This review contains spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned.
The Hunger Games follows the life of a fifteen year old girl, Katniss Everdeen. She lives in a post-apocalyptic version of North America, in a new country called Panem. Katniss lives in District 12, a coal mining region of the Appalachian Mountains. Panem was formed when The Capital subdued twelve outlying districts and obliterated a thirteenth one. As punishment for the rebellion, the districts are required to send two tributes to fight to the death in an annual event known as The Hunger Games. The clincher is that the tributes are children -- ages twelve to eighteen -- who are selected from a lottery.
The Games take place in The Capitol itself, a futuristic blend of maybe Hollywood and ancient Rome. Panem means Bread, and the residents are well-fed to the point of satiation. They are a jaded people always seeking a new excitement or novelty. They wear outrageous clothes, sport outrageous tattoos, and dye their skin shades of neon. They turn to the bloodbath of the arena for entertainment because they thirst for titillation, for a new thrill.
The Hunger Games is a well-written story, which is more than can be said about most adolescent fiction. The novel is suspenseful and captivating, a real page turner. Author Suzanne Collins pitched it to a young adult audience. The book deals with serious issues, and its tone is best described as grim. Even before Katniss enters the arena, we learn about her hand to mouth existence in an impoverished area known as The Seam. After Katniss’ father dies in a coal mining accident, her mother falls into a deep depression. Katniss and her sister are on the brink of starvation when Katniss begins hunting to save her family.
The Hunger Games is full of heroism. When the lottery to select the tributes takes place, Katniss’ twelve-year-old sister, Prim, is first selected. Katniss immediately offers to take her sister’s place in the arena. Peeta, the second tribute from District Twelve, is another heroic character. He is a strong, gentle, thoughtful person by nature. He is thrust into an arena and forced to kill or be killed. On the eve of the Hunger Games, Katniss’ chief concern is surviving so that she can return home to care for her family. Peeta’s chief concern is remaining true to himself. When faced with evil, he wants to remain unchanged even more than he wants to survive.
The book certainly contains violent images, although, written with an adolescent audience in mind, it is much less graphic than a similar story in adult fiction might be. Collins tends to write, “This happened” as opposed to detailing precisely what “This” was. It seemed to me that the violence became more specific as the book moved on and, especially, as the series moved on.
The Hunger Games raises moral and ethical questions to discuss with a teenage reader. When faced with evil alternatives, how should people of faith respond? Is it licit to take your own life? What about mercy killing? Is it ethical to assassinate a ruthless leader?
For our family, The Hunger Games has provided plenty of food for thought. Discussing this book with our fourteen-year-old son has led to intense discussions about moral courage, about the saints and martyrs. I’ve pointed out that throughout hundreds of pages of peril and suffering, no one prays. Hopelessness is pervasive, particularly in the third book of the series. Prisoners show signs of being tortured. Katniss and Peeta turn to one another for comfort and eventually begin sleeping in the same bed (although Collins leaves the issue of a sexual relationship unclear).
All of these issues point out that this series is not for young readers and not something a parent should hand off without discussion. Our son read The Hunger Games when he was thirteen and in the seventh grade. By the time I read the first book, he had already plowed through the third. I would recommend this series for high school students and older, and, again, with the caveat that parents should be prepared to read it and unpack it with their teenagers.