It’s weird to think that The Hunger Games was published in 2008, that’s twelve years ago. Legend has it that Suzanne Collins got the idea for the trilogy while she was channel surfing between a game show and footage of the Iraq war.
Her interest in classical mythology has also influenced the story with the main characters being forced to face a series of trials to test their worthiness.
The story unfolds through the first person, present tense narration of Katniss Everdeen. Her story quickly reveals the hardships and injustice of living in District 12, which exists in a 19th Century-like state where the coal mining industry is the main employer. In comparison to their extreme poverty the elite in the Capitol live idle lives of decadence.
The pre-combat phase of the story is a kind of psychological examination of her resilience as well as being a popularity contest (which feels particularly American). With the support of fellow District 12 ‘tribute’ Peeta, and her mentor Haymitch Abernathy, she manages to muster a renewed sense of self-confidence before entering the combat arena — knowing that her chances of survival are bleak.
The story is a brilliant example of a writer constantly putting the protagonist in harms way leading to a sequence of reversals of fortune. Threats are followed by narrow escapes, and this formula is repeated, again and again. The pattern creates a series of tonal peaks and troughs, tension followed by relief, emotional ups and downs.
The arena itself is a combination of trail by combat and outdoor survival skills (this also feels very American — survivalism and self-reliance in the wilderness). The combat arena isn’t just about physical power and fighting opponents it’s a place where contestants make allies, command respect from potential enemies, and strategically work out their opponents. It’s as much about psychology and people skills.
The story has many of the tropes of Ancient Greek mythology (citizens being sacrificed as tributes, tests, and the spectacle of combat being played out in front of an audience (the Greek gods, and the elite of the Capitol). The Hunger Games is also a retelling of Cinderella. Katniss is the hardworking overlooked girl chosen to transcend her lowly status. Her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is the fairy godmother. He arranges for her to be transformed by wearing her spectacular fire dress. Peeta plays the role of the handsome and chivalric prince. Their time in the combat arena is akin to them dancing at the ball. It’s a getting to know one another, finding trust and learning to work together. Although the roles, especially the interaction between Peeta and Katniss, have been updated and changed to make them more relevant to a contemporary YA audience.
When I read The Hunger Games, I didn’t feel like I had to compensate for the fact that it is a YA novel intended for a YA audience. I was simply reading a gripping and addictive story. The reader’s empathy for Katniss — her childhood hardship, her sad and deprived family background, and her self-sacrifice — makes the reader root for her later on in the arena. She bravely copes with her situation, exhibiting personal strength, and humility. She’s vulnerable but never weak. This makes her a protagonist who’s easy to empathise with.