Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Hunger Games (Book 1) by Suzanne Collins

In a dystopian United States that's been turned into districts, with a cruel capital where none with power go without, a reminder that resistance is futile happens every year: The Hunger Games.  Two teens are chosen from each district and must battle to the death to survive.  Katniss volunteers to fight to save the life of her baby sister, and eventually she's placed in a battlefield with a set of allies she's not sure she can trust, up against districts that plan to win every year.  Can Katniss survive this brutal torture, and what happens if she does?

Welcome to the series of books that completely derailed the Summer of YA.  I was warned I probably wouldn't like them, and boy were all of you right.  As I write this review, I'm about halfway through book two--and I finished book one back in June.  For the purposes of this review, I'm only going to discuss book one.

First, let me talk about what I like about this book.

  • Part of why I think it's important is that it serves as a sort of anti-Twilight.  Instead of teaching young women that they should be passive and allow men (especially older men) dominate them, Katniss is a fiery spirit, doing what *she* thinks is best and refusing to allow others to tell her what to do.  Sometimes this gets her in trouble, especially when it comes to the climax of this first volume.  But the fact that at no time does Katniss give in to the males in this world (although she learns that she does not have to do everything alone) is very important.  Like it or not, kids take ideas from the culture they're exposed to.  They internalize things.  While I am glad teens are reading 600 page novels, I do worry quite a bit about what's *inside* those novels.  The Hunger Games may not be the best written thing I've ever read, but its message is a good one, for both young women and young men.
  • Once we get into the games themselves, this book actually flows relatively well.  The scenes within the games are action-packed, and I like the fact that Collins was not afraid to hurt her two main characters and give me the impression right up until the very end that they could die.  Similarly, anyone who the reader might care about could also get the ax at any moment.
  • The sadism of the Hunger Games themselves comes across very well.  From the opening dash for supplies to the placement of water only in such a way that the fighters must battle to keep it to the ending, where the losers of the game are brought back in a horrific manner that actually terrified me just a bit, Collins does a really nice job of showing just how awful this is.
  • There's a clear indication that a deep divide in wealth is not only disgusting, but it's a moral wrong.  I know my politics are on my sleeve with this one (and the next point), but the fact is, while we don't make poor people battle for the right to have food for a year--yet--the Capital is not that far off from how the uber-rich live in this country while people in the streets try to scrape along, with costs rising and jobs growing ever more scarce.  I know Collins based the Capital on Rome, but the decadence of the Roman elite is not any different from hearing about movie stars and politicians with multiple homes and a dozen bathrooms and other things that make me want to puke when I have students who can't afford a meal but don't qualify for reduced lunch.
  • Katniss wants control of her body.  Collins may not refer to reproductive rights directly, but it's clear there's an allusion to it if you read carefully.  Katniss dislikes having the designers try to make her look more feminine, is horrified that they wanted to give her implants, and talks about how she does not want to bring kids into the world, even if that's what is expected of her.  Showing that these decisions should be up to Katniss and not the (male) power structure is another thing I liked.
So that's good stuff, right?  Well, unfortunately, there's also one heck of a lot that's wrong, and I just can't get past them to make this a book I'd re-read.  Over time, they're making it so I can barely finish the trilogy.
  • The opening is one of the worst I've ever read.  I know that there's a desperate fight for life, but it's 130 pages (out of 370) before I get there.  That's just too damned long.  I understand the need to world-build (but that has its issues, see below), but Collins is pedantic and methodical in her approach, working slowly until we get to the good stuff.  I probably would have given up, except that I really wanted to know this book inside and out before teaching again, so we can discuss it in class.
  • The book is written like she's reading over my shoulder.  Countless times, Collins takes pains to explain *exactly* how something is possible or how it works.  It's like she's afraid I might not believe part of the narrative if every set-up is not given careful detailing in advance.  Yes, in some cases, we do need to know information for a payoff later, but she does it way too much.  It feels like she wants to be there to say, "See?  I told you all about the changing environment so you'd never question when it happens later!  Isn't that great?"  Given the wonders we have in the Hunger Games world, I think I would have bought that--and many other--ideas she painstakingly explains.
  • Despite all this explanation, there are two problems that just sink the book for me.  Issue one is that her characters are less fleshed out than the world is.  I just don't care about Katniss.  She's boring.  She's Cyclops when I want to read about Wolverine.  She's Hal Jordan instead of Guy Gardner or John Stewart.  To move to a literary comparison, she's Harker instead of Van Helsing.  Katniss is portrayed as having only one major flaw, which is that she doesn't always think long-term.  That's boring.  She's not selfish, jealous, funny, or anything that could get me to care.  That goes double for Gale, which makes the love triangle fall flat as a pancake.  I spent most of the games worrying more for Peeta, who shows a depth of character that Katniss lacks.  I know Katniss is the narrator, so we learn less about her directly, but she's so much of a blank slate here (we know more of what she doesn't want than what she does) that it hurts the book.
  • The biggest flaw, however, is that despite all the explanations, this world just doesn't hold up on its face.  The Capital has everything it could ever want, which it gets from the districts.  Okay, I am down with that so far.  But the level of tech they have is just impossible.  America is back to the 19th Century everywhere BUT the Capital.  That's fine, I got it.  The problem is that the Capital is not only modern, it's futuristic.  There's no reference to anyone making transistors or computer chips in one of the districts--which would be a must if the Capital even matched 21st Century tech.  Yet somehow, these people have showers not even Bill Gates can design or own that will change on command.  They can terraform at will.  They can make a package appear in the middle of nowhere and broadcast movies in the sky.  These people have miniature flying saucers yet we're told they have to have coal from District 12.  It just doesn't add up.  Despite all of Collins' explanations, there's no explaining how the tech is so high if the regions supporting the non-working Capital are providing raw material only.
I am a person with a low bar for suspension of disbelief.  I read comic books, where irradiated spiders don't kill the people they bite.  But there has to be an internal logic within whatever crazy stuff you're asking the reader to go along with.  I know that Collins wanted to show how opulent the Capital was, but she takes it too far.  Every time something uber-technological happened, I was thrown right out of the book trying to figure out how in the hell it was possible based on the resources known to me as the reader.

Maybe that's something the last two books will explain, but I kinda doubt it, based on my reading of book two so far.  While I am happy kids are reading and while I know there is YA material that works for teens and adults, The Hunger Games just isn't that kind of book.  It's fine as a surface read, but when you start to think too hard, it falls apart quickly.  (Maybe that's why, in a disposable culture, the book succeeds.  No one else but me is examining it out.)  Since it reads so slowly, it invites thinking--and when you think too hard, there's just a whole host of problems.  If you haven't read the Hunger Games by now, don't.  You aren't missing anything.


  1. I didn't think anyone could write a review that did this book justice, but you just did it! I've re-read this book, like,four time, but. Still don't know what to say! Everything you've written is jus so perfect. (': <3

  2. I would have read this in one setting if I hadn't been so tired last night. The story flowed and I just love the characters. I am not sure which Team I am on but I can say I absolutely love Katniss , she is a spunky character and not once was I annoyed with her. As a parent I can't even imagine sending my child off to the Hunger Games.