A couple of months ago, I made a very modest resolution to read twelve books by the end of the year. By the beginning of March, I was already starting to lag behind, so I decided to cheat a little by reading something that was quick and “easy.” I’ve been seeing plenty of positive-bordering-on-breathless reviews, both professional and from friends, for The Hunger Games, describing it with all the standard book review catch phrases like “a page-turner” and “addictive” and “I couldn’t put it down.”
They may have been under-selling it. I read the book over two days, and I can’t remember the last time I finished a book — “young adult” or not — that quickly. I actually found myself getting nervous when I wasn’t reading it, anxious to get back into the story.
What’s most remarkable to me is that it was so compelling even as I spent the entire time second-guessing it and mentally criticizing it. It wasn’t the cliffhangers that kept me going, since I was able to predict most of what was going to happen. Reading the blurbs for the sequel had already spoiled the broad strokes of the ending, but until the last couple of chapters (which were very well done) I’d been able to see all of the plot developments coming from several pages away. So it wasn’t gimmickry or cheap tricks, but just some damn good writing.
At first I was a little annoyed that the book seemed so light on descriptions — for a book that spends so much of its time “world building,” most of the places and characters received just a cursory description. But I soon realized that the depth was sacrificed in favor of near-perfect pacing. Slower moments take time to set the scene and even meander into a flashback, while the action-filled scenes have sentences that crash into each other in their eagerness to reach the climax. Entire days pass between one sentence and the next. Events that change the course of the entire story are tacked onto the end of an otherwise unassuming paragraph.
And the book is very sparing in its use of melodramatic one-sentence paragraphs.
In fact, the story is told so well that I quickly forgot any uneasiness I was feeling about how derivative it is. It feels like a mash-up of Battle Royale, The Lottery, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, and 1984, comparing favorably to some of its sources while being less resonant than others. Unlike Battle Royale — and to be fair I’ve only seen the movie and not yet read the book — Suzanne Collins wisely chose to keep most of the “tributes” nameless and unidentified, and not to focus on the brutality of their deaths. This keeps it from feeling too exploitative, but it also loses most of its impact as dark satire.
It’s also frequently, and unfortunately, compared to the Twilight series. I suppose it’s inevitable, since it’s a popular young adult series with a young woman as the protagonist. And that’s the first point where I agree completely with my friend Daniel Herrera’s review: there’s no comparison. The Twilight books seem like even more of an embarrassment when you see an author create a young female protagonist as interesting as Katniss Everdeen. In fact, I have to wonder whether Suzanne Collins was taking digs at the Twilight books when she described a young male character as “sparkling,” and then later when Katniss thinks, “Twilight is closing in and I am ill at ease.” It makes me extremely ill at ease to see such a simpering, vapid, and downright unlikable character as Bella Swan become popular with so many girls, when Katniss is fully-realized, capable, independent, interesting, and flawed.
But that leads directly to my biggest problem with the book: whether it’s a requirement for young adult books, or whether The Hunger Games was intended to be a novel take on it, the book still puts so much of its focus on a teen love triangle. It’s frustrating, because the book handles it as well as possible — Katniss is anything but lovestruck and flighty; she’s even precociously cynical about the whole idea of romance. But romance still dominates the story. It sends a mixed signal — even a girl as strong as Katniss is still somehow incomplete without the right man.
And going back to the complaint about its being derivative: while I spent most of the book wishing that the romantic angle had been omitted or downplayed, I was still impressed that it was handled so cleverly. Throughout, it’s unclear to everyone, even to Katniss herself, whether she’s acting out of genuine feelings or just putting on a show for the audience. But reading reviews of The Hunger Games, I learned that even that is an idea already explored by They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
My other complaint is that the story seems to go out of its way to undermine what Katniss accomplishes. She’s established as extremely capable on her own, but then is given exactly what she needs at exactly the right moment — either by another character, or literally by a silver parachute falling from the sky. Of course it’s good to keep her realistically a human teenager instead of a super-hero, but each time another plot contrivance came along, I wished the deus ex machina were better hidden.
Ultimately, none of my criticisms of the book invalidate it. If anything, it’s more a case of two leaps forward followed by a step back. As far as best-selling young adult series go, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it: it’s clearly aimed at a different audience from the Harry Potter series, but it’s still better written and full of much, much better characterizations. And of course, I’d gladly slap copies of the Twilight books out of young girls’ hands (and their mothers’) and replace them with a copy of The Hunger Games.
With the movie series starting later this month, I’m looking forward to seeing audiences go crazy for a genuinely strong and capable character. (Which reminds me: Brave is later this year as well. It’s finally a good year for daughters!) I’m also looking forward to seeing the sponsorships and corporate tie-ins: maybe The Hunger Games brought to you by Snickers?
But I’m still not sure whether I liked the book enough to dive right into the sequels. It’s probably ghoulish to admit that I’m more eager to read about kids killing each other than I’m interested in reading about a girl deciding which non-threatening boy to go steady with. But it’s a stupid question anyway; obviously I’m team Gale all the way.