Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WORTHY!

Note that there's an excellent trivia resource on the Hunger Games wiki.

The 2008 novel The Hunger Games is a phenomenon which has spawned a host of imitators from the pale (2013's The Testing) to the execrable (2011's Divergent), but it stands alone as a remarkable achievement in creating a world with motivated and believable characters and engaging (if depressing!) incidents and world-building. It brings two unlikely characters together in a relationship that is as far from the sad YA trope as you can get and it does it well. Imitators can only dream of selling as well as The Hunger Games has sold, and the imitation is sad, because Collins did not achieve her success from imitation, but by coming up with and original idea which was far off the beaten track of other popular YA fiction at the time she published it.

Yes, I know there are those who claim that Collins ripped-off Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, but I don't buy into that any more than I buy into it being a rip-off of Stephen King's The Long Walk.

I haven't read Takami's novel, but I did see the movie and it sucked. It offered nothing even close to what The Hunger Games delivers. I don't know how similar it was to the novel, but if the novel was anything like the movie it must be awful!

The death toll in the 74th Hunger Games:
1b Marvel - killed by Katniss
1g Glimmer - killed by tracker jackers
2b Cato - killed by Katniss
2g Clove - killed by Thresh
3b Unnamed - killed by Cato
3g Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
4b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
4g Unnamed - killed by tracker jackers
5b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
5g Unnamed ("Foxface") - nightlock consumption
6b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
6g Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
7b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
7g Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
8b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
8g Unnamed - killed by Cato (Peeta?)
9b Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia by Clove
9g Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
10b Unnamed - killed by career group
10g Unnamed - killed at Cornucopia
11b Thresh - killed by Cato
11g Rue - killed by Marvel

Let me say a quick word here about Collins's use of 'Capitol' to describe the capital of Panem, because I found it unnecessarily confusing, and I have to wonder if Collins herself understands the difference between 'capital' and 'capitol', since both words derive from the same Latin root, meaning 'head'. I think capitol is a very American word. I don't hear any nation use this outside of the Americas. Capitol refers strictly to a building where the state legislature meets, and perhaps the judicial branch, too (so much for separation!). It doesn't mean the same thing as 'capital', which is the principle city of a nation, the one which is the seat government. In order not to perpetuate the potential confusion and misinformation Collins may have launched by this lax choice of words, I intend to use 'capital' to refer to the principle city of Panem, and only use 'Capitol' when I need to, or when I'm quoting directly from her novels.

One thing I missed or forgot from the first time through this novel was just how much Collins packed into her first chapter without it looking like a big fat info-dump. It’s a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t feel that way when reading it, and there is so much in there! It's different from the movie but in this case, this is mostly because they obviously needed to shorten the novel to get it into a movie format. After that, the novel moves rapidly to the Capital action. We spend very little time in District 12. And what a good choice of district - this places Katniss last in the big events in the capital: the parade, and the TV interview, so it lets her (or rather, Cinna, her stylist) pull out the stops and have a huge impact.

So we make it through the interviews and through Katniss's anger at Peeta's revelation. This is very similar to the novel; then the start of the 74th Hunger Games gears up, and it's a bit sad as we follow Katniss up into the arena, and even sadder as the bloodbath begins. I thought this part was as well done in the movie as it was in the novel.

Katniss spends her first night in a Willow tree. She's awakened by a girl snapping twigs to start a fire not too far away, but that girl is quickly taken out by the coalition of the lower-numbered districts. None of this hunting party, which includes Peeta, sees Katniss in the tree. The next day, when she's just about dying of thirst (which seems improbable frankly, in so short a time!) she's wondering why Haymitch hasn’t sent her water and eventually figures out that it’s because he knows she's very near some. Eventually, crawling, she finds it and rehydrates, but she's flushed out of her respite by a roaring forest fire set by the game controllers.

When she starts to relax, having made good progress in escaping the fire, she's set upon by baseball-sized fireballs (which are depicted as being much larger in the movie). One of these grazes her thigh and sets her jacket on fire. She manages to salvage the jacket, but her hands and thigh are seriously burned, and the hunting party is on her trail. She painfully climbs eighty feet up into a tree to escape them. They're all too heavy to follow her up into the smaller branches, and the girl with the bow is a lousy shot. The party camps at the bottom of the tree, planning on waiting her out.

As Katniss ponders her fate, she notices Rue in a nearby tree, also hiding from the hunters. Rue points up above her head, where she espies a hornet's nest (which Lisbeth Salander has not yet kicked, evidently!). These are genetically-engineered insects called 'tracker jackers' because they will hunt down anyone who disturbs their nest. Their stings are lethal if you get more than a modest few, and they cause painful, pus-filled swellings. They were used in the war some seventy years before, but are now largely ignored. The ones around the capital have been cleaned out, but why such a fierce beastie hasn't spread until it became out of control is a mystery.

