Reviewers note: one, plot ending details and other general spoilers are sure to follow; two, I own the audio version of this book meaning I do not have the text in front of me to quote from.
I first listened to The Hunger Games in early 2012, perhaps a month before the first movie came out. I was never really interested in the series, but people seemed excited and I had heard good things about this book and its subsequent sequels. I went in with cautiously-optimistic expectations and came away very dissatisfied.
Now in early 2013, about a full year after I first listened to The Hunger Games, I found that I had forgotten why I disliked it. I also found that I had forgotten most of the details within the book itself. I went back in, now having much lower expectations than before, and I still came out dissatisfied.
For those that don’t know, The Hunger Games is a first-person present young adult novel about Katness Everdeen, a very pragmatic 16 year old who spends most of her time hunting for food in an effort to feed her impoverished family. She lives in a very dystopian world called Panem, which is made up of 12 districts and a Capitol city that controls and runs everything. Every year, the Capitol puts on a show called the Hunger Games where two children from each district are flown to a remote game preserve and must fight each other to the death.
Katness winds up in the Hunger Games alongside Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son with a friendly disposition. He’s also in love with Katness.
So we have the recipe for what could be a pretty good action novel, except the characters don’t enter the Hunger Games until chapter 11, almost halfway through the book, and then almost all of the action takes place off screen…
I have two big problems with The Hunger Games. The first is the setting and the second is the way the book is written.
Throughout the book, I constantly struggled to buy the setting and situation of Katness Everdeen. The world of Panem is an odd mix of science fiction and poverty, and the two settings clash in a way that I could never get around. For example, Panem has hovercrafts and medicine that borderlines magic, but it also still needs coal from District 12. Surely at this point in the future, there would be more efficient and renewable sources of energy.
But the biggest example of this odd dissonance is the Hunger Games themselves. The whole ordeal is set up as some large pageant, first starting with all of the children dressing up in very expensive costumes and parading around in front of cameras for excited onlookers to see and bet on. Then they are interviewed (in different costumes which are no less expensive) so the audience can get to know and like them. Only after this are they allowed to compete.
The arena they fight in is an extremely large construction that’s completely controllable by the engineers who designed it. The weather can be made to be extremely hot or extremely cold, and the game makers can also make it rain or drain entire rivers. They had to bring in all sorts of animals and plantlife to make a working ecosystem that will last all of two weeks just so 24 kids can kill each other.
And each arena is completely different from the last one. They are not reused.
How much money must all of this cost? The need for a dictator to control is something I can understand, but this has gone to a point where it cannot be financially successful. And the game makers themselves strive to outdo their preceding games, but I don’t see the point in that since the Games are required watching. There are no other channels to compete with.
Those in the Districts watch on in horror as their children are made to kill each other, but those in the Capitol seem to view the games as a yearly excitement. They bet and watch and fall in love with the personality of characters. But they don’t ever seem to see how wrong everything is, and that doesn’t make sense to me either.
The premise of the novel is something that can work, but the execution reads like one large sham. I just do not buy it; I am unable to suspend my disbelief.
On top of that, I absolutely hate the way The Hunger Games is written. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem my first go through, but I’ve figured it out now. This book violates the “show, don’t tell” rule.
The Hunger Games doesn’t show me what’s going on in the sense that I cannot picture things clearly or appreciate the gravity of most situations. No, I am told what’s going on; I am told what things look like; I am told what characters are doing. I am not shown these things. There’s such an extreme lack of detail in the narration here. It just screams bad writing.
When Katness first mentions her experience with a hovercraft, I’m never told what the hovercraft looks like. It’s called a hovercraft, and that’s it. But I want to know what it looks like. I want to know the body language of people when they talk or what buildings look like beyond the barest of details. I want a fleshed out world with fleshed out characters, and this book doesn’t deliver these things.
The Hunger Games is written in first-person present, an extremely difficult perspective to work with, and the book is one of many examples of why first-person present should be avoided when writing long pieces of fiction. It has its uses, and it can work quite well, but it just isn’t made for a 15+ hour book. It’s too hard to logically fit in details and backstory when the main character is doing all of the actions now and not in the past.
