Book (Series) Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series — comprised of the eponymous The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; and Mockingjay — tells the story of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. From the ashes of an only vaguely-referenced conflagration, the country of Panem arose in the lands once called the United States of America. (What, if anything, is going on in the world outside Panem is never addressed.)
Panem was divided into fourteen discrete zones — 13 districts, each of them specifically tailored to produce a specific resource for the Capitol, the opulent and decadent home of what remained of high culture. Civil unrest and class warfare eventually led to actual warfare, with the districts rising up in rebellion against the Capitol in another vaguely-referenced span of the nation’s history, called simply the Dark Days. The Capitol eventually quashed the rebellion, and if the districts thought they had it bad before, it was nothing compared to the abject squalor the Capitol forced them to endure, rationing their food and medical supplies to the verge of starvation and pestilence, penning them in with electrified fences and armed guards. Except for District 13, which had instigated the rebellion — and was, in retaliation, wiped from the face of the earth.
The final touch in the Capitol’s perpetual psychological warfare against the districts was the creation of the Hunger Games. Every year, the names of all the children ages 12-18 from each district are put into a bowl, and the name of one boy and one girl are drawn from each district. These 24 children — “tributes,” as they’re called — are thrown into a gigantic high-tech arena and forced to fight to the death until only one is left. The survivor and his or her family are set for life, guaranteed all the food and other entertainments they could want, and everyone in their district is given abundant food for a year. The entire thing is broadcast on the government-controlled televisions. The citizens of the Capitol consider this entertainment; the citizens of the district are forced, at gunpoint, to pretend they do too.
Part Battle Royale, part The Running Man, with dashes of 1984 and Harry Potter, The Hunger Games‘ word of mouth is building up a head of steam and I’m seeing a lot of people reading, recommending, and talking about the books. Without (I hope) giving too much away, here’s my thoughts on the good, the meh, and the ugly.
First and foremost, these books are ripping fast reads. It’s one of the reasons I’m reviewing the whole series rather than individual installments — I couldn’t get myself to stop reading long enough to write a review in between them.
Collins is certainly well-practiced at the art of the cliffhanger. Every chapter ends in such a way that it’s a real test of will not to turn the page and find out what happens next. The books are also young adult books — I’d estimate a fifth-grade reading level — so they’re right in a sweet spot of not being patronizingly simple while also not particularly taxing one’s vocabulary.
It’s amazingly subversive young adult fiction. To repeat, it’s about a world where children are forced — by the government — to fight to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy. The detail isn’t particularly gruesome or extensive, but just the fact that this series about tyranny and children torturing each other and revolution is aimed at preteens and teenagers is pretty ballsy considering how fragile most adults think young people are psychologically.
With some exceptions (see “the ugly”), and despite my forthcoming criticisms, I enjoyed the books, and particularly enjoyed reading about the characters. In a story like this you’ve got to care about the characters, and Collins has created characters interesting enough to get you to care. That’s more than a lot of writers and stories can say these days
One of the reasons the books are fast reads is that they’re heavily plot-driven. We move quickly from event to event, taking only brief interludes for our narrator-protagonist Katniss to examine her thoughts and feelings on what’s just transpired — often accomplishing nothing but to establish that she doesn’t know what she thinks and feels about it. Entire weeks are skipped in a single sentence. The whole time it feels like we’re hurrying through the setup to get to the real meat of the story…and before you know it the book is over.
Compare this to, for example, Harry Potter, which tends to be highly detailed. Even when skipping over large blocks of time in a paragraph, Rowling still takes the time to detail, for example, how the characters progressed in their classes during that time, or what disasters Neville managed to inflict on himself.
This has the dual function of making the world and the characters feel richly detailed and real, and also gives Rowling the opportunity to slip in important foreshadowing details without the reader even noticing. When it’s part of her style to always describe the items of clothing piled in front of a wardrobe, it’s not immediately obvious whether she’s just describing the mise en scene, or if she’s just told you where the Most Important Hat in the World can be found, especially if you/the characters don’t yet know they need to find the MIHITW.
