Monday, June 07, 2010

panem et circenses

It seems like I've been reading quite a lot of Young Adult books this year, which is not so usual for me lately... There's been some great books ('The Piper's Son' did not disappoint) and some not so great. One of the most intriguing was 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins, a book which came with significant hype and some different expectations. One friend told me it was pover-rated, another thought it was the best thing ever. In this situation I tend to approach a book with caution, and start out looking for flaws. And there were flaws. But then again I think, is that really fair? Anyway, back to the book...

'The Hunger Games' is set in what appears to be a dystopian future USA, which is divided into a number of 'districts' all ruled by the 'Capitol'. Life in the outer districts is pretty bleak, with little food, hard work and rigid control. To top it off, each year the Capitol takes two children, a boy and a girl (called 'tributes'), to fight to the death in a televised contest (the titular Hunger Games) where only one person can come out alive. The protaganist of the story is Katniss Everdeen, a girl from 'District 12' who supports her family by hunting in the out-of-bounds forest with her friend Gale after the death of her father in a coal-mining accident. When her beloved younger sister is drawn out of the hat to fight in the arena, she takes her place in what looks to be a fairly hopeless fight (well, unless you're a reader, in which there really only seems to be one outcome).

I have to say that although this feels like a stupid quibble, I found the names pretty off-putting at first. Katniss? It later turns out she is named after a tuber- effectively her name translates as 'potato' (although 'Kumera' would make a pretty name...). Of course, that's pretty quickly overcome, and this book really does drag you in pretty fast.

A more serious problem for me is that I thought I knew how the book ended before I started it, but it turns out I was wrong. *spoiler warning* I was waiting for all the contestants to join together and take on the arena, but that doesn't actually happen. Admittedly that would not really work, and I was curious to see how the author would pull it off, but it was still a little bit dissapointing, particularly when they introduced the characters of the 'career tributes'- who have been trained specifically for the games and are keen on killing and winning. It is particularly unfair to judge a book for not having the ending you expected, and really the positive of this was that I was left guessing as to what would happen.

So what does happen? Katniss survives, along with Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, through a combination of luck, fighting ability and appeal to the sponsors. Sponsors have the ability to provide vital supplies to the tributes during the game, and the main appeal of Katniss and Peeta is their manufactured love story. Which turns out not to be so manufactured on Peeta's side, which comes as a surprise to, well, nobody, except perhaps Katniss. And I spent much of the book wondering how she could be so dense. Apart from the fact that she is desperately overthinking everything in order to survive. In the end I could not decide if it was accurate character representation or just irritating. Maybe because the character of Katniss never really worked that well for me- she doesn't do emotions well, not the most sympathetic trait. My level of sympathy for her varied quite a bit throughout the book. Peeta I liked, probably because I have a weakness for the dogged, determined guy with an unrequited love for the heroine that will probably be returned before the story is done. Loved the end of 'Vanity Fair', cried like a baby for 'A Tale of Two Cities', set to be a sucker for Peeta here. I'm interested to see through the series who Katniss chooses- Peeta or Gale. Or neither. Not an easy choice.

Suzanne Collins got the idea for writing this book while watching reality t.v., at least according to Wikipedia, and Abigail Nussbuam has written about why she thinks the novel is a good portrayal of reality t.v., and I don't know if I have anything to add to that. One of the first things that sprung to mind for me was Roman gladiatorial competitions, but once I thought of the phrase 'bread and circuses' I also realised the role that bread plays in this book.

Firstly, circuses. I really liked the political aspect to this story, the idea that while the Hunger Games is a form of entertainment for the masses it is also a form of threat and an exercise of power. Particularly for those in the poorer districts, the significance of the game is that it kills their children, and they are motivated to watch mostly through fear. But while the Capitol may be good at providing circuses, it is very bad at providing bread. People in District 12 are starving, and even the baker eats stale loaves. Two incidences that I can think of in the book hinge on bread: Peeta (the baker's son) gives a loaf of bread to a young Katniss when she is starving- an act of compassion and love, and the people of District 11 send a loaf of bread to Katniss in thanks for her attempts to care for the female District 11 tribute. Apparently the bread of each district is easily distinguishable. Once I started thinking about bread it was difficult to ignore the fact that the country is called 'Panem'. Even if this link is really there though, I'm not sure what it means. Panem is unable to feed it's people, they have to feed each other? One of the key ingredients of Governance is missing? The Capitol is so out of touch with the people's needs it can't provide for them? The country is run purely on fear, every good thing is distorted?