Because first person present is told with an “I” voice, it’s impossible to believe narration. A character would never narrate a past event with, “I remember when” if he isn’t talking to someone. Internal monologue doesn’t present itself that way because it has no reason to; you don’t ever introduce your own thoughts to yourself.
You don’t ever end a thought with “I think.”
Katness has an odd level of introspection that follows certain events and passages, and it doesn’t fit. Such commentary would logically come hours or even days later, after the event has passed and Katness has had the time to think back and reflect, but Katness does this reflection during the events instead of after. It feels awkward and wrong.
Now and then Katness actually addresses a “you” during her exposition, saying things like, “you might not believe it, but…” and I can’t help but wonder who she is talking to. She can’t be talking to me since she’s currently in a train heading to the Capitol and I’m sitting in front of a computer at work, and she isn’t talking to herself given the “you” pronoun. So who is “you?”
The entire book reads as if someone is telling me a story and using the wrong tense. It’s absolutely aggravating.
Most of my problems with the setting and motivation were done on purpose. The Hunger Games, like most dystopias, serves as a criticism for our current world, in this case, American consumer culture. But I think Collins is too “on the nose” with this book; she lacks subtlety, and so the points she’s trying to make come off as inconsistencies instead of criticism.
Those in the Capitol like their Hunger Games to be violent and filled with suspense, but the games cannot be too violent. Once a contestant started eating his victims and that wasn’t appreciated; the game makers made sure this contestant died as Panem wouldn’t abide by such a barbarous winner. Here we see the arbitrary line that Americans have drawn in their entertainment media and culture, and that’s well and fine, but the passage also reads like a plot hole. The Hunger Games are a violent event, and the Capitol viewers like them extra gory and bloody, but only to a point? That doesn’t make sense. If these viewers are comfortable watching kids 12-18 kill/torture each other with knives and other medieval weaponry, then surely cannibalism would be an extra bit of zany fun.
Likewise, the dissonance in technology and money are exaggerated to make a point, but this dissonance is handled in such a way that it breaks the immersion for me and makes me question this world. Everything is just too extreme.
Even the lack of details is done on purpose and for an effect. Katness spends much narration on the food she is eating, what it looks and tastes like, but not much time on anything else. But she’s from a poor family that constantly battles to stay fed, and the book is called The Hunger Games, so food becomes a motif and symbol. But in a book with action and drama, food isn’t interesting. Like the above examples, I understand the reasoning behind this decision, but it just wasn’t a wise decision.
There are a few things The Hunger Games does quite well though. I love that Collins isn’t afraid to injure her characters, something many other young-adult books stay away from. Katness and Peeta get banged up pretty well, and Peeta even loses his leg. There are magical levels of technology that fix them at the end, but they do go through about half of the book in a constant state of pain and misery.
I appreciate the fact that Collins wrote a book with the premise of kids killing kids. The murder of children is another thing mainstream media tends to shy away from.
Even though I dislike the names of most of the characters because they are silly, I do like that there are specific reasons for every name in the book. For example, Prim is named after a rose, Rue is named after some other kind of flower, but Katness is named after an edible plant. Prim and Rue are idolized, innocent characters whereas Katness is the practical huntress and bringer of food. I appreciate these kinds of details.
And I do think the Katness/Gale/Peeta trio works really well. There’s no love triangle here, Gale is simply a foil for Peeta, and Katness doesn’t actually love either. She puts Gale in the friend zone during chapter one or two, and her relationship with Peeta is nothing more than an act. The fact that Peeta loves her is apparent to the reader, but Katness is much too pragmatic to think his feelings are real, and so that adds on another level of drama in an already dramatic situation.
Though the fact that Katness is apparently a bad liar yet is able to fool both Peeta and everyone watching could be considered a plot hole. Or everyone around her is simply wrong about her acting skills.
I really cannot recommend The Hunger Games, but I also know that that statement is a day late and a dollar short. This book came out in 2008 and its popularity boom is already on the decline, but like the Twilight phenomenon, I cannot see why this book became so popular. It isn’t a good book. It’s poorly written. It has a small handful of brilliant moments, but it’s mostly forgettable and boring.