The economy of detail in The Hunger Games allows for no such misdirection. If she tells you about it, it’s an important detail, and if it doesn’t seem like an important detail, you now know that it is. If she tells you there’s a hat in the room, you know right away: that is a goddamn important hat. You may not know how it’s going to become important, but you know it will. I think this hurts the suspense a little bit. I see what she’s trying to do in laying groundwork here and there, but it actually becomes distracting instead of just being in the background until its time.
Maybe it’s just me. Readers may not know this because I don’t like to go dick-waving about credentials, but I got my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. So I’ve always got this kind of background processing going on examining theme and structure. Maybe I’m just prone to spot a piece of foreshadowing that most of the readership won’t. Still, Harry Potter is at just about the same reading level and there’s a lot of stuff in there I didn’t spot the first time through.
Continuing the totally unfair comparison to Harry Potter, the somewhat austere style of Hunger Games makes for a faster read in at least one possibly negative way, which is that part of the reason I got through it so fast was because there wasn’t much delight in the reading itself. Harry Potter — and other books I enjoy — take longer to read because I’ll often come upon a passage of particularly poetic or witty writing and re-read it several times, really taking the time to savor the humor or inspiration or what have you. Hunger Games offers few such passages — not none, but they are fairly rare, in my opinion.
The books also fail in some ways to capitalize on the concept. For example, the Hunger Games are broadcast throughout all of Panem. Were more attention given to the actual production of the Hunger Games broadcasts, the books could have been a critique, if not a flat-out indictment, of reality television, extrapolating our fascination with watching other peoples’ tragedies as entertainment, the dehumanization of the subjects and the events of their lives, the pageantry and falseness of “reality” entertainment. These things are touched upon, here and there, but only touched upon. There’s so much to explore in the concept, you could write practically the entire series through that lens.
Come to that, the story doesn’t seem to be about anything, thematically. There’s a lot going on plot-wise but — again to go all literary on it — when I try to dig beneath the surface and figure out some kind of thesis, some kind of point the author is trying to make, I come up with a big fat nothing. There’s a lot of stuff that feels like it’s trying to be thematic — hints at issues of reality television, class warfare, hints of libertarianism, questioning if the cure is worse than the disease — but instead of exploring it she just lays it on the table and moves on.
The only clear perspective it is written through is the POV of its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, in the first person present tense style I’m getting a little tired of seeing in prose, if only because if not done with flair (see: Charlie Huston) it can start to make a novel feel like a screenplay. Not that I think this reads like a failed screenplay — in fact I think the guy adapting the screenplay right now has his work seriously cut out for him, but I’ll talk about that later — it’s just I personally want variety in my reading material so I don’t get creatively stuck in a present tense rut. But that’s probably a me-problem.
Also, the first person thing makes me think of Twilight, and while the writing is inarguably better in Hunger Games, we still run into some of the same problems of a first-person narrative — namely, that we don’t know anything more than Katniss does, ever. Which means that entire stories — interesting ones — are taking place out of sight and earshot and we only come across them secondhand. Sometimes that works, but oftentimes, especially as I’m about to get to, it weakens everything. How are we supposed to feel tension about events that have already occurred and are just being reported to the narrator for our sake? Like I said, missed opportunities for some real tension abound here. I would have sacrificed speed for depth, if given the choice.
We also have the somewhat tiresome need to have other characters telling Katniss she’s awesome and how she’s triggered a backlash against the Hunger Games and the Capitol itself, because since that wasn’t what she intended by her actions she doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened. While not as bad as in Twilight — Katniss is kind of awesome, and clearly not simply a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the authors/intended audience (I don’t think any sane person would want to be in any of the situations in which Katniss finds herself) — I’d almost prefer to just leave it as subtext rather than having other characters come out and say it. Or let her figure it out on her own.
It’s been my contention for a while that, generally speaking, a book is about the journey while a movie is about the destination. As I said above, reading a book is in part about enjoying the prose, and a book isn’t constrained to a length limit so it can freely meander far afield of the plot, and so long as the writing remains enjoyable it’s likely to be forgiven. You can pick it up and put it down in your own time. Whereas a film is asking you to set aside a specific block of time — on average, two hours — and it needs to tell you its story and GTFO.
