This book review is somewhat timely, as the movie version of “The Hunger Games” comes out next week. I have seen a lot of parents asking about this movie and the book version for their kids, and my two oldest have read the book. (we allow our older two kids to be semi-independent, discerning readers because we have tried to raise them to be good thinkers) This book is published by Scholastic and is generally in the “young adult” genre, i.e. teens. It is a relatively short (275 pages or so) and quick read.
Parents: beware. This book is very, very violent. If violence bothers you or would be difficult for your teen or older child to process, steer well clear of this book. If you want a feel for how the movie is going to be (I haven’t seen it yet), watch it on YouTube. (sorry they won’t let me embed the video) It looks like it is going to follow the same general plot.
A good plot review can be found at Wikipedia if you want to know the basis, though of course there are a lot of plot spoilers in it. The basics are this: the book is set in North America in a dystopian society after the breakdown of the USA. The new country called Panem is controlled centrally and despotically by the Capitol, and after a failed rebellion the Capitol controls each of 12 districts ruthlessly. Starvation, mistreatment, and totalitarian control are the norm.
Each year, each of the twelve districts must send one boy and one girl ages 12-18 to a tournament known as The Hunger Games, where they are placed in a huge arena (many square miles of varied terrain and opportunity) and left there until only 1 of the 24 are left. They are chosen by random draw, and each child must put their name in the draw when they turn twelve. In a cruel twist a child may be given rations of grain and oil for their family by voluntarily putting their name in the draw additional times.
The book follows a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen as she is chosen for and experiences the Hunger Games.
This book has some interesting stuff in it. There is even a Forbes article about what THG can teach us about strategy.
Katniss is in no way an evil person. She is scarred by the death of her father and emotional distance from her mother, desires to protect her sister, and hates the strong picking on the weak. That theme is repeatedly brought up in the book, as Katniss partners with the supposedly weaker contestants against the stronger and uses wits and cunning, not brawn, to stay alive.
I’m kinda-sorta a tinfoil hat wearing government-stay-out-of-my-life libertarian, and this book hits the theme of totalitarian governmental control very hard. Not only that, there is certainly a theme of the rich versus the poor, though Collins does a good job of not laying that angle on too thick. The contrast between the Capitol and the conditions of the people in District 12 is clear, and any follower of Christ would be wise to consider the implications of justice and taking care of the poor that the book offers.
The whole of the Hunger Games is broadcast over television and is mandatory viewing, and from the perspective of Katniss we get to see how contrived the whole thing is, that it is being controlled and that very little is as the viewers think it is. That is a good lesson in media for all of us, that it is controlled and that they are selling us something.
There is no mention of God in this book whatsoever. This omission is actually a learning point, as the morals and behaviors of society that are purely governed by their own ideas and desires becomes a terrible display of brutality and poverty and control. The lack of peace and the sheer nastiness of the end game of that kind of society is a good theme, though like I said it is a theme from silence.
There is also some good lines from Katniss about the effects of a child who has lost a parent or is forced to grow up too fast. She is a protector, and distrusts all, but under the veneer of arrogance is a little girl unsure of who she is and unsure of how to love.
A couple of the people attached to Katniss genuinely care for her. Peeta (the boy from District 12) certainly loves her. Haymitch, her “mentor”, and her wardrobe people all seek to help her navigate the tricky and deadly dance that is THG. Though the world is dark, there are still decent human beings in it.
The entire premise of this book is about a death-match between 24 teenagers to make sure that no one rebels against the State. That says a lot.
Boy, the violence in this book is intense. It isn’t described every time, but many times when a contestant (called a tribute) dies no punches are pulled when they are killed. One girl has her head crushed in with a rock. Several die from being pierced through the guts with spears or through the neck with arrows. One boy has his neck snapped by another. There is incredibly little compassion, though Katniss’ compassion gets her some in return from unlikely places.
Every part of “the good” above can also be placed here in “the bad.” This book is a gritty, dystopian look into the future where the State controls everything (it looks like fascism to me, but it is not fleshed out), the people are oppressed and starving, and the future is bleak.
Katniss learns in the book to use her innocence and her supposed love for Peeta to get help and to get the audience to like her. Thus she is taught to manipulate people to survive. It is a survival ploy and perhaps explainable, but that does not make it acceptable. The sexuality in the book is certainly downplayed (nothing more than kissing), but nevertheless the romance in the book is manufactured for the sympathy it engenders.
This book is in the teen section of most libraries. Boy, I must say that I would be careful of letting young teens read it. Before I let my kids read it I would suggest that parents read it first to help their kids work through the book and learn the lessons. If a child or teen has an aversion to violence, of course I would skip it.
I am not going to let my kids see the movie before I do. My two oldest are not very violence sensitive (my son, who is younger, hunts with me and knows what death is), but still the big screen tends to amplify that kind of thing and I want to see it to check that before they get to view it.
I CERTAINLY would not recommend this book to kids under 12 or 13 unless they are very, very mature and they are very discerning readers. Even then, there is no way I would allow my younger kids to read it. It’s brutal, and that kind of imagery stays in young minds a long time. For teens it is probably okay if they like action and are not sensitive to violence. For adults who are not sensitive to violence it is a pretty engaging and very quick read, and it tells a compelling story.