Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games (Book 1 of The Hunger Games)


The Hunger Games (2008), Suzanne Collins. Hardcover, 384 pages.

Summary: A girl takes her sister's place to compete in a violent game where victory means being the last one alive. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     The swelling. The pain. The ooze. Watching Glimmer twitching to death on the ground. It's a lot to handle before the sun has even cleared the horizon. I don't want to think about what Glimmer must look like now. Her body disfigured. Her swollen fingers stiffening around the bow . . .
     The bow! Somewhere in my befuddled mind one thought connects to another and I'm on my feet, teetering through the trees back to Glimmer. The bow. The arrows. I must get them. I haven't heard the cannon fire yet, so perhaps Glimmer is in some sort of coma, her heart still struggling against the wasp venom. But once it stops and the cannon signals her death, a hovercraft will move in and retrieve her body, taking the only bow and sheath of arrows I've seen out of the Games for good. And I refuse to let them slip though my fingers again!

STATS

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 3/10

Rounded Characters: 3/10

Well-Developed World: 5/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10 


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 4/10. Frankly, I was disappointed in the writing quality here. This was my first encounter with Suzanne Collins, but I had higher expectations given the buzz this series has been getting. I'd put her writing in this novel roughly on par with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. To her credit, she mostly keeps her prose simple, avoiding the worst of the silly frills that Meyer frequently used (smoldering eyes, anyone?). Still, there's no elegance to the simplicity, nothing like what you'd find in Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and certainly not anything as subtle as what you'd find in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Road. And despite the blessed lack of silly frills, Collins still ends up offering useless details, as when Katniss thinks this bit: "Concealed by a clump of bushes, I flatten out on my belly and slide under a two-foot stretch that's been loose for years. There are several other weak points in the fence, but this one is so close to home I almost always enter the woods here." Okay, so the first sentence is fine. But in the next, we're offered little of significance about either the landscape or the character. Does it matter that it's close to home? And does she ever tell us why she might infrequently use gaps elsewhere? These are points that are unconnected to any plot-line. It may seem like a nit-picky example, but I think it highlights Collins' odd choice of using the present-tense, first-person point of view, and how it encourages filler and fluff for the sake of trying to display Katniss' voice. But the greatest distinction I can get from Katniss' voice is her tendency towards pessimism and the way she qualifies over-the-top statements with phrases like "My mother was beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me," or "He hates me. Or at least distrusts me." Although McCarthy's The Road isn't written using the first person point of view, McCarthy uses a very simple, sometimes even terse prose style that would make a useful comparison to show where Collins doesn't quite rise to the challenge. And if you want some novels that really shine using the first person, take a look at Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for young-adult comparisons. 

Depth of Concept: 3/10. A dystopian, post-apocalyptic future isn't exactly an original concept. Long before The Hunger Games we had Fahrenheit 451, Brave New Worldand 1984, for instance, all novels that most people read before finishing high school. The Giver is a great example of a similar, award-winning novel that skews even younger than the audience for The Hunger Games. The lottery aspect of the novel seems blatantly lifted from Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery, and scarce food, game-like fights-to-the-death (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, anyone?), and body modifications are staples of the genre. Ultimately, Collins' take on the typical set-pieces is enough to get the narrative moving, but doesn't add much that is original to the genre. And in contrast to iconic works like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984, there is no rebellious faction to counter the stupidity of the ruling power, and to serve as the insightful vehicle for the protagonist (and the reader) to observe the problems with the status quo. There is some fairly basic discussion of how oppressive the ruling power is, and how rough it is to be without food, but this story is much more about action than it is about critique, and you never hear of a single character who ever refused to follow the program concocted by the ruling power of Panem. Collins never talks about it, but the characters must be brainwashed. And when it comes to the action of the novel (two hundred pages of teens tracking and brutally killing each other), there's hardly any moral critique at all. At one point Katniss is enraged that someone has the audacity to kill her ally, but she doesn't think twice about returning the favor. This genre has produced some of the most beloved and award-winning classics of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, but The Hunger Games is never going to be read in a classroom at any level as one of the better examples.