Unlike in the movie, Katniss at first saws through only a part of the branch holding the nest, and she does it that night. After she climbs back down to her own nest, she finds waiting for her the gift of salve for her burns, which she applies. The next morning, her wounds are very much on the way to healing, and she climbs back up to the hornet nest and finishes sawing it down. The hornets are subdued at night because of the smoking they got from the fire, but in the morning they're recovering. Katniss finishes sawing the branch and the nest drops, but she gets stung three times, and that's more than enough to hurt and make her woozy. Two of the girls from the hunting party die, but the rest of the party escapes with only a few stings to make them miserable.

Katniss has to go back to recover the bow and arrows which one of the dead girls had, and pries them from her stiff fingers. Now well-armed with her knife and her favorite weapon, she re-focuses on her ongoing need for food and water. I think it was a master (mistress?!) stroke on Collins's part to have the arena set up so its every variable is at the whim of the game controllers, but it does create problems in the story overall, not least of which is how the heck do they exert such control, and if they can, then why, exactly, is Panem the way it is?! More on this anon.

So, fully armed now, Katniss pretty much collapses from the stings she received, and there's a lull in the games as the participants all recover from their own painful swellings. Katniss and Rue form an alliance at this point, and share both knowledge and supplies. Katniss zeroes in on their one great strength: the two of them together are by far the best out of the whole group of tributes, at living off the land. If they can destroy the supply cache of the hunters, they will have a huge advantage. Collins obviously put a bit of thought into setting this story up, and this becomes more and more apparent as we progress through her trilogy.

Katniss, having discovered that the area around the hunter's 'supply depot' is literally littered with re-activated land mines, triggers them all by shooting open a bag of apples. This is a bit different from the movie, but the end result is the same, and all hell breaks loose. Without "Foxface"'s contribution, Katniss might have 'come a cropper' as they say, at this juncture. Foxface deserves her own novel! She sure deserved a name (as opposed to an insulting nickname) in this one.

Katniss makes her way back to link up with Rue, only to discover that Rue is trapped in a net. Before Katniss can free her, Rue is savagely struck in the stomach by a spear. This happens the other way around in the movie, with Rue being struck right after she's freed. Katniss instinctively shoots Rue's murderer. Again, this differs slightly from the movie. In the novel, she hits him him in the neck, in the movie, it's in the chest.

Rue dies, thereby conveniently removing the need for Katniss to kill her, which would have been horrible. See what a really solid job Collins has done here, piecing everything neatly together to make a truly satisfying, if gruesome whole? This novel is the work of a seasoned craftsperson, despite a few missteps. Katniss's behavior, respectfully treating Rue as she died, wins her the regard of the District 11 people, who sponsor a loaf of their own bread for her. She thanks them loudly when she figures out where it came from, thus beginning a bond which will serve her well in volume two. The novel also makes the point here of how the gifts become more and more expensive as the games progress - something which goes unmentioned in the movie.

In order to stir things up - as if Katniss hasn't already done so (more like shaken, not stirred!) with her 'funeral ritual' - the game master announces that (apparently for the first time) two tributes can jointly win if they're both from the same district. This means that if Katniss can find Peeta (Peeta, honestly?) then she can team-up with him, revive their 'love thing', and both of them can get home safely. It also means that two of the deadliest remaining tributes can also win, fostering a fierce new competition, which is no doubt what the game controllers desired.

Katniss is forced to wait out the night, but she finds Peeta the next day, half-buried in the mud by a creek, and sick and weak from the wound he sustained at Cato's hands (when Peeta urged Katniss to flee after the tracker-jacker incident, thereby saving her life). She finds Peeta after quite a search, using her smarts and logic as to where he would go, and she takes charge of him, washing the muddy disguise from him, treating his wounds with the remains of her burn salve, and with the plant leaves which Rue had shown her (to suck the poison from the stings). The leg wound is serious, and Katniss realizes that she will need some very expensive capital medicine to fix that for him, but the medication is extraordinarily expensive even under normal circumstances (not that we are given any idea why it's so expensive!). This late in the game, she doubts that anyone could afford to sponsor such a gift.

I have to say a quick word here about capital technology. If they're so very advanced, and they clearly are, then why are they so dependent upon the districts for supplies? And if they're not so dependent, then why do they even bother with the districts? Why not simply ignore them and leave them to fester and rot on their own? I know that Collins based this on ancient Rome, and the decadence and brutality is merely a consequence of that choice, but it really doesn't make a lot of sense if you analyze it. This is why we have to choose not to analyze it too closely if we want to sit back and enjoy it! So while this doesn't affect so very much in volume one of this trilogy, this overwhelming technological advantage becomes increasingly untenable in volumes two and three (particularly in three), given that the capital was able to smash District 12 into a pulp so easily. It begs an explanation as to how the other districts even had a chance, much less find themselves in a position to be putting up such a strong showing of resistance.

Anyway, Haymitch sends Katniss and Peeta some broth (there's no comment along the lines of "Call that a kiss?" to which we were most amusingly treated in the movie). Peeta improves a bit, but he has blood-poisoning. In another bit of inspired writing, Collins tweaks the intrigue yet again. The game controller seizes this opportunity to corral all of the remaining contestants in a confined area again by announcing that there will be a free gift of something each of the tributes needs, but this isn’t strictly true, since there are six people remaining in the arena, and only four gifts - one for each of the Districts represented by those remaining six tributes. Peeta forbids her to go, vowing that he will follow her if she does, but Katniss receives a gift of a knock-out potion from Haymitch, and tricks Peeta into drinking it, so he cannot stop her.

