Book Review: The Hunger Games. More Than Favorable Odds: The Hunger Games’ Popularity Analyzed

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My friends at the Gwelsey Virus began with rules that, if broken, meant punishment for the rule-breaker. If any of my friends want to assign me a punishment, I will accept it. I am about to break the one rule I put in place for myself: that I kept things to 550 words or less.

This is the first review that I’ve written with the idea of getting it published somewhere other than this blog. I feel the writing is pretty tight, but it is over 1000 words long.  I just don’t know that I can trim that any further.  (If wants to offer a critique, do, because I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet.  Or if anyone knows where to submit reviews like this, I’d appreciate that even more.)  If I later find the energy to try, perhaps I’ll post the short review.

In the meantime, enjoy:

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy has been receiving a lot of critical and popular attention of late, probably at least in part due to Lionsgate’s announcement of a film adaptation of the popular YA, post-apocalyptic series’ first and title book due to be released in March 2012. I am, I know, late to the feast, so to speak. I only recently finished the first book, The Hunger Games.

Perhaps because of the hype that has been built up around this series, I found it at first disappointing. Within the first ten pages of text, I was terribly confused and put-off. I found the voice suffered from gender confusion. I was confused why two boys—Gale and Katniss—were discussing having children and why there seemed to be a definite implied “together” within that discussion, having heard nothing of a pro-homosexual aspect to The Hunger Games, something that is unlikely to be overlooked in discussions, popular or critical. Giving my mother a basic summary of the book, I turned to the back cover, looking for clues to the plot, and only then discovered that the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is in fact not male as her first person voice had led me to suspect, but female. Even discussion of her name in a pool of all the girls in District 12 did not wholly convince me of her gender, so seemingly male is Collins’ narrative voice.

I lamented this among friends, who wondered whether the gender confusion of Katniss’ voice was not intentional. I don’t know whether or not it could be. It is possible. Katniss, a trade hunter, has been playing a more stereotypically male role within her family for many years. She is the breadwinner and looks after the basic needs of her mother and sister in a stereotypically male fashion: by hunting in the woods and haggling for the best trade.

Eventually, I overcame the confusion I felt, though not without setting aside the book for some time and reading the whole of Rick Riordan’s The Throne of Fire and a large portion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I can’t name the exact moment that I decided to believe that Katniss was female; maybe it didn’t even happen within the text so much as within my head. Perhaps Katniss’ voice became more feminine as I journeyed deeper into the book. But either way, I emerged with an image of Katniss as strong, fiery, rebellious, independent woman, though I doubt that she will actually emerge from the series as a single, independent woman.

Like the Gamemakers and ranking officials of the Capitol in her world, Collins seems to very well understand that sex and violence sell (though the romance of the book stopped short of sex), and she used this to write a best-selling series. In fact, Katniss bears some resemblance to a stronger, more active Bella Swan (of Stephanie Meyers’ supremely popular Twilight series), unable to decide between two good men who love her and waffling over which she should love while believing herself unworthy of the attentions of either, unable to see her own apparent allure. I can’t really fault Collins for utilizing these proven money-makers, but it does seem a bit ironic that while she faults the Capitol for staging the Hunger Games, a death-match for entertainment of the Capitol citizens, for food for the winning district, and a reminder not to rebel against the current government, she uses a death-match to lure readers.

Perhaps because I came into the series knowing the basic premise, I was not as horrified as I could have been by the concept. That knowledge that I’m reading a work of fiction might also have factored into my less-than-terrified reaction. Still, I recognize what Collins is saying. The Hunger Games do read a bit like a season of Survivor where players are killed rather than voted off the island and the participants are children below the age of eighteen and the majority are unwilling victims. Perhaps a better analogy, though less current, is to a government-sponsored, publicly viewed reenactment of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

Now, it’s time to admit it: Like so many others, once I was caught in the action, the book was a quick, capturing read. At several points, I was emotionally wrecked by the book, which is always high praise. I’m not sure that I was wrecked at the moments that I should have been, but Shakespeare proved years ago that audiences love a tale of star-crossed lovers. Those moments of doomed romance I found more compelling, more heart-rending than I did the deaths and descriptions of hunger, dehydration, poisoning, and oozing wounds. Further proving its merit, I left the book feeling that it was one that was going to take some sorting, that I was forced to think, but perhaps I merely missed the happy ending, which I ought to have known from the opening pages was not forthcoming.

At any rate, am I glad I read this book, beyond now having entered the conversation ringing in the halls of children’s literature criticism and popular culture? Yes, I think I am. The Hunger Games was far from the best book, technically or in terms of its plot, that I have read even recently (but then, I am reading Tolkien’s classic and few can really compare to that), but it was a book driven by questions of character, of plot, and of the future of our society that I think has made a lasting impression. Apart from Katniss’ voice of which I have still have my doubts, the majority of the characters were believable, though some were perhaps a bit overblown, like Haymitch, Effie Trinket, and Cato (who I wish was unbelievable). Collins has thought through characters’ motivations carefully and crafted a story that I think showcases the characters more than it does the situation and the plot, which I was not expecting in a post-apocalyptic tale. These seem like characters who will not quickly fade from memory, which when compounded with its exciting, peril-filled, anti-government plot, probably accounts for the series’ popularity as much as does Collins use of perennially and currently popular aspects of plot.

**

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Scholastic, Lionsgate, Suzanne Collins, the Capitol, or the Gamemakers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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