Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games (Book Review)

The Hunger Games cover

Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games

There’s a lot of buzz around The Hunger Games right now, with the entertainment industry hoping that will be the next Harry Potter– or Twilight-style phenomena. I’ll be surprised if it reaches that level, but it’s easy to see the appeal of this young adult book about a dystopian system that drafts random children into deathmatches. It’s Battle Royale with the rough edges sanded down and made (just barely) appropriate for a younger audience. Quite an audacious idea, really.

While the novel’s prose is nothing memorable, it is definitely a page-turner. Author Suzanne Collins has a great sense of pacing, and fills the story with more events than the simple premise leads one to expect. The tension ratchets up throughout the story, and this can be a very difficult book to put down. She also has an incredible character in Katniss, the narrator. Katniss is a tough, practical 16-year-old girl who has had to support her family in what is effectively a third-world country, and as such she doesn’t seem at all like a typical female protagonist. It only takes a couple pages for the book to establish her as shockingly unsentimental and out of touch with our “civilized” morality, but also to put that in context with her harsh living conditions and love for her family.

Most of the book is developed with the same eye to a strong and original characterization, though it is rarely fleshed out as well as Katniss’. It was never clear to me why the government drafts children into an annual fight to the death. The explanation is that they do it to keep the people of the “Districts” down and remind them that they are under the thumb of the “Capitol”, but this seems to be an ineffectual method that would cause more resentment than compliance. To the privileged people of the Capitol (who are portrayed as one-dimensional characters, obnoxious in every way), this is a thrilling televised contest. In fact, Katniss spends more time in the book trying to appease a fickle audience than she does focusing on the other children who are trying to kill her. Depicting these deathmatches through the lens of reality TV is a good approach for the novel, as it gives the readers a distraction from the violence while also highlighting its pointlessness. But it’s not clear what factors make the show successful for the audience, when most of the people watching are poor District citizens being forced to view it against their will. Somehow, being an interesting character can lead to sponsors airdropping gifts just at the right time to advance the plot or resolve a conflict.

The disparities between the enslaved Districts and the rich Capitol set up a political theme that looks to be the focus of the rest of the trilogy. At least so far, the logistics of this tyranny seem to be simplistic even by the standards of young adult books. I hope that this is simply a reflection of Katniss’ limited knowledge, and not really the extent of the worldbuilding. I’ll find out in the next book, but fortunately it is not a major problem now: The Hunger Games is focused on an immediate fight for survival, and the half-drawn world we are introduced to stays in the background.

Katniss’ immediate world is easier to accept. Her district and its people paint exactly the picture needed to make us accept this desperate, scrappy girl. She is believable despite the many coincidences and unexpected kindnesses that help her throughout the story. And the battle itself takes place over weeks in a large forest, which becomes a fully realized setting through Katniss’ search for water, shelter, and food.

While The Hunger Gameshas both serious strengths and weaknesses, Collins designed the book to take advantage of the strengths. This is a surprising character study, a brutal battle for survival, and an exciting novel that I didn’t want to stop reading. I have no idea if I’ll continue to like the series once it broadens its scope, but this is a great, memorable book on its own. Read this book now while everyone’s talking about it, not just for that reason, but because it’s actually worth talking about.

Grade: B+

    • George Washington
    • April 9th, 2012

    What exactly ARE the strengths and weaknesses??

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