Monday, September 5, 2011

REVIEW: The Hunger Games

So I did something I practically never do; I jumped on the bandwagon of a completely over-hyped pop culture phenomenon. I read The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Typically, I won't read or watch something that has sucked in the masses and been discussed in every major (and some not so major) media vehicle. By that time, I feel that I'm only going to be set up for disappointment. Games did a relatively good job of reminding me why I feel that way. I'm not saying it