Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Dystopian
Where I Got It: Gift
Score: 5 out of 5
So, one of my best friends bought me The Hunger Games series boxset for Christmas, and because I didn’t have enough time to read it during the semester, I promised him that I would read it first thing when the summer started. And I did. I started the first book a couple weeks ago. And I just finished Mockingjay (the 3rd book) last night, by which point I was seriously depressed, because the ending: Seriously depressing.
I thought, instead of doing separate reviews for each novel, I would do one review for the whole trilogy. Partially because I think these books work best when you keep in mind the build up of the whole series, and partially because I simply don’t have the energy to write three separate reviews. I will try my best not to give too much away, however: a) its hard to talk about a whole trilogy without at least spoiling parts of the first couple books, b) even if you haven’t read the book, you probably saw the movie, and c) I realize I’m seriously behind the curve and practically everyone else has read the books already, so it probably doesn’t matter much anyway. In other words, yes, there will probably be spoilers.
Briefly: The Hunger Games is a YA dystopian about a girl named Katniss Everdeen, who in the first book volunteers for the Hunger Games (a brutal, televised bloodbath in which children are sacrificed for the entertainment of the Capital) in order to save her sister, and accidentally becomes a symbol of resistance to the government. In the second book, Catching Fire, having survived the Hunger Games, Katniss is paraded around in attempt to calm the masses, and then is thrown into the Quarter Quell, which is essentially an uber-Hunger Games in which former winners are pitted against each other. Finally, in the third book, Mockingjay, Katniss takes up an active role as the face of the resistance, as things get crazy and complicated. In the midst of all the fighting, blood-letting, and political intrigue, there is a growing-up story (as Katniss tries to figure out who she is, what she wants, and what she believes in), and a love triangle.
Now, before I say anything, I would like to make it clear that I definitely enjoyed these books. They were fun, (mostly) quick-paced reads. That being said, I am a little baffled by some of the people I’ve heard talk about these books, or some of the comments I’ve read in various places online. A lot of people rave about these books like they are the best thing ever, as if they are brilliant writing on par with some classic piece of literature like… I don’t know, Farewell to Arms or something.
Maybe I’m simply more critical than most people (I’m a PhD, so I can get away with that), but I’m sorry, these novels are NOT brilliant prose. The prose itself is decent. It’s clean, it’s simple, it keeps the focus on the story and does not get in its own way too often. That’s the most that can be said for it. But that’s OKAY. Because I’m not reading a YA novel because I expect or even want beautiful, poetic, brilliant prose. If I want that I’ll go read Rikki Ducornet or Margaret Atwood or something. What I want from a YA novel is a fun, entertaining story, a quick plot, and likable (or at least relatable characters), and THAT The Hunger Games gave me, absolutely. Let’s just not pretend it’s the next great American classic or something like that, okay?
The story. Now, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale. And I’m not denying the similarities in theme and basic premise. But the people who are angry and ranting about it (I could name names, but I won’t…) need to get over it and themselves. The premises are similar, especially in the first book, but the basic premise also has similarities to Lord of the Flies, Ryan Gattis’ Kung Fu High School, a variety of Star Trek episodes, and of course reality television and ancient Roman gladiators (which Suzanne Collins cite as main influences). Battle Royale can just as easily be seen to be a rip-off of Lord of the Flies and, as Stephen King once pointed out the similarity: the Survivors reality tv show. The POINT is that all of them begin with a very common premise/theme that is a deep part of human culture, and go off into many different directions, with different end goals and messages in mind.
So yes, I liked the story. I thought Collins took a common, oft-explored trope and made something interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining out of it. The amount of thought that went into the world-building and the logic behind the government workings was impressive. I think it was highly important that Collins made the resistance’s own possible corruption a part of the plot as well. The love triangle sub-plot is not strictly necessary but is a common and accepted element of many (perhaps even MOST) YA novels that I just have to learn to deal with it.
And, of course, I loved the characters. My friend who gave me the books prefaced the gift by telling me I would love the main character, Katniss Everdeen. And I definitely like her. She’s a complicated, strong-willed character who grows a lot throughout the series. However, she’s not my favorite character. Peeta, one of her two love interests, is by FAR my favorite character. BY FAR.
