws and vulnerabilities. She feels completely out of place in The Capitol, her expressions are not as we might expect of disdain borne out of moral superiority at the opulence, but of confusion, bewilderment and like a startled rabbit in the headlights as she is way out of her comfort zone. Katniss feels out of place and alone – something that most teenagers feel at some point in their lives and this makes her human. Even when she feels that her District 12 male counterpart is getting specialist treatment from their mentor we feel for her even though we already know that she has a better chance of surviving than this naive baker boy.
Based on this, I give credit where credit is due. Suzanne Collins seems to have created a highly intriguing concept and I will almost certainly read these books.