Rounded Characters: 3/10. A lot of the characters feel like they could be described by about two or three adjectives. Katniss: fierce, protective. Peeta: romantic, loyal. There's very little nuance to the characters, and though I eagerly hoped at one point that Collins was going to offer a "triple agent" character line to a certain character, he/she ended up being just as obvious as I feared he/she would be (I'm trying not to spoil). If we ever asked, "who is this character, deep-down," I don't think we could ever really answer it for Katniss' younger sister Prim, or for her best friend Gale, or her mother, or her mentor Haymitch, and the list goes on. Katniss' internal monologue mostly goes to extremes: he hates me! He said that because he wants to trick me. To kill me! Her monologuing uncertainty is rarely very insightful or subtle, and often feels as though it's just padding until we get to another action point. And while on the surface Katniss seems fierce! protective!, her character is frankly not very interesting, nor does her character seem to change at all or come to any particularly significant insights. She merely endures pain, and comes out on top at the end. And at bizarre times, she's captivated by just how beautiful her stylists can make her, despite the way Collins seems to try to set her up as a character beyond that sort of vanity. I'm inclined to think that the first-person perspective contributed to the surface-level descriptions of characters, and it's too bad, since I think Collins could have done a better job with a more traditional third-person perspective that doesn't rely so much on the voice of the protagonist. Finally, I just gotta say that the "romantic" moments between Katniss and Peeta were just really obnoxious to me; in moments both when they were faking and when they were sincere, it just didn't feel real or interesting. And it got most irritating when Katniss inexplicably knew exactly what her mentor and the viewers at large wanted her to do in the games, based on the scantest of evidence. 

Well-Developed World: 5/10. I wavered between a 4 and a 5 in this category. Collins briefly describes a new North America and the history behind the different districts, but probably the most notable aspects of the "world-building" comes in the form of realistic knowledge and application of medical facts (highly appropriate in a story where people have a habit of getting axes in their heads or getting blood poisoning from festering wounds). Then we also have the people and animals that Katniss comes across over the course of her journeys. We see "mockingjays," birds that were genetically engineered as "mutations" to be spies and then abandoned to populate the world. We see the difference between the struggling cast-offs living in the vassal-like districts and the richness and eccentricities to be found in the capitol (strangely colored stylists who shave every inch of hair off of Katniss' body; apparent traitors as servants whose tongues have been cut out; flamboyant and ageless TV interviewers with Halloween hair and over-the-top costuming). But we never really get a sense of the average citizen of the capitol, just a few stylists, and we never really get a sense of what the capitol is like, or what any district is like beyond Katniss' own, only a sentence-long description of each. Even in Katniss' district, it's hard to get a sense of what life is like for the average person, and how far Katniss is from an "average" person. The land is not described very specifically; we know that there are mountains in Katniss' district, but it's hard to tell much else that is distinctive about the geography of Collins' world. Ultimately, though, this story seems to be more about the intensity of teens killing each other than about immersing us in a richly detailed world.

Page Turner: 8/10. The novel doesn't start out super fast, but by the time Katniss is chosen as a "tribute," about 30 pages in, it picks up the pace.  Katniss trains for the arena for a while, and then once the actual games begin, it's hard to put the book down. The "games" part probably deserves a 9/10 for pacing. The thing is, I'm not sure how much of my engagement came from a place I'm proud of. The parts that really gripped me were the 200 or so pages in the middle of the novel where teenagers (as young as 12) are doing their darndest to kill each other in some pretty horrible ways. This book brings out the voyeur in me, the part of me that hates myself for checking the news online and immediately clicking on news stories that involve murders, freak decapitation, strange deaths, and sordid crimes. I think the main reason this is such a page-turner for most of the book is the novelty of young people going at each other with swords and spears; it's not because of any great writing or insights. But, whatever it says about me, it still hooked me. The story certainly slows down at the end once there aren't as many kids around to die.

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10. More than some (more than Twilight, I think), but I wouldn't really call this a "thinking" book. It's a book where teenagers train to kill each other, and then kill each other, rarely with any critique about why or whether they should. There's not the nuanced suggestion of depravity held in check by civilization that you'd find in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, or the brilliant moral ambiguity present in Ursula K. LeGuin's short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Katniss' character never really has to make a hard decision or go against what is expected in Panem except for when she takes her sister's place as a tribute, and at a certain point at the end of the games (and even at the end, it turns out to not have been such a hard decision after all). Basically, her character does not question the status-quo of her world, when it seems to desperately need questioning. The most you get is akin to the moment when Katniss' friend Gale says, "You know how to kill." "Not people," says Katniss. "How different can it be, really?" says Gale grimly. And that's pretty much Collins' answer. It's not that different, and Katniss doesn't end up thinking overly much about it. Katniss is always concerned about losing sponsors, and never about whether it's okay to kill someone else. That would be okay if Collins was using Katniss' amorality to make some sort of point . . . but it really seems as though Collins sidesteps any chance to use Katniss as a way to indict us for enjoying Katniss' lethality and lack of conscience.
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10. Maybe I should have made it a 4. This isn't a bad read, and it had me engaged, except for bits at the beginning and the end. But there are simply so many great options in this genre that I think are far superior intellectually, and not just the ones that are typical school-assigned reading list stuff. Scott Westerfeld, for instance, writes a lot of his young adult novels in post-apocalyptic or dystopian futures, and they are more thoughtful and better written (see Uglies and Peeps). Garth Nix has also produced some interesting twists in this genre (see Shade's Children and Sabriel). Collins' book would have kept me occupied on a plane ride or while I commute, but I think Megan Whalen Turner's description in Publishers Weekly puts it about right when she explains that The Hunger Games is more Death Race 2000 than 1984. And even Death Race 2000 offered some "critique" in the way it treated violence with such an over-the-top comic tone. I'd really like to hear how fans of the book think it differed from the Stone Cold Steve Austin vehicle, The Condemned. I'm just curious.

