Okay. So I’m probably the last person on the face of the planet to read The Hunger Games. And I’ve only read the first book, so keep that in mind for this review. I don’t really know why I put it off for so long. I did the same thing with Harry Potter, years ago. And I’ve still never read Twilight (and I won’t, so don’t even try). I guess a part of me kind of resents having to read YA Fantasy and SF when there are so many “real” books awaiting my ever-rapacious bookwormy appetites. Or maybe that’s my problem; I have trouble seeing YA as real books. I loved them when I was a kid, of course (though, usually a much younger kid than they were intended for). But I grew out of YA fiction well before I was out of my young adult years. And coming back to them as an adult always leaves me feeling a little cheated.
Which is why I am consistently baffled by book review sites and blogs that are dedicated almost entirely to the YA Fantasy genre. For some reason, there seems to be a kind of cult status around reading YA books amongst 20-35 year old adults (mostly women, apparently). And I have never been able to share in their enthusiasm. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the first three Harry Potter books. I was intrigued by Brom’s The Child Thief (a modern retelling of Peter Pan with some seriously disturbing imagery). And The Chronicles of Narnia are books one can come back to as an adult and truly appreciate on a new level. So it’s not as if I’ve written the genre off entirely. But for the most part, there seems to be something lacking in many of the most popular YA books out there. I’m torn between a genuine respect for anything that gets young people reading and the sad and disturbing question, “Why aren’t our kids reading smarter books?”
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’m sure you’re all prepped for a scathing review of Collins’ blockbuster The Hunger Games. But I must say, I didn’t hate it. I just read it yesterday, start to finish. (I devour books on a regular basis so don’t get too excited) If I can finish a book in a single sitting, it probably means is was short and/or simple. Maybe too short and simple. And as for The Hunger Games, I think this was a borderline issue for me. It’s definitely and easy read. And by easy, I don’t just mean simple language. I mean there wasn’t much to think about as I read.
The Hunger Games is actually very entertaining, in its own way. The plot is pretty much non-stop action, which is fun. And Collins’ writes action scenes brilliantly. She really does. There isn’t a moment in the entire book where you feel like the plot is stagnating, and she moves us from crisis to crisis quite seamlessly with just the right amount of recovery time in between. But it’s more like watching a movie than reading a book (and I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I can see how it could be a great screenplay).
One would assume, or at least I did, that for a post-apocalyptic novel set in North America–particularly for one with a dystopic political landscape–that Collins’ would give her readers something to think about. But it seemed to me that the setting is a little bit too spoon-fed to generate real questions. Panem is just the backdrop for Collins’ to revel in the Games themselves, with all characters who question the world they are living in (mainly Gale and Peeta) remaining very much in the peripheral of the story. Katniss plods along a little too willingly to make a very interesting character on a personal level, and it is only in the very end of the novel that we start to see some growth and development in her. And even this is cut short by the ending of the first book.
I understand that this is a part of a trilogy, and that we are only seeing the beginning of Katniss’ growth as a character. But there is something distinctly unsatisfying about a novel that ends before the main character achieves any kind of (substantial) awareness of herself and her world. We are left hanging at the edge of Katniss’ metamorphosis (I hope) with no real evidence that she is on the right track. Even in her own mind, Katniss is only at the beginning of the “questioning” stage of her development, without attempting to answer anything yet. It feels as if Collins had originally written more for this first book, but that it was chopped off prematurely by her editor in order to encourage readers to pick up the next in the series. (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here because I do get the sense that Collins is a good writer, maybe even a great writer, time will tell)
Ultimately, Katniss is a stagnant character in The Hunger Games. I found her almost likeable at times, but she never really steps up. Her most endearing moments are when she is unaware of herself: volunteering as tribute, shooting the apple at the Gamekeepers’ dinner, calling out Peeta’s name when the contest rules change, her fit of anger when Peeta doesn’t return their signal call, her panic when the Doctors take Peeta away at the end of the games. But she never owns up to the flashes of her true self. There is some suggestion that she is capable of growth, which is even more frustrating when we don’t get to see it.
Peeta also disappoints. He never wavers from his “good guy” stereotype. Peeta is just a love-sick idiot who’s willing to die for a girl who barely registers his existence. Katniss’ suspicion of Peeta is too contrived to be believable, so the entire time she’s questioning his motives she just appears clueless. Even during the games, Peeta doesn’t make a convincing bad guy. And it’s as frustrating to see his idolization of her as it is to see Katniss’ obliviousness to it.
Both characters are nearly the same people at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Perhaps that will not be true for the series, but when looking at the first book on its own merit, that is how I feel. The most interesting, or potentially interesting, characters are kept on the sidelines; Gale, Cinna, and Haymitch are the only truly subversive characters in this book. Katniss stands to grow a lot through their mentorship, and I hope to see them (and her) come into their own in the next two novels.
Now, these sound like major drawbacks. And they are, or they would be if this was a stand-alone novel. But because it is the first in a trilogy, I’m not going to hold it against Collins just yet. Like I said, most of these peeves smack of editorial interference. I am expecting to see most of my issues addressed in the next two books. And Collins does seem to know what she’s doing. There are moments of real emotional honesty in this work, for all that our heroine is a bit emotionally retarded. Collins’ portrayal of Katniss’ relationship with Prim is quite heartfelt. I think The Hunger Games marks the first time that a novel has been able to choke me up in the first 20 pages. That says something huge about the author’s ability.
I’m afraid The Hunger Games hasn’t broken the chain of unfulfilling YA reads for me, but I’m willing to give Collins her fair shot. I look forward to reading the next two instalments and I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m sure there is a horde of rabid fans just waiting to call me out over this review, so please rant freely in the comments section. Perhaps there is more going on in the book than I picked up on, and I’m more than willing to consider the error of my ways if only someone will point out where I’ve gone astray. But until then, I’m afraid The Hunger Games will remain a 2 out of 5 for me.