Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008

The Hunger Games gleefully and literately mixes together several genres (sci-fi, dystopia, action, romance) and then wraps it up in fairly standard YA prose. Like Twilight, it's struck an immediate chord with teenagers, and there's a big-budget Hollywood movie already in production.

Like a big-budget Hollywood movie, Games is sleek, swift and suspenseful, but somewhat lacking in finesse and subtlety. The basic premise (a deadly reality show) is actually the best part of the novel, a timely, cuttingly funny allegory. The teen romance segments are somewhat less inspired, although even that is perfectly fine, as far as those kinds of things go.

Games begins in a post-apocalyptic America--now called Panem--which is comprised of twelve Districts and a Capitol. Once a year, two teenagers are selected from each District to participate in the Hunger Games, a lethal reality show in which the contestants kill each other on live television.

Katniss Everdeen, a born survivor from the poorest District, isn't selected to join the Games: she volunteers in order to save her younger sister from certain death. She finds herself an early favorite, but she'll have to use all her skills to survive against her bloodthirsty fellow contestants.

There's a really fantastic sci-fi thriller in here. The fact that it's a young-adult novel means that (despite a fairly graphic amount of violence) the concept is never allowed to really take off. It could have been dark, edgy, grim, maybe a little twisted. Instead, it's glossy and fun, but not much else.

Collins' writing style is fairly generic, get-the-job-done YA, heavy on emotional description, light on description of pretty much anything else. The budding romance between Katniss and fellow "tribute" Peeta (yeah, I know, unfortunate name) is given more attention than anything else. The main--and admittedly somewhat ingenious-- twist is that Katniss and Peeta have to keep up their relationship to stay alive, since their pairing is incredibly popular with the audience. It's a shame that Peeta is so much less interesting than Katniss, who is herself a fairly generic protagonist.

The novel's best sections are definitely the action scenes and the amusing skewering of reality television (tributes are sent important gifts like weapons or food by "sponsors"). If Collins was a subtler author (or if the book was written for adults), the satire could have been sharper and more complex. But because the book is far more preoccupied with dewy-eyed teen romance, it's a throwaway element.

The action is fun, though, and marvelously inventive. Collins throws a lot of amusing challenges at her characters--psychedelic wasps, fireballs, booby traps, mutated monsters and even weather manipulation. The book's latter half is almost nonstop suspense, like an entertaining action movie that thrills the senses and allows the brain to sit back:

The game has taken a twist. The fire was just to get us moving, now the audience will get to see some real fun. When I hear the next hiss, I flatten on the ground., not taking time to look. The fireball hits a tree off to my left, engulfing it in flames. To remain still is death. I'm barely on my feet before the third ball hits the ground where I was lying, sending a pillar of fire up behind me. Time loses meaning now as I frantically try to dodge the attacks. I can't see where they're being launched from, but it's not a hovercraft. The angles are not extreme enough. Probably this whole segment of the woods has been armed with precision launchers that are concealed in trees or rocks. Somewhere, in a cool and spotless room, a Gamemaker sits at a set of controls, fingers on the triggers that could end my life in a second. All that's needed is a direct hit.

Whatever vague plan I had conceived regarding returning to the pond is wiped from my mind as I zigzag and dive and leap to avoid the fireballs. Each one is only the size of an apple, but packs tremendous power on contact. Every sense I have goes into overdrive as the need to survive takes over. There's no time to judge if a move is the correct one. When there's a hiss, I act or die.
--- (page 175)

Despite the entertaining plot and cool gimmicks, the flaws are serious enough to be distracting. The only characters with any real development are Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch (a crusty, alcoholic mentor for the District 12 tributes), and they're all strictly two-dimensional. The other characters are flimsy stereotypes and the tributes are barely sketched at all. The arena scenes would have been more dynamic if we had actually known who these people were.

Dialogue is also a big problem. The characters' lines are always just a little awkward--they either say exactly what's on their minds, or they clumsily hide it. I don't know why, but dialogue in young-adult novels is often very dumbed down, as though kids aren't smart enough to pick up any subtleties on their own.

Games is an entertaining diversion and it's just original enough to warrant some attention. It's just too bad that Collins couldn't have gone further with her concept, although maybe that's what she does in the two highly popular sequels that have been released. I definitely liked the book enough to read the second one, which will hopefully feature better character development and an improved style. And maybe Peeta can change his name.

NEXT UP: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.

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