The exceptions are stories where the entire purpose of the exercise is driving toward a climax, a confrontation. Mystery thrillers are of the sort where the ending matters, regardless of how well-written the rest of the book is. Fantasy fiction is also typically building to a confrontation between good and evil — sooner or later, Harry Potter had goddamn well better face Voldemort and settle things once and for all, or what the hell have we been following this story for?
Imagine if we got to the end of Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends find the final Horcrux — only to be knocked unconscious, wake up in a hospital and be told that the Horcrux was actually destroyed before they even got there and Voldemort was subsequently killed in a bar fight in Glasgow. The end.
That’s not, obviously, what happens at the end of the Hunger Games saga, but something very much like it does. The story has two separate climaxes and both of them happen while Katniss, our narrator, is either unconscious in the first case, or incarcerated in the second. And then she’s let out, told that everything’s fine now (though not how or why or what “fine” means), and that’s that. The end.
The third book has an entire subplot where a major character, previously captured by the Capitol, was brainwashed and reprogrammed against Katniss. And then at the end, he’s fine. The book’s over, we don’t have time to get into that. It was just there to add conflict and now the conflict’s over so he’s okay.
However, I think the most egregious moment comes between the two climaxes which Katniss misses. It could perhaps be considered a third climax, the only one for which we are actually present — and Collins drops the ball completely.
Katniss is asked to make a huge decision, the most significant decision of the entire series. Setting aside the fact that I don’t believe it’s a decision she would have been asked to make in the circumstances (since I don’t want to spoil it telling you what it is), what was infuriating was the fact that here we are, inside our narrator’s head. We’ve been here for three books, watched her agonize over the two sides of every decision. But when it comes to this one, we get a single paragraph where she basically says “I hesitated, weighing all my options, trying to see all the sides. In the end, My decision was [redacted].”
I’m not quoting directly, but we are seriously just told that she considers all the angles, but not what any of those angles are. You could fill an entire chapter, an entire book, with the thoughts she would have had to weigh going into this decision. But Collins doesn’t tell us any of it. She just tells us that Katniss thinks about it, and then having thought about it, makes her decision.
I honestly think the reason she doesn’t tell us Katniss’ reasoning is because there is no good reasoning for the decision she makes. Like the character-is-crazy-now-is-not “arc,” it’s just there to add conflict in one chapter and keep the story driving forward. Despite being a huge decision, what should be a pivotal decision in the series, it also pretty much never comes up again.
Between two climaxes we don’t get to see and a third that I don’t buy for an instant, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d wasted my time a bit reading these books. Fortunately, I didn’t waste a lot of my time, since they’re fast reads, and I was mostly entertained.
A movie adaptation of the first volume is already underway, they’ve just cast the Oscar-nominated lead of WINTER’S BONE, Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss. Coincidentally, while watching WINTER’S BONE I found myself thinking how the low-budget verite style would be perfect for HUNGER GAMES, but we’ll see how that goes.
As I said above, I don’t envy the screenwriter’s task (though I do envy his paycheck) — this will be a very difficult adaptation. HUNGER GAMES is unlikely, in my view, to make a successful leap to the screen for the same reason that Dune has not yet done so, either. Most of the book is taking place in the character’s head, as she considers this option or that option, weighs the nuances of what someone may or may not have meant by what they said. Despite the very cinematic visual concepts in the story, HUNGER GAMES would require a very deft and clever adapting hand to translate the emotions, even such as they are, into cinematic form. And I’m not sure I’m convinced the writer of VOLCANO and FLIGHT PLAN is quite up to that task.
If you can put up with a completely mishandled ending to an otherwise entertaining story, with some strong (though also mishandled toward the end) characters, then consider picking up Hunger Games for a quick, engaging but not-too-taxing read. The series is completely published, which makes the crummy ending less infuriating since it’s not like you’ve had to wait years between books only to be let down. If you have a Kindle, check out Lendle — I got the books on loan through there. It’s probably an especially good read when traveling.
If, on the other hand, a fumble right at the goal line will ruin your whole day, I’d say avoid the books and wait for the movies. I don’t know if the movies will solve the plotting problems (in fact I expect that they’ll just exacerbate them), but at least you know in advance how much time you’re investing.