by Suzanne Collins
So Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, a coal mining province in a futuristic, dystopian North American nation known as Panem. The central government, known as the Capitol, forces each district to send two teenagers to participate as Tributes in the Hunger Games, which appear to be a combination of a beauty pageant and a gladiator battle. The drama of the novel derives from the struggle of Katniss and others to survive and thrive in a society that alternates between brutally violent and hilariously superficial.
I must admit that I hadn’t heard of The Hunger Games before the movie trailer came out a month or so ago. I figured I couldn’t miss a big budget fantasy movie, especially with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. She was, uh, real good in Winter’s Bone. But I asked around, mostly on Google and Wikipedia, and apparently it’s a pretty popular series. I picked up the book because I figured that it’s always better to read the book before seeing the movie, even though I knew it was not really meant for my demographic.
I think the appeal of The Hunger Games, for me, is twofold. First, I like the world Collins creates, which at first glance seems to be a shallow imitation of both real states like North Korea as well as fictional countries from 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. As the novel progresses, however, Panem comes into its own and becomes a real and nuanced country, a state that is effective in some areas on weak in others, simultaneously harsh and… well, mostly it’s harsh, but occasionally sensitive to public opinion.
In a similar fashion, the characters also slowly develop into real people with complex motivations. Katniss is introduced as a reluctant hero, wanting only to stay home and look after her sister; she is drawn into the world of the Capitol against her will, and is uncomfortable with her newfound fame. Other characters initially seem thinly drawn: her state-appointed mentor, the drunk has-been; her fellow District 12 Tribute, the golden boy; so on down the list. These characters, however, all have an array of motivations that Katniss, from whose perspective the novel is told, might not see at first (though she also sometimes seems overly sensitive).
The characters interact with their world, and each other, in often unexpected ways. Even those characters who are not risking their lives often have significant emotional or political investment in the way the Hunger Games unfold. There are not many ‘good versus evil’ moments in this book, which is refreshing for a young adult fantasy. I mean, as much as we all love Harry Potter (or whatever the kids are reading these days) almost every one of those characters can be described, in the end, as good or evil. Katniss and company make tough choices based on their personal histories and desires, and this is what really keeps the story moving, rather than the considerable action and excitement. That’s not to say that there aren’t predictable or cliché moments, but the ones there are don’t overwhelm the narrative. Parts of The Hunger Games certainly surprised me and I even found myself laughing at times, which usually does not happen to me while reading. I guess the humor can be a bit dark, but I found it nearly as important as the drama.
On another note, I think there’s this idea that a simply written book indicates a lack of literary merit. Thus, Vladimir Nabokov is a genius because his books are incomprehensible, while Dan Brown sucks because his sentences are short. This is malarkey: Dan Brown sucks for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with his lack of verbosity. I’ll be the first to admit, Collins’ writing can be a bit uneven, but in her defense she is writing in a certain style because that’s how her book is structured. We’re inside Katniss’ head and we get to hear what she thinks is important, like it or not. This results in some chapters being much more readable than others, but it’s a relatively minor distraction. That said, I think that people like the book because the characters and the world are well constructed, not because the prose is breathtakingly beautiful. (It’s not.)
I think that anyone remotely interested in fantasy, or just a light read, would enjoy this book. For what it’s worth, I will probably read the sequels and see the movie.