In the past year, every time I’ve recommended to someone that they take a chance and read the young adult novel, The Hunger Games I’ve been asked the same question. “Is it like Twilight?” In so far as it’s a young-adult “fantasy” series written from the point of view of the female protagonist, then yes. But that’s where all comparisons have to end. Let me be clear from the outset. Comparing The Hunger Games to Twilight is like comparing The Lord of the Rings to a Mills and Boon novel.
That’s not to say that I don’t love Twilight. Because I do, and I would defend the first book against its many detractors because really, when I read it for the first time, I was gripped. However, the subsequent books never lived up to the promise of the first tome and as the series progressed I found myself wishing that Stephanie Meyer’s editor had had the courage to tell her that her writing was becoming repetitive and dull and that it’s perhaps not a good idea to spend half a book building up to a fight that never happens. Moreover Twilight only ever had one plot strand which the whole series hung on utterly: the love triangle. And in that respect and in many others The Hunger Games couldn’t be more different. Although there is something of a (frankly overhyped) love triangle the plot touches on a myriad of different and vastly more important themes; the role of the media in modern society, the glorification of violence for entertainment, the division between rich and poor, the way power corrupts, the lengths an individual will go to survive and how the smallest gestures of defiance, in the right circumstances, can spark a rebellion.
The story is narrated by 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in poverty with her mother and younger sister Prim in District 12 of Panem. We’re told quite early on in the story that Panem is the country that arose from the ashes of North America after a series of natural disasters and war decimated the continent. Panem comprises the Capitol, the wealthy seat of power which is itself surrounded by 13 Districts, each responsible for a different industry. At some point in the history of Panem, the Districts unsuccessfully rebelled against the Capitol, which led to the destruction of District 13 and the creation of the ultimate punishment for the other twelve; The Hunger Games. Every year, two children or “Tributes” from each district, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are sent to the Capitol to compete in the games. The game is essentially a televised fight to the death, viewed by wealthy citizens of the Capitol as the height of entertainment and by the citizens of the districts as a reminder never to risk rebellion again. There can be only one winner of the games and he or she is rewarded by a life of ease and wealth back in his or her own district.
We meet Katniss on the morning of the “reaping”, whereby the Tributes are chosen. She’s snuck off into the woods surrounding District 12 with her best friend Gale, to hunt prey to provide food for her family, something she’s been doing since the death of her father at the age of 11. Spend five minutes in Katniss’ company and you’ll see that she’s nothing like Twilight’s Bella Swan. Where Bella blankly spends her time starting at Edward, thinking about Edward and wondering about Edward, romantic love isn’t something Katniss ever considers. Although it’s suggested that Gale might be in love with her, Katniss declares her determination never to have children (so they won’t suffer a possible future as a Tribute), her only concern is feeding her family and keeping her younger sister, Prim safe. Naturally, when 12 year-old Prim is chosen as Tribute at the reaping, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
It’s this decision to volunteer for certain death which tells the reader what they’re in for, what to expect from the story and from their heroine. The book moves off at a frenetic pace, introducing a world of new characters and bringing in the third side of the “love triangle”, the male Tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark. That’s not to suggest that the introduction of Peeta leads to reams of pages devoted to Katniss’ conflicted feelings towards him and Gale. Romance is the furthest thing from her mind, her concerns are how can she, an untrained half-starved girl from the poorest district in Panem hope to survive and even win the Hunger Games? Is she capable of killing another child if it means keeping her promise and returning to Prim? What will killing another human being do to her, and if by some miracle she does return home, how will she live with herself?
It’s this introspection that sets Katniss apart from Bella as a genuine heroine and a believable character. Bella is an empty shell, a husk created with the sole intention of allowing teenage girls to project their own characters onto her. The reader doesn’t observe Bella, she becomes Bella. That is why Twilight has been such a success and explains why Robert Pattison has become such a heartthrob. Katniss by contrast is a hugely complex character with real depth of feeling that she herself doesn’t understand and won’t always face. She’s at times downright selfish, manipulative and unlikeable. She does questionable things and behaves very poorly to people who genuinely care for her, but she does it all in the name of survival. Although she may recognize that she has unexplored feelings for Gale and is confused over Petta’s potentially mendacious declaration of love, her primary concern is always staying alive. At any cost. The setting of the novel may be fantastical, but Katniss is a real, fully formed human being.
What Suzanne Collins has done is very brave. She’s created a brutal world where anyone can die and where twenty-three of the twenty-four children sent into the arena will die without question. Worst still most of those twenty-three dead children will have been responsible for the death of another child. And all of the Tributes do die, often in the most horrific, and for a kid’s book, graphic ways. Even Rue, the youngest of the Tributes, who reminds Katniss of her younger sister, and who for a time forms an alliance with her inside the arena, is murdered. And the reader is not spared the horror of this, or the emotional impact it has on Katniss and it’s Rue’s death that solidifies the sleeping seeds of rebellion in Katniss. Rue’s death is also a reminder to the reader, in a small way, that even now there are parts of the world, where children are forced to kill, not for sport, but for power and money. I don’t want to imbue this book with more social importance than it has, because it is, ultimately a hugely commercial novel, but the fact that it tips a hat to this type of thought immediately puts it head and shoulders above Twilight.
Although I’ve heard it suggested, I don’t feel it’s a cop out that two people eventually survive the games, because it’s handled so well. In the end, both are willing to kill themselves rather than kill the other, and it’s not because of love. It’s impossible at that point in the story (and beyond) to discern if Peeta is genuinely in love and if Katniss believes that he is and potentially feels the same way. Their decision is not an act of love; it’s an act of rebellion. When they hold out those berries they are doing it to sabotage the system, to stick a finger up at a government willing to turn children into killers for sport. To prove once and for all that they will never be the Capitol’s puppets.
Moreover, this final act of rebellion sets up the action for the next two books, without the necessity to hang the plot solely on who Katniss will eventually settle on. Yes there will be an element of the love triangle, but the stage has been set for something quite different; the struggle of a revolutionary force to overthrow a corrupt and brutally oppressive government. Katniss won’t be paralysed with indecision between loving Gale or Peeta, she’ll be struggling with the pressure of being held up as the living symbol of the resistance movement when all she wants to do is sink into the peaceful darkness of anonymity and live out the rest of her days trying to forget the horror she’s witness and the atrocities she’s been forced to perpetrate.