Friday, April 3, 2020

"The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins--Fiction Review

I hope everyone is doing well this Friday, staying safe and social distancing and all that. Today we’re talking about “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, a dystopian YA science fiction. I brought this novel up in my earlier review for “Red Rising,” and that series revived my interest in these books.

Suzanne Collins

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I love the main character of this novel, Katniss Everdeen. She’s pragmatic, tough, and devoted to her friends and loved ones—but she also feels like a real person because she has her flaws and blind spots. Katniss, while ultimately a caring person—lacks a lot of social grace and can be blunt to the point of unflattering, a real handicap since to survive, she has to learn to charm people to assist her in the hunger games.

Like all dystopian fiction, “The Hunger Games” is an extreme commentary on society and how it ossifies into something nasty when all the wealth collects in one segment of the population and social mobility is all but eliminated. 

What I don’t love about this book:

I know I already said that I love Katniss—but this is a novel written in the first person, so it’s hard for my dislikes to not also be about her. Katniss, for all of her interesting virtues and flaws, also has this annoying tendency to be so painfully slow on the uptake when it comes to people and their true feelings for her—especially when it’s amorous feelings. She honestly never puts it together that Peeta, her one constant ally through the hunger games, is in love with her until the end of the novel. I don’t find this flaw exciting or charming. It’s just eye rollingly annoying.

The villains of “The Hunger Games” aren’t developed as much as the characters designed to be sympathetic, and that’s disappointing. They’re all of what I call the mustache twirler class of villains. Why are they so evil? Because they just are for the sake of the plot. There might be more characterization and explanations of the motives of the antagonists in the later novels. But still, in this first novel, the capital citizens are all out of touch looneys—save a few rare exceptions—and the other tributes are all gleeful murderers—again sparing a few exceptions.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Katniss Everdeen, at the beginning of the novel, is doing what she does best, hunting, a skill that serves her well in the future. She has to hunt because her family is impoverished. After all, her father is dead, and in this future nation of Panem, there is no such thing as a social safety net other than the tesserae—additional food rationing—but it increases one’s chance of being selected for the hunger games.

The hunger games is a tournament to the death. Two tributes—one boy and one girl—from each of the twelve districts are selected to fight for the amusement of the capital. This is done yearly, reminding the districts of the capital’s domination. It’s also a punishment for a rebellion they had launched against the capital in the past. At this year’s reaping—the selection process for the hunger games—Katniss’s younger sister Primrose is selected for the games, but before she can be collected, Katniss volunteers to go in her place.

Katniss and Peeta—the boy selected from their district—are whisked off to the capital to begin their training before the games. It’s a time filled with pageantry and celebration. All of the tributes from the twelve districts are expected to go along with the pomp, with enthusiasm. The sinister thing is all though it’s for a game, only one of them can win, and the rest die, the point of playing along for the tributes is to gain sponsors. Sponsors, wealthy citizens of the capital, can directly impact the course of the hunger games by paying for advantages for their preferred tribute. These advantages can be anything, food, medicine, et cetera, and it’s just one more reminder that the hunger games isn’t about fairness. It’s a show—and it’s about power.

Once in the games, Katniss and Peeta are quickly separated, and the early part of the games is marked by Katniss’s efforts to go it alone. She nearly dies of dehydration and is often left vulnerable because she has no one but herself to look out for her. The career kids—tributes from the richer lower numbered districts—who always volunteer for the games for the money and glory of winning, hit on the strategy of allying with each other, at least until the loners are all dead. Katniss is dismayed to find that Peeta seems to have allied with the bloodthirsty careerists and seems to be helping them hunt her down.

The career tributes, and Peeta, manage to corner Katniss in a tree where they can’t get to her because they’re all too heavy and unskilled at climbing to risk going up after her. They decide to wait her out, but with the help of an unexpected ally—a younger girl from district eleven named Rue—who was hiding in a nearby tree, Katniss finds a nest of deadly killer wasps. Katniss drops the nest on the band of career tributes, but in the process is stung herself. When she gets to the ground, she flees but goes back to collect a bow from one of the dead tributes. The venom in her veins makes Katniss hallucinate, and she is nearly killed by the leader of the career tributes but is saved when Peeta intervenes and is grievously wounded in the leg for his trouble.

Katniss flees and spends at least one night in a pit in the throes of a hallucinatory nightmare, but eventually recovers and goes hunting in with her new bow and arrows. When she kills and cooks some meat, Rue appears again, and the two form an alliance. The two of them travel together for a while. Then eventually, they develop a plan to deprive the careers of their supplies. It’s a simple plan where Rue will distract the careers by setting a fire far away from the career tributes’ camp, and Katniss destroys the supplies.