Books To Compare:  There's a rich tradition of classic novels set in a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world, whether 1984Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451And of course, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the recent Pulitzer Prize winner that makes a really useful comparison point. You also wouldn't want to forget Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, a popular short story found in many anthologies since it was published in the twenties. Finally, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated for children so that they could learn to rely upon themselves for all of their needs. The Hunger Games doesn't really match up strongly to any of these in terms of writing quality or thoughtfulness, but it very obviously draws on the genre staples and brings the under-appreciated post-apocalyptic genre to the public's eye. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Hunger Games on Amazon.

7 comments:

  1. I want to argue with you, because I liked this book much more than you seem to have, but I find myself completely agreeing with your scores. The one thing we really disagree on is how interesting the romantic plot is (however cringe-worthy it was at times, I found it as engaging as any other part of the story), but that's a completely personal point.

    If you are interested in finishing the series, I'd be really interested in your take on the ending, not compared to other dystopian literature, but maybe compared to other YA books. I predict you'll find the second book, at least, worse in all your categories; but they are easy enough reads that it may be worth it just to finish the story, which I think does offer at least a few unexpected turns.

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    1. Hey Rachel,

      I really appreciate your comment. I think that I AM interested in reading more of the series, more so than I was Twilight...and I'm actually REALLy excited to see the movie. Different mediums, different messages...

      But other than that, I think you bring up a good point - about just how heavy my criticism gets for some of these books (take a look at Wizard's First Rule, for instance). I've posted reviews for all of the books on amazon under "English Major Critiques..." (hard to get more uppity than that, right?) and the only feedback I get is that people think I'm a first-class douche-bag.

      I think I'll write a new post pretty soon soliciting feedback about just when enough is enough...when I've gone overboard in detailing what I think the flaws in a story are, and when I've crossed the line from healthy criticism into something maybe approaching sadism.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment.

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    2. Also...fair enough about the romantic elements...it's just that they seemed to go on and on...not exactly escalating (though that would have brought on its own problems), but just the same sort of scenario to please the viewers over and over and over again. While I'm glad it wasn't in the book for mostly squeamish reasons, I almost think that the fakery ending in a sexual experience would have made the most logical sense in critiquing the voyeurism of Panem.

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    3. Well, like I said, I still totally agree with your scores. But I guess it might help to consider WHY someone would want to pick up a particular book. I mean, I didn't read Pride and Prejudice for the third time because it had a deep concept that kept me thinking and was a page turner, etc. Maybe your "Overall Recommendation" could take that into consideration--the audience, I mean. I completely recommend the Fablehaven series to what we called "reluctant readers" when I worked in an elementary school library, even though I didn't really like it very much myself. But then, you recommended Uglies instead, which does take the HG audience into consideration, even though I didn't really like that one. Maybe we just have different opinions on what makes a book worth reading.

      Still, I look forward to keeping up with this blog. Maybe you'll convince me to read something new!

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    4. You make a good point; certain books are ideal for certain readers. And while I agree that the Fablehaven books were not my favorite (but not terrible, either), I can see how they would be just right for "reluctant readers." Obviously Harry Potter was great that way too.

      This blog is probably not at all for reluctant readers. More for the type who has fallen in love with at least some classic masterpieces, and wishes they could find similar quality in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, but aren't sure where to look (since that also describes me).

      And, you got me on Uglies. I actually haven't read much of it...just a few excerpts and had recommendations. But I DID read Peeps, and it really impressed me. So, Uglies is on my list.

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  2. The Katniss in the movie was better fleshed out than the one in the book, which seems to go against the norm of book-to-movie. Overall it felt like the book was simplified to keep it engaging for the YA audience. I don't know if that was a good move and contributed to the popularity, or insulting because the readership would have appreciated a more complex story, but I did find myself wishing it wasn't geared towards teens.

    One thing I don't know if I agree with is the idea that the lottery in the book is "blatantly lifted from Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery'". I think the concept of drawing names out of a hat is too general to say it was taken directly from something else.

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    1. Yeah, you might be right about Shirley Jackson...but it really did jump to mind when I got to the Hunger Games Lottery part, and most young adults read The Lottery before they get out of high school, maybe even in middle school. I wonder if any readers think of some OTHER story that involves a lottery, and if they think of it FIRST. I think I may need to go on wikipedia now and spend a couple hours researching lotteries when I'm supposed to be doing something productive.

      Thanks for the comment! Enjoying your blog too!

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