Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I got this book free at the cinema when I went to see a ropey Taylor Lautner movie, so they're clearly touting it as the new Twilight.  Except it's really not.  It's a grimy, downbeat and less insane version of Battle Royale.

It's set in Northern America quite a bit in the future.  The former US is split into twelve districts (the 13th has been destroyed (or has it?!)) all ruled over by the iron fist of the Capitol, located in the Rocky Mountains.  As penance for a rebellion decades ago, every year a boy and girl from each district have to fight to the death in a massive booby trapped arena.  And everyone has to watch.

The survival and killing are handled without histrionics.  These kids already live a hellish existence, so they handle it better than we would.  What's also done really well is the reality TV aspect.  The central character Katniss is always aware when her actions will be heavily featured in the highlights show.  She knows how the producers will be fashioning a narrative around the senseless slaughter.  And since sponsors can parachute items in at massive cost, it's always in her interest to be the star of the show.

A reality TV show where people kill each other is hardly a new idea, but this is the best I've seen it handled.  The world's built up very well so the satire never seems heavy handed or stupid.  It's strangely classical - people have Roman names, the country's called Panem and the sacrifices are very reminiscent of myths like the Minotaur.  It certainly doesn't feel like "America of the future."  What's also helpful are the details which show us the huge difference between the serf-like existence in the districts and the high tech wonderland of the Capitol - the taste of food, the smells, the feeling of being clean for the first time in your life.

It's going to be hard to sell this as the new Twilight.  Ok, it's got a female teenage protagonist and there's at least the beginning of a love triangle (which unfolds nicely, and is integral to the plot) but there's not much else you can make a connection with.  The movie's out soon, so we'll see what kind of mess they make of it.  Perhaps Taylor Lautner's in it.