Unfortunately, while their plan is successful, Rue is ultimately killed by the tribute from district one, who is then killed by Katniss when she shoots him in the neck. Katniss gives Rue a proper memorial and alone again, she heads off despondently by herself.

Then there is an announcement, for all the tributes to hear, a rule change stating that two tributes can win the hunger games provided they are from the same district. Katniss immediately sets off to find Peeta, who has been lying low because of his injuries. Katniss attempts to nurse Peeta back to health but ultimately finds that—against his wishes—she has to go out again and risk herself to recover medicine for him.

After obtaining the medicine to heal Peeta, and more tributes are killed, they find that they have to leave their hideout to confront the final tributes, and win the hunger games. Before they ever manage to face the last tribute, the capital unleashes a pack of mutant dogs on the three remaining tributes, mutants created from the corpses of all the other tributes who had died. In the end, Katniss kills the last tribute more out of mercy than anything because the mutant dogs savagely mauled him.

When it appears that Katniss and Peeta have won the hunger games, the capital makes another announcement, taking back their rule change, informing them that there can only be one winner of the hunger games. Katniss and Peeta choose to commit suicide instead—robbing the capital of the one thing the games were always about, the power over the lives and deaths of the district citizens. However, before the two of them can go through with it, the trumpets blare, and there is a third announcement stating that they’d won.

After returning to the capital, and recovering, Katniss finds out to her horror that the show isn’t over, and might never be, she is expected to play a new role, that of the grateful victor. The leaders of the capital are not pleased with her that she managed to outsmart their game. It’s then that she finally realizes that Peeta hasn’t been pretending to be in love with her for the audience’s sake, he is in love with her and believes she’s in love with him. It’s a colossal disappointment for him when he finds out that Katniss isn’t so sure.             


Writing in the first person is always a gamble. If your audience doesn’t like your main character, who you are presumably writing from the perspective of, then the rest of your work on the story doesn’t matter. People relate to people—not plots—and if your audience can’t get behind the character telling the story, then the story is dead in the water. So when an author, such as Suzanne Collins, pulls it off with stories like “The Hunger Games,” it’s incredibly impressive.

The first person perspective of experiencing “The Hunger Games” from Katniss’s point of view makes the horror of the games, and the capital, all the more intimate. All of the action sequences in the novel are immediate and brutal because the first-person perspective plays well with an active voice where the third person can often stumble, and where it’s easier to write in the past tense.

Collins, for the most part, deftly sidesteps a lot of the awkwardness that comes with first-person writing, which is a genuine talent I envy. When writing in the first person, since the character you’re writing from is the defacto storyteller, there are several traps the author can fall into and bring the narrative to a screeching halt. For instance, there is the over describing of actions problem. For example—I walk to the door, then I turn the doorknob slowly before opening it to the abandoned corridor and make my way down the hall. Vs.—Detective Miller opened the door slowly and then made his way down the abandoned corridor. First-person has a way of pulling us personally into the story, but doing it effectively, usually requires more words.

Parting thoughts:

So I’ve only read this first novel of “The Hunger Games” series, and my introduction to it was the movies. I remember loving the first movie—thought the second movie was okay and just never got around to watching movies three and four, which tell the story of the third novel. Which means my picture of the series is a bit incomplete. I think why I stalled on this series is because the second movie was my least favorite kind of movie, one that is just okay. Great things and good things are easy to explain why they’re worth watching/reading/listening to, and it may seem to be counter-intuitive, but I also enjoy things that are objectively bad—or terrible.

Terrible things had people who believed in those projects enough to get them out there for the world to consume—and some of the time, it isn’t that the idea behind them was terrible but just that the execution was all wrong. This creates the greatest opportunity to learn from their mistakes, which is why I like them. Consuming great works of art is enjoyable—necessary even—to know where the bar has been raised in the past. However, they don’t teach you a whole lot other than how to emulate them, which means that subsequent works following in the tradition of something, lose that elusive luster of originality. To demonstrate what I mean: no one can write “The Lord of the Rings” again. Even George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” popularly known as “Game of Thrones,” lives in that shadow and is shaped by it, which of course, all literature is like this—shaped by earlier works. It’s rare, like one in a generation rare, to find a truly pathfinding piece of literature that has the potential to create a new genre or even subgenre.

Now I’m not saying every piece of bad writing is a failed original idea. More likely, the case is it’s a recycling of other ideas that are executed poorly. These are still valuable to read as well because if you’re aware of what something is trying to be like, then that contrast can allow you to compare the two things and better understand why the original worked so well and something failed to live up to that standard. The art of invention is a lot like this; hence the cliché failure is the mother of innovation. Knowing what doesn’t work can help guide you to something that will work. 

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