Katniss arrives early and secretes herself in the same hide which Rue had used to spy on the Cornucopia while the tributes were all recovering from their stings. She's not the first there, however, as she discovers when she sees the fox-faced girl (arguably the smartest contestant there) launch herself out of the Cornucopia, where she had been hiding, grab her gift, and hare off safely into the forest. As she gets away successfully, Katniss is annoyed that she didn’t think of that scheme herself, but she also suddenly realizes that she has to go get her gift now, or someone else will take it and she'll be stuck chasing them for it. She reasons that if she takes only her gift and runs, it’s unlikely anyone else will come after her because they will need to get their gift, and with her speed, she believes she can escape, but her logic is flawed. Since there are six contestants and only four gifts, the other district pair can split-up, one chasing her while the other grabs their gift.

As she hauls up her little backpack with the medicine for Peeta in it, she's slammed by Clove, Cato's District partner. Clove laughs as she describes how "they" killed Rue and now Katniss will die, too. Katniss spits blood in her face, but she's pinned helplessly. As Clove is about to cut off Katniss's lips - darkly remarking on her kissing Peeta (Peeta, really?) - Thresh, Rue's District partner, slams into Clove and hammers her in the head in revenge for Rue's death. Clove dies. My question here is how did Clove know that Peeta and Katniss kissed? None in the arena is party to the TV transmissions which everyone outside the arena sees. Again a small weakness in the story, but one which we can let go this time.

Katniss fears that Thresh will kill her next, and she asks only that it be quick, but he tells Katniss that for Rue's sake, he will let her go this one time, then they're even. This seems highly unlikely to me given his personality. He cannot have had any idea what Katniss did for Rue, and he knows that Rue is dead, yet he behaves as though he not only knows exactly what she did, but also as though he's sentimental about it! This was weak (but dramatic!).

So Katniss flees, and later administers the hypo shot to Peeta, who rapidly recovers. The two of them continue to play up to the 'lovers' angle, hoping for more gifts and favorable opinions, but they both seem to realize that it’s not all play; some of their interaction at least, is real. This is followed by a two-day thunderstorm. What’s the point of the rain if it prevents tributes from getting together? I didn’t really understand this bit at all, because it stops the action dead from the perspective of the viewers and controllers (and the reader!). You can argue that this provides time for the controllers to 'grow' the 'muttations' for the finale, but that's not sufficient time to grow a full-sized animal, and if they can generate one that quickly, then they didn’t need the two days anyway. This also goes back to the advanced technology argument I was making above. It does give Peeta (Peeta, really?!) and Katniss a moment together, but that was a bit flat for me. One thing which does happen during the two-day blow is Thresh's death, presumably at the hands of Cato. And then there were four.

Finally we reach the finale! Katniss and Peeta, very refreshed (but with Peeta still weak from his wound) head out to hunt, and this is where "Foxface" meets her demise. She steals berries from their supply, not realizing that Peeta had collected them in ignorance of their lethality. She'd assumed that if Katniss was collecting them, they must be good, and she died for it. Katniss assigns this death to Peeta! This possession of the poisoned berries is important for the ending because they hang onto them, thinking they might induce Cato to poison himself just as "Foxface" did. This is why this section was written, and why Foxface wasn't killed by Cato as Thresh was, "off camera" so to speak. The District Twelve representatives now realize that it’s just them and Cato at the same time as they grasp that they have to confront him. He isn't going to come to them and risk being picked-off at long-range by one of Katniss's arrows. He's going to wait to draw them out, until they step into the open, and then he'll rely on his superior strength to kill them.

The twist here is that, unlike in the movie, it’s not Katniss who's chased by the "muttations", but Cato. She and Peeta are standing around out in the open, near the Cornucopia when Cato hurtles by and scales the structure. He's been chased at length by the mutts (which begs the question as to where he was), and he's the perfect victim at this point, lying helpless on top of the Cornucopia, retching over the side from his exertions, but Katniss fails to kill him, and Peeta fails likewise. Instead, she wastes arrows defending all three of them from the mutts! She didn't even have to kill him directly: she could have simply heaved him over the side! But no. Unlike the movie, this finale is drawn-out a bit too much. Cato recovers and tries to strangle Peeta, but Katniss shoots his hand, and Cato ends up falling over the side. Again, unlike the movie, this is way too drawn out. Cato is wearing some sort of chain mail, and the mutts can't finish him off. This is another weak spot since Cato's head isn't covered: why are the mutts not biting his head off?

We all know how this ends and how it sets the stage for he epic battle between President Snow and resident Katniss in the next two volumes. The boundaries have already been drawn for the next arena - the arena of real life where Katniss and Peeta have defied the game makers and President Snow is pissed off with her, her especially, and determined to destroy her one way or another. This novel is really great entertainment! I rate it worthy!