I’ll start this review by listing the things that irked me about the Hunger Games trilogy. As a first-person narrative with a strong female protagonist, complete with the obligatory love triangle, the books were always going to appeal to that certain group of pubescent girls known as the “teeny-boppers.” One could say that it rode on the coattails of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, but that’s not quite accurate. As someone who has actually read the Twilight books (though I have not seen the movies), I can say with confidence that the writing is much the same in the Hunger Games. The only real difference, and the big redeeming quality of this trilogy, is that the story itself is much more interesting and Suzanne Collins at least attempts to give us some of the underpinnings of her world. But let’s be honest: comparing these books to Twilight is the obvious thing to do, given that anything nowadays that is a hit with the youth is going to be measured against Twilight. So I’ll move on to specific grievances.
Perhaps the worst part of the Hunger Games is the love triangle. It’s a tired old cliché; it’s an example of an author “copping out” when she can’t think of any other way to introduce some more drama into the story; it’s a ploy to get young teenage girls hooked onto the plot and sell merchandise (Team Jacob/ Team Edward shirts, e.g.); and it’s unnecessary. Without wanting to risk spoilers, I’ll just say that Katniss’ being torn between Peeta and Gale never, ever, seems more than a contrived gimmick on the author’s part (side note: what kind of name is “Peeta,” anyway? I kept thinking about bread… which, given that his father is a baker, all of a sudden makes more sense). I never once felt the “love,” if we want to call it that, between Katniss and either of her suitors – regardless of her frequent inner monologues about the differences in the way their kisses felt. Which leads me to the next, bigger problem with Collins’ writing:
The author tells instead of showing. This is rule number one of writing. You have to pull the reader along, show them the details, and let them work out the story for themselves. Instead of really putting us in the moment with Katniss in such a way as to convey the mood Collins wants her to have, the author simply has Katniss say something along the lines of “man, I sure do miss my family. Like, a lot.” I’m not saying she does this all the time, but she does tend to just state things that would have a much better effect is she simply showed them. Relatedly, the world itself is not too deeply described. If you read the last review on Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, you know that giving details can go too far. It’s a fine line between giving too few details and not letting the reader develop his or her own picture of the world. But for me Collins fails to set up her world in such a way that displays its grandeur (or poverty, in the case of the districts). She is more interested in describing fashion and Katniss’ feelings than she is in building the world. Which, let’s be fair, is okay. Not every novel has to be about world-building, and the way that Collins used fashion to signify rebellion was rather unique. I just thought the story could have used more details about the cities and districts and arenas. Especially when you’re coming off reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (which review is coming in the next month or so, when I can finish reading books 4 and 5).
Okay: last negative thing. Or, I guess, semi-negative thing. One of the recurring phrases that I have heard used by numerous people to describe the Hunger Games is: “1984 for kids.” I don’t know that that’s a totally accurate representation of what the Hunger Games is trying to do, but I will admit that the comparison has merit. Essentially, these people are complaining that the story is like the totalitarian world of Orwell’s masterpiece – except oversimplified and dumbed down. And that’s sort of true. You know what, heck with that. It is true. It is difficult to really understand the full chronology and political motivations that led to such a ruthless practice as the Hunger Games themselves. And it seems odd that some kids and poor, malnourished district-dwellers can contend with a government that is supposed to have total control. I mean, the government struggles with maintaining its power over the airwaves at a certain point in the trilogy. It doesn’t seem like the type of government that could get away with putting the Hunger Games on for such a long time without rebellions sprouting up every few years. And besides that, the way that the children are humanized and treated well before they have to go into the games decreases the story’s believability. In real-life dystopian nightmares, the bad guys dehumanize the victims in order to escape their own consciences. So there are lots of things about the novels that seem too simple and that lack the convolution of reality. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter that the book is a “kid’s version” of anything. It’s a Young Adult book, after all. We shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t have the complexity of a novel intended for a more mature audience.
THE BOOKS THAT WERE ON FIRE
Despite all the negativity of the above paragraphs, there are some positive notes to take away from this trilogy. Most notably, Collins is very adept at writing a page turner. Her style makes the reader say “You know what, just one more page.” And so while Collins is not a stellar writer, she is an exciting one – which is an important quality to have when you write books like these. If you doubt her ability to excite people and keep them coming back for more, just look at all the hype the books and corresponding movies have generated. People are eating up her story, and it’s spreading like wildfire.
Another really important point to consider about these books is that the concept behind them is genuinely interesting. I remember speaking with my friend Hugh Howey one time about the ways in which the literary community frowns upon genre fiction, and his response was that the writing in a lot of genre books may not be up to the same standard as more critically acclaimed novels – but they sell more. His point: people like these stories. They are interested in them. Speaking of another writer we both know, Hugh made the comment that “his writing is brilliant, but I don’t care about his stories.” And this is where Collins succeeds. The premise is captivating, and it has a lot of promise. I don’t think she ever fully delivers on that promise, but nevertheless I was intrigued. And that’s worth something.
A third positive is that Collins uses the book to discuss things like a)violence and its effect on the innocence of children, b) government and human depravity, c) class warfare, etc. Apparently these are themes about which she has written in other novels of hers, so there is a sort of intimacy with these issues that is present in the book. You get the sense that, while she may not get into too much detail and she may not discuss all the philosophy behind wars and morality, Collins has thought about these things a lot. Which makes for a deeper story than just an adventure-ish romance like the Twilight books.
Finally, and perhaps most applicably, the Hunger Games books are an easy, enjoyable read. I tend to read long thousand-page works, and getting away from those to something I could read in a day or so was pretty relaxing. The writing is at a level where you definitely won’t have to break out a thesaurus every other page. If I had to give it a name (and I hope this can be said with as little pretentiousness and malice as possible) I’d say this series is “popcorn entertainment.” It’s fun if you just want to have a quick read.
In the final analysis, though, I have to say that Collins’ writing left much to be desired. I’m sure I won’t be able to hear the end of this from all of you THG fans out there, but in all honesty I thought the hype was much bigger than the books were worth.