Monday, May 23, 2011
Monday Book Review: THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
Okay, I admit it, I only read this because a close friend urged me to do so. I'd bought the book a couple of months ago and it was languishing here for awhile, waiting patiently for me to make up my mind. All the HUNGER GAMES hype has been on the periphery of my vision for awhile - I couldn't really avoid it, what with the film going into production and all. This is, after all, far as I know, the King, Queen and Dowager Duchess of Dystopian Fantasy books. Hard not to notice.
So I picked it up and read it and here's what I think.
Good News first - what I liked about THE HUNGER GAMES:
The first half of the book, up until the moment when the contestants (tributes, as they're called in the book) enter the arena - was pretty good. I got a good idea who these characters were - Katniss Everdeen (love that name), the plucky protagonist whose first person narration develops in the present tense (a tense I dislike) so I'm assuming we're perched on her shoulders as the events unfold.
I like that the lead character is a pragmatic young woman with a variety of strengths and that her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark, does not undervalue her for being a 'girl'. It isn't hard to believe Katniss might come out the winner in the end (well, you more or less suspect that going in). Before the Games begin though, there's lots to explain and it's all done briskly and well. At first I didn't get the point of the thing, but after awhile I understood the reasoning - although I am still NOT 100 percent convinced of the rationale for the games. Not a lot of logic going on here. I'll comment more on this in a few moments.
Another good thing: there's very little teenage angst and hand wringing for most of the book - hooray for Suzanne Collins for keeping control over this. Her characters are just young people too busy staying alive to bother about much else. I do like the smart way she allows the plot to simply unfold in an everyday, matter-of-fact manner. The build-up to the games is very, VERY well done. I could hardly put the book down. The interim between Katniss volunteering to take the place of her younger sister in the arena and the games themselves is smartly done. (A male and female pair must represent each district so Katniss will be going to the games with a male whom she must, presumably, kill in the end - or- he, her.) I loved the way the tributes were cossetted and buffed and spoiled until the moment they must all fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the known world of Panem - a 'nation' built on the rubble of North America. There was a satirical vibe going on that I enjoyed. Collins' 'take' on reality tv and the emptiness of fame is woven throughout the book. And I did like the 'strategizing' that went on as each tribute sought to get even the slimmest edge over another even before the actual games began.
This is 'reality' tv - a bizarro twist on American Idol, if you like - carried to a very dark nth degree as young people (from the ages of 12 to, I think, 18) from each of the twelve districts surrounding the rich City of Panem are forced to fight to their deaths (only one can stand victorious at the end) on national television.
Okay, now to the Bad News - What I didn't like about THE HUNGER GAMES:
While I like the title of the book, it's catchy and makes for a powerful visual image in the imagination, I'm not sure why the characters in this book actually call the games, the HUNGER games. It isn't as if everyone who participates is hungry.(Though we are made aware that in the district Katniss comes from, people do occasionally starve to death.) There is an explanation, but it doesn't much work for me. The government does dole out insufficient amounts of grain and oil to the citizens of the different districts but some of the kids involved in the games show up looking mighty fine, so obviously the hunger appellation doesn't apply to all. Well, maybe Suzanne Collins was going for a double meaning of 'hunger' - bodily hunger AND hunger to succeed, to kill, to win, to be set for life within the rules of this abomination of a 'game'. Okay, I say with a shrug.
Another thing I didn't like:
Once the story moves into the arena I admit I lost interest. It's all set within a kind of rigged forested area with trees and rocks and running water - even with birds and animals, rabbits and the like - but that's about it. There's a HUGE golden cornucopia filled with food and other necessities for the tributes who can hack their way to the thing and grab what's there, but not much of that is actually described (which was probably a good thing). As one by one the tributes are slaughtered, their names and pictures are flashed overhead in the night sky for the edification of the Panem audience and the remainiing kids left in the arena. Hidden cameras pick up the action as it progresses.
Here is where Katniss's native intelligence and strengths are show-cased, but after awhile, this part of the book really does slow down to a trickle and I did skim a bit until I got to an ending which was not unexpected. But then, after a colossal bluff involving Katniss and Peeta and the calling of that bluff by the overseers of the games, the actual ending is contrived and flat and downright annoying - to the point that I don't think I'll be reading the next book in the trilogy.
SPOILER ALERT. REVELATIONS COMING UP!
Now really, in the end, after all Katniss and Peeta have been through, after they've proven their intelligence, their bravado, their guile, their strength AND their valor - the author has them suddenly revert to being insecure teenagers (where they EVER that insecure to begin with?), unsure of their feelings for each other. This was so NOT in character, so NOT what I was expecting, so NOT in keeping with their actions in the arena. In the end they turn into two angst-filled teens who could have been having a conversation in a high school hallway.
Now, I realize why this had to happen. It had to happen so that in the next book there will be more will they or won't they? established - and the boy back home whom Katniss occasionally thinks of can be brought into play. I get it. But surely there must have been a different way to handle it.
All I can is: What a letdown. And by the way, not only is it a letdown, but it is a disappointing bore of a letdown. I don't like being manipulated this blatantly.
Oh and a word about a periphary character Haymitch Abernathy - to be played in the film by Woody Harrelson (though what he'll make of this part I can't imagine). This is a guy who is supposed to be the only winner of the games ever from Katniss's district. He is supposed to help the current tributes with their strategies and lining up 'sponsors' to supply Katniss and Peeta with the occasional 'perk' while in the fighting arena. Okay. But he just never becomes a real character. He is a caricature of a drunken sot who vomits all over the place (no fun to read about) yet somehow pulls himself into shape during the build-up to the games though he is given very little to do - outside of vomiting and falling down, I mean. We're led to believe that without his help Katniss and Peeta stand little chance, but he really does not come alive as a viable character at all.
So when Katniss refers to how much Abernathy dislikes her, I'm saying to myself - huh? When did this happen? He doesn't like anyone, he's a sot. Though why he should be a sot is anyone's guess. I'd venture to say that having killed several people in the arena once upon a time (as one must suppose) might turn anyone with sensibilities into a sot - but really, this should have been developed a bit so we'd feel something for the character other than repulsion or even, just plain boredom.
The ugly truth: I have a feeling that this trilogy (trilogies are obviously very hot right now) was written with another aim in mind than the telling of a good story. (Well, yeah, Yvette, writers write for money. I know that. But there still has to be an inchoate reason for the telling of any given story.) That even parts of the book work well is a tribute to Suzanne Collin's talent. But there's just a blatant and relentless attitude apparent in the development of the two main characters and their plight - an attitude that reminds me of someone writing for a 'how to write a thrilling YA adventure and get it published' class. Know what I mean? There's no organic necessity to spin this yarn. Or at least that's the impression I got. (And I understand that many, many other readers will disagree with me.)
The whole idea behind the Hunger Games makes little sense if you want to break it down into parts. The reasoning behind the creation of this world is faulty. That's what doesn't work for me. That's why the book, ultimately didn't work for me.