Now, let me make something clear: I like flawed characters. I saw some complaint a while ago about how people don’t seem to like flawed female characters. For me at least, that’s not true. I like flawed female characters. And Katniss is definitely flawed. So flawed that it really started to frustrate me after awhile. But not in a way that means I don’t like her as a character – her flaws are what drive the story, her flaws are necessary and fitting for both the story and character. Her flaws did, however, often make me very frustrated with her as a PERSON. There were many times I just wanted to SMACK HER. HARD.
Peeta, on the other hand, though still flawed, was the real moral compass of the series. The kindest, wisest, and most moral person in the whole series. And I adored him for it. Even though it got him screwed over several times over.
(A couple of my other favorite characters: Finnick and Johanna.)
Which brings me to, What I Didn’t Like:
Starting with Gale, the other love interest in the triangle. H really rubbed me the wrong way. While he certainly had many good qualities, and Collins meant him to be likable (and he probably is to many others), I found him pushy and morally questionable. He makes some very dubious moral choices. And while Collins tries very hard to still make him sympathetic, to couch all these choices in the necessities of war and the understandable rage of recent loss, it was not enough for me. I really REALLY disapproved of the character, and I don’t think Katniss (or Collins) does enough to demonstrate that Gale’s choices were WRONG and SHOULD be disapproved of.
In fact, Katniss’s inability to articulate the wrongness of many of the choices in the novels bothered me as well. She often had a vague FEELING of their wrongness, but she could almost never actually say WHY they were wrong, or really confront anyone about them. I get that its just one of those flaws in her character. And I get that some people in real life often have trouble with things like that. But I feel that by the third book, after she’s been through SO MUCH, she would have be able to more clearly SEE what was wrong with some of things that are going on (and I’m trying very hard to be vague so as not to give too much away). In her defense, she does rectify this in the end, but it still really bugged me.
(Also, Katniss’s mother really pissed me off. Like REALLY. REALLY REALLY.)
Most of the other things I don’t like have to do with the writing itself. For instance, at a number of places in all three books, Katniss is rendered unconscious or whatever and then when she awakens, both she and we as readers are gifted with an enormous info-dump, often with things that feel rather too deus ex machina for my liking. This felt like lazy writing to me. I feel that more of the info could and should have been incorporated into the action of the story, rather than as some kind of report giving to Katniss because she missed it all while she was sleeping. On that same note, some times the descriptions of things often felt rather clunky to me, and I found myself skimming over whole sections of setting description without any problems or confusion later on.
AND all three books have excruciatingly slow beginnings. Most “experts” will tell you that beginnings are IMPORTANT. If you don’t hook someone quickly enough you could easily lose them completely. Honestly, if I had just picked up The Hunger Games (the first book) in a store to skim through the first couple pages – without it’s having a reputation in the media or among readers, and without the recommendation from my friend – I probably would not have kept reading. Obviously, I would have been missing out, because I did really enjoy the series after I got through the first few chapters of each book, but STILL. When all three books have painfully slow openings, that’s a bit of a problem.
And then there’s the ending. Well, it’s not that I don’t like it exactly. I mean, from an emotional standpoint, I DON’T like it; but from a narrative standpoint I think it’s appropriate. I knew going in that with the subject matter and tone that there could not be a “happy” ending. At least, not if Collins knew what she was doing. A nice, everything-is-tied-in-bow, happily-ever-after ending would have been inappropriate, inauthentic, and an insult to the tone of the series as a whole. STILL, the ending was DEPRESSING. Good grief, was it depressing. There was a war, of course there were going to be casualties, but some of the deaths surprised me, and some pissed me off, and some just did not seem necessary for the story. I really do think the last really horrible death (if you’ve read it, you know which one I mean) was really only put there to resolve the love triangle, and I think that’s cheap. In fact, now that I think about it more, I really DON’T like that part of the ending. The rest of it, while depressing, was appropriate. But that last important-character death felt like cheap writing to me, like it was the only way Collins could figure out to resolve who the hell Katniss would end up with – rather than letting it come out of the character development, she had to use a cheap plot device.
*deep breaths* Okay, I’m all right now.
In any case, while I definitely think there are some flaws in the writing, overall, I really enjoyed the series. It was a blast to read, I was able to relate to many of the characters, and the story had a lot of interesting things to say about how and why governments function, the ability to humans to turn anything into entertainment, and become inured to violence, pain, depravity, etc. It also says a lot about courage and duty and doing the right thing for the right reasons.
All in all, I highly recommend The Hunger Games – except, of course, that I’m probably the last person to actually get around to reading them so there’s no need for me to recommend them anyway.
(Also, I apologize for the egregiously excessive use of capitalization in this post.)