On that note, I have to say that my feelings towards this book are somewhat ambiguous. I wanted to keep reading, it really drew me in, but I also wanted to pick holes. At the end I wanted to read the sequel, I'm keen to see what happens, and in the end I probably enjoyed this book more than it annoyed me. I am also curious- Abigail Nussbuam reviewed 'The Hunger Games' along with another, called 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', which she thought was better. The person who enthusiastically recommended 'The Hunger Games' has also since read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', and judged it to be the better book. Maybe that should be next on the 'to be read' pile?


  1. I reviewed The Knife of Never Letting Go for the newspaper, and I can email you my review if you're interested. I personally think it's a better book...well, you've read my thoughts on The Hunger Games.

    My issue with The Hunger Games is not its concept but its execution. I don't think that Collins quite has the guts to go dark enough. She's arguing that reality TV is, as you (and I, in my own post about it) say, the bread and circuses of contemporary society that keep people from questioning things that are wrong about that society. The extension of this argument is that everyone in the society is somehow complicit and corrupted by it. And yet, Katniss and Peeta at least seem unchanged by their experience of participating in the Games. They go into the Games uncorrupted and they leave them uncorrupted, the only change being that Katniss' eyes are opened to the horrific nature of the dictatorship under which she lives and the ways in which it enforces its rule.

    Fair enough. Collins could be making the point that certain people are incorruptible due to their inherent goodness (which is, indeed, what she seems to be suggesting). I don't have any quarrel with that. What really annoys me is the way she uses Katniss as a mouthpiece, as if she doesn't trust her readers enough to understand the themes of her book and come to her own conclusions.

    Patrick Ness does trust his readers, and for that reason alone, The Knife of Never Letting Go is a much stronger book. I highly recommend it.

  2. You make a good point, and I think it is troubling that both Katniss and Peeta participate in the games, killing other participants, but there doesn't seem to be any moral dilemma there- and I think that boils down to Abigail's point about her problem with the 'Careers' as being an easy way out for the protagonists.

    I don't know if she is saying "some people are incorruptible due to their inherent goodness", to me she seems to justify their behaviour through the need to survive. Katniss particularly seems very focused on survival, but not necessarily particularly 'good'.

    On a different note, while I tried to make this review my own despite having heard so much from other sources I noticed this morning that I have effectively chosen the same title as your first review... I'm sorry, it wasn't intentional! I hope it wasn't influenced by that either, but now it is hard to be sure *sigh*

  3. Oh, I don't care if you give your review the same title! I hadn't even remembered the significance of bread in the book at all (and I'd forgotten that the country was called Panem, too), so I think your title is more to the point than mine was.

  4. Thanks! I forgot to say before I would love to read your review- I'm curious to read this book but I think it will take me a long time to get around to it.

  5. I'll email you the review now, if you like. I think it's got spoilers in it, so if you'd rather avoid them, I guess don't read the review.

    I've got the first two books in the series and if you want to wait until I'm back in Australia I can lend them to you, although of course that won't be for quite a while.

  6. Anonymous12/6/10 16:05

    It seems to me that we are well and truly into the era of bread and circuses. Pop trash TV shows get top newspaper coverage. The recent news that the gov't is going to reserve to itself the right to information about the web browsing habits of the whole population has had very little coverage and almost no outrage. People have forgotten that the original Big Brother was a satire intended to warn.

    Politics, "who cares", and unreality TV, rah rah. THAT'S bread and circuses. A timely book then, but one I haven't read. The popel who need tor ead it won't read it either.

    What therefore must we do?

  7. Anonymous12/6/10 16:43

    There is another facet to bread of course: is the author even vaguely Christian? Jesus says to Peter (John 21) "Feed my lambs", and "Feed my sheep" in the sense of watching over the flock I guess. And elsewhere Jesus is the "Bread of life". So there is some pretty powerful imagery around bread.

    A gov't which can't feed it's people might have lost its way in more than one sense.

  8. But it's interesting (although perhaps less relevant?) because I don't think reality tv is a distraction so much as an exercise in power. Although it depends on the district watching to some extent.

  9. Anonymous16/6/10 21:12

    reality TV an exercise in power? Please explain.

  10. Well in the book it is because the Capitol remove children from the outer districts to face almost certain death, a way of demonstrating control. I'm not sure how well that translates into the real world, you could say that reality t.v. was an exercise in power in an 'opiate of the masses' kind of way, but I don't think that reality tv is currently used as a political tool.

  11. Anonymous18/6/10 15:45

    certainly true that TV is the "opiate of the masses" much more truly than religion ever was. But then, Karl Marx didn't know about TV.