Book Review: The Hunger Games – by Suzanne Collins

I’ve heard about The Hunger Games for awhile now–who hasn’t? Since I began a side-study of teen literature I’ve been trying to get my hands on it at the library. Who hasn’t? I’ve never been able to find a copy. I finally broke down and bought a copy of my own. In paperback, mind you. And then it sat for awhile. My daughter read it, but I still had to clear out some other books in line ahead of it.

I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. I’ll admit I didn’t want to like it. I’m generally resistant to anything the general public really gets excited about. Their track record is not good, as far as I’m concerned.

But it was surprisingly good. Not brilliant, but good. Not Harry Potter good–it didn’t capture my imagination–but Collins is a good writer. She avoids discussing her world too deeply, but that was not really the main point of the story, anyway. While there is plenty of action, this is a character story. And her main character, Katniss Everdeen, is well done.

She is well-defined, but accessible. You know most of what you need to know about Katniss within a few chapters. There’s not a lot of depth to her, but her world, and circumstances within that world, is not such to provide her a lot of depth. But the games makes her acquire some depth. In that regard, this is a standard “hero’s journey” book, except Katniss’ development is not particularly pronounced–at least in this novel. She develops depth, she gains some complexity to her thought-processes, and she starts to open up a little–just a little. She learns to lie.

But other than that, she is mostly the same person she began the book as, just a little wiser. That’s not to say her character is a failure, or that Collins failed at her bildungs roman. I suspect this book was more to establish her character than to develop it. There are two more books to come, and I suspect her hero’s journey will proceed apace from here.

In fact, I think I might have been upset had she changed dramatically. She was established early on as a resourceful, cunning survivor, but emotionally closed off from anyone but Prim, her sister. It’s really no surprise she wins the games. We knew she had it in her from chapter one. But she was who she was, and to win she would not need to change dramatically. For her to suddenly lower her guard and trust Peeta (let alone fall head-over-heels) would be too quick a change. The games really only manage to heighten her survival instincts.

From what I understand, however, the next book plunges her right into the emotional turmoil wrought by the first book. That’s why I think she will start changing then.

Collins’ writing at times gets a little unnatural to trip me up and make me reread sentences to see where I tripped, but on the whole she writes well. She makes Katniss work hard for every victory–indeed, every victory comes at a price, to the point it actually started to get annoying. But the price began to change, instead.

What Collins really does well, though, is “show instead of tell”. If you’re paying attention you not only hear what Katniss has to tell you about the evil government entity, but you learn just how evil they are by just how the games are set up. Even the “rewards” of victory are designed to alienate the victors from the rest of their district.

Nothing brings this home better than the character of Heymitch, the last person to win from their district and their mentor in the games. His “victory” gets him a cushy life in a special house that sets him apart from everyone. He no longer experiences their difficulties. He’s set. So he has less and less in common with other people, leaving him alone. Then he also gets the horrible task of trying to mentor each year’s competitors only to watch them die. I suspect in the next books he and Katniss, who barely got along in this one, become confidants to a degree.

This and many other little details that never get Katniss’ direct attention all add up to an insidious government bent on keeping the districts in line by demoralizing them, beating down their will, and making them feel helpless. Even their victories are Pyrrhic (winning doesn’t exempt them from going through it all over again the next year), and the winners ensured never to have a normal life again. They want the districts and the individuals to feel alone and impotent, never to trust each other.

Like Katniss. So far, even though she is resourceful, defiant, and victorious, Capital is winning. She is precisely what they want everyone in the districts to become–distrustful, selfish, and without hope. That’s why I believe she still has to grow as a character. Yes, the seeds of change have been sown, but so far she’s managed to keep everything that matters to her by being herself. No significant change has been needed.

I suspect the upcoming books are going to run her through the wringer and make it so that the only way she can survive, let alone win, is to undergo change.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I care. I know I’ll read the next book eventually, but I didn’t feel any great desire to run right out and get it. I chalk that up to the one weakness in Collins’ story–the only real plot to this point is about her relationships with Gale and Peeta. Everything else is setting. We knew she was going to win. What we didn’t know was whether Peeta would survive, and if he did, whether she’d finally accept his love for her and maybe even reciprocate. We don’t know how Gale is going to take all of the romance he saw on TV that Katniss believed to be an essential act.

Whether or not she decides to take on Capital or just settle down and be the district darling is largely irrelevant at this point. It could go either way, and I don’t know if it matters to me. The government, while shown to be evil, has not been personified enough to warrant a place as antagonist. It’s been more of a force of nature to this point. There is nothing specific for her to strike at. Yes, it’s evil, but whenever it has shown a face (except for the President briefly at the end–and he gets no significant lines) it has been someone that wants to help her. The government may yet become the villain, but it has avoided that role to this point.

That this is a romance disguised as sci-fi action adventure is what puts it firmly in the teen category and gives it its popular appeal. There’s action for the boys, and a love triangle for the girls. I like a love story as much as anyone, but this one so far is not grabbing me. If there’s not plenty of action and intrigue in the next book, or if Collins drags the triangle on too long, I doubt I’ll read the third. But we’ll see. I will read the second book at least. Just not yet.

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