Book Review: The Hunger Games

Cover art. - Wikipedia

The Hunger Games is the new big thing in the post-Potter post-Twilight world of young adult fiction. And when the movie adaption comes out tomorrow it’s going to get even bigger. It’s based on an interesting premise: in a dystopian future 24 teenagers are thrown into a massive arena for a brutal televised fight for survival, where only 1 is allowed to leave alive. It’s easy to see how this could become such a popular new series in young fiction – but is it any good?

I won’t keep you in suspense: I must admit — that from the very start — I was pretty disappointed.

The Hunger Games suffers from a two major weaknesses: firstly, the setting of the novel; and secondly, its basic premise. Post-war USA has been split into a number of Districts and a capital city (originally named “The Capitol”…). The Capitol is super-rich and high tech, whereas the Districts live in medieval conditions, performing menial labor under the constant threat of starvation (it’s all very black and white). The fatal problem that arises is that the world Collins has created is so incredibly simple that it’s lacking in all the areas that are needed to make it believable. As far as I could tell, the people in the Districts spend all their time working or sitting at home feeling hungry. The basic components of society — community, activities, religion, socialization for God’s sake!! — are all nonexistant. The world is mechanical and empty; it’s a mere cardboard cutout propped up to justify a bunch of kids killing each other.

This brings me to my second problem: the concept of “The Hunger Games” themselves. The Capitol annually hosts a televised teenage deathmatch called “The Hunger Games” which (we’re told) keeps the Districts in line by forcing their children to kill each other. But wouldn’t this actually make them more likely to rebel? I guess not. It’s also apparently very entertaining stuff to watch for the people in The Capitol. To be honest, if I lived in The Capitol I would rather watch a nice sitcom instead. Or maybe the 6 Nations. The 6 Nations is pretty good. This fundamental premise that “The Hunger Games” are the height of entertainment just didn’t convince me at all.

The things that do work well are the action and the main character, Katniss. When the battle in the arena finally starts it’s entertaining enough. In terms of emotional impact and violence Collins is definitely pulling her punches for her younger audience, but it’s tense and exciting nonetheless. Katniss is a good protagonist, managing to be ruthlessly cold-hearted yet likable at the same time, even if she is a bit too simplistic. Peeta is quite bland (as is the romance) but he does provide a decent counterpoint to Katniss at least. The other characters are one dimensional, and the twists that I expected them to pull never materialized. I kept thinking that each competitor was appearing the way they were as a ruse — that they were lulling Katniss into a false sense of security, only to turn on her when she was vulnerable. This never happens — it’s all shockingly straightforward.

Frankly, The Hunger Games was a bit of a let down. It’s a good book but it just doesn’t live up to the hype that’s been generated about it. When it comes down to it, it’s too simple and straightforward to truly excel. Sure, it’s fun and exciting when you get to the actual arena bit (It should make a flashy movie. If the don’t censor it too much. Though they probably will. Oh well.), but the rest is mediocre at best. It’s written for teenagers, and if you’re an adult, I highly recommend that you approach it as such; you won’t find any political or philosophical exploration here. Take it all at face value, and it’ll be a short, fast-paced, and relatively enjoyable read. But nothing more.

2.5 stars

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