For everything that was wrong with The Running Man (I mean, honestly, who casts Dweezil Zappa and Jessie Ventura in the same movie?), I never missed a chance to watch it as a kid. The voyeuristic, blood-thirsty society which served as a background, the idea of a fatal game show, disturbed and fascinated me. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has taken that same premise and created more than just a B-level sci-fi show; she's written an entertaining novel made of equal parts action and emotion.
Set in the vague, but perhaps not-too-distant, future, the first-person narration is controlled by Katniss Everdeen, as wonderfully named a character as any you'll find in literature. Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living in District 12, a rural countryside dominated by coal mines. After her father is killed in a mining accident, she becomes the main breadwinner, taking care of her mother and younger sister, Prim. Until the reaping. As part of the terms which ended a civil war between the Capitol and the twelve districts, each district must surrender two of their children — called tributes — to the annual Hunger Games. When Prim is chosen in the lottery, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place in the deadly game show which is mandatory viewing for the entire country (a terrifying thought in itself). The only way she will see her family again is to outplay, outwit and outlast the other 23 competitors, all of whom are under 18.
Watching, both socially and individually, is central to the story and helps create a dystopian tone which isn't quite Orwellian so much as it is Probstian. With Survivor about to run its 20th season, the idea of millions of people tuning in to watch a small, representative cast do everything they can to be the last person standing isn't so far fetched. Of course, no one dies on Survivor, and none of them are children, but there is certainly plenty of morally reprehensible behavior that passes for entertainment. Living in a society which is, broadly speaking, benumbed to violence conducted through a screen, I found it dishearteningly easy to believe in an audience which would place bets on a youth death-match.
At one point, Katniss listens to a group of Captiol citizens recounting former seasons and notices that the conversation centers on the watchers, not the participants. "Did you see when…?" "Where were you when…?" The fans of the Hunger Games are more interested in their own entertainment than stopping to consider the contestants as anything more than disposable characters. The observation was so terribly familiar that it made the world around me seem only the barest nudge away from similar behavior.
The watching done of and by individual characters plays a subtler role throughout the story, and Collins uses it as a clever tool to concisely reveal personalities. It seems that most people in District 12 are watching one another. Some pay attention for signs of treason, but others are more compassionate. In a flashback scene which mixes both gazing and intentional avoidance, Katniss and her fellow tribute silently interact and build a foundation for their relationship in the games. As a hunter, Katniss is naturally observant, but there is much she refuses to see in the world around her. She mentions more than once her inability to watch her mother, a local healer, treat patients as well as her confusion over a family's insistence on staying close to see a loved one die. When she watches a competitor struggle to overcome a mortal wound, she arrives at an understanding which features some of the book's best emotional writing.
Her other noticeable blind-spot centers on an ignorance of the effect she has on other people. Contrary to the image she attempts to project, Katniss attracts people, both physically and intellectually, and the conflict this creates in her is written in a way which conveys her confusion without making her seem unbearably thick.
Once the Games have begun, watching becomes even more important. Watching for enemies, for traps, but also for hope. Alliances are formed, but only after Katniss has watched or been watched enough to suggest trustworthiness. Likewise, the characters are cognizant of their screen presence (although it's never made clear how they're being filmed), which sometimes dictates their behavior. Faceless sponsors can magically send gifts to competitors, via that tribute's coach, based on what happens on screen. Throughout, Katniss struggles to balance a need to react emotionally to situations with her desire to keep something of herself hidden from the viewing public. In the end, it is Katniss's ability to manipulate the audience which brings the Games to an unprecedented conclusion. It's worth noting, however, that that doesn't necessarily save her life.
What makes the book work, what propels it beyond The Running Man, is not the deftly written action scenes, but the characters. Katniss's often confused emotions are carefully modulated so that she remains a sympathetic character throughout the story; Collins never lets her narrator drift too far into a messy excess. Perhaps more impressive is the development of the secondary characters. So often in a first person novel, other characters are left incomplete because of the narrow point-of-view. Here, though, the author has managed to retain Katniss's voice throughout while still growing those around her into real people, worthy of the reader's sympathies independent of the narrator's judgments.
How far and to what extent Collins will chose to push the dystopian aspects of this story remains to be seen. The Hunger Games is the first of a series (book 2, Catching Fire, is out now and book 3 is scheduled for August), and the novel's ending is not so much a cliffhanger as it is a pause. There is some mention of the Capitiol's despotic tactics and a desire held by some characters for an escape, a change, but the politics are largely overshadowed by the immediacy of the Games. There is certainly fertile ground into which the story can grow, but I think Collins will be hard pressed to match, much less top, this superb novel.