The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
This has been a long time coming…
My story with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins began last spring. I had put hours into developing a book club for friends of mine. I raked through numerous accredited “Top” lists of the most important novels of the past century. From there I culled the cumulative list down to no more than one novel by each author, novels that were no more than 300 pages (so as not to scare casual readers away), at the same time making sure that there was novel representation from each decade and most genres. I ended up with 51 titles.
Books were chosen by the members, given a vote of three novels pulled from the list at random. This [sort of] worked for the club’s first two novels. When I saw membership/interest starting to dwindle, I opened the floor for member recommendations so as not to seem like some totalitarian book club bastard. Just like that, every girl in the group wanted to read The Hunger Games.
The book club unfortunately dissolved weeks after (I’m not blaming The Hunger Games for that), but I agreed to buy and read every novel that a member was reading at the time because I was that starved for potentially engaging conversation. And so The Hunger Games was part of a sizable, subsequent Amazon order (I’m glad in retrospect because I would have been embarrassed to buy it in person at a book store).
The Hunger Games sat at the bottom of my nightstand shelf for months while I slowly plodded through other novels during my job’s busy season. In fact, I didn’t hear the title again until every girl at the Superbowl party that I attended was waiting [im]patiently for the trailer to the upcoming movie adaptation. Then my sister and all of her friends were reading the series. Then women started talking about it at work. After countless endorsements and some all-too-familiar plot synopses, not to mention the fact that the movie was coming out, I figured I would try to be as objective as I could with a piece of young-female-adult geared pulp fiction (but I’m only human, and a dude).
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The Hunger Games is essentially craftily repackaged, well-worn sci-fi material. There are obvious elements of Richard Connell’s short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” The Running Man and Death Race 2000. But wait, those main characters were stranded men or convicts and these are children! The horror! Do Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or the even more applicable Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale ring any bells? They may not, but they both deal with violence amongst youngsters. And all of these works pre-date The Hunger Games.
The major difference in The Hunger Games is the 16-year-old female 1st person narrator, Katniss Everdeen. And what a narrator she is. I am not sure if the writing is just plain awful (the prose is average at best), or if Collins perfectly captures the essence of the 16-year-old girl psyche in Katniss’ narration. I haven’t spoken to a 16-year-old girl since I was 16 years old (okay, okay…18), and I never knew what they were thinking then (and don’t now).
Considering the love story’s blatancy and how pathetically two-dimensional Peeta is as a character, I came close to chucking the book when reading Katniss’ inner monologues (hyperbolized here to make a point): “Could Peeta really have meant that? Does he actually have feelings for me? Maybe that’s why he gave me that loaf of bread years ago? But, it’s an obvious game. A ploy! Or does he really love me? Or is this just some elaborate trick so that he can gain an advantage in the arena?” KATNISS, Peeta is a TOOL! Drop it!
Aside: Peeta and Gale are the two male interests. Really?? I am familiar with the whole unconventional names thing in sci-fi, but Christ. One sounds like he’d be averse to all of the hunting that’s going on and the other sounds like an unmarried aunt. Considering that Peeta is the son of a baker, I think “Pita” would have been a much more fitting name for a flat, empty pissant.
Suzanne Collins has appropriated a brutal science fiction concept for a young adult/empowered female audience. Kudos. I would not have thought it saleable, but $150 million opening weekend at the box office (3rd highest grossing opening weekend of all time) on top of book sales says something different. I guess that just goes to show that women ages 15-28 are sadists at heart after all.
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The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian North America known as Panem. There are about 250 words worth of exposition as to how Panem became the dystopia that it is in the first chapter which I will condense (as if it wasn’t brief enough) in italics: A war and a bunch of natural disasters turned things to shit. The governing force, “The Capitol,” broke the geography into 13 “districts” which brought a fleeting “peace and prosperity.” An uprising shortly thereafter left 12 of the districts in starving shambles and one (13) flattened. The Hunger Games are meant to commemorate The Capitol’s uprising and reinforce their brutal command over their people in a perverse public spectacle.
And just what are the Hunger Games? Each of the remaining 12 districts has a lottery once a year to select a boy and a girl, ages 12-18, to participate in a boy/girlhunt in a stadium within The Capitol. The victor is crowned only when he or she has eliminated all of the other tributes (participants) and will return home to his/her district showered in food and gifts. 24 kids: 12 boys, 12 girls, thrown into the wilderness, armed, potentially dangerous and televised [Panem-wide]. Not entirely original material, but it definitely shows promise. Then somebody tell me why the first third of the book feels like I’m drunkenly changing channels between Extreme Makeover, Project Runway and Man vs. Food? Forget the dress and the stew…get to the Games!
Aside: The government-broadcast televisual concept of The Hunger Games especially recalls the quintessential sci-fi cheese of Death Race 2000. Death Race and The Hunger Games in turn poke at reality television. It’s Orwellian squared. Big Brother is watching…Big Brother. Except contestants are dying (not the audience).
Tangential Plug: If you like science fiction and disturbing television, watch David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
The Games, with few exceptions (elemental stadium control and Wellesian …Dr. Moreau ”muttations”) are boring. Why? Because The Hunger Games, as far as I can tell, was explicitly written to be made into a movie. A PG-13 movie. Not that I’m ruining much, but I wasn’t expecting death by berry, or my personal favorite: “I guess [so-and-so] died last night and we just didn’t realize it because of the bad weather.”
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The Hunger Games is readable. If it were so awful, I wouldn’t have finished it. But, I can tell you that it is not the “violent, jarring” page-turner that Stephen King calls it in Entertainment Weekly, nor is it “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced” per John Green at The New York Times Book Review. I’m reading the back cover of the book and getting angry. I can, however, believe that Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, was “obsessed with this book.”
To answer the obvious questions, no, I will not be reading the second book Catching Fire, although I may go and see the film to affirm my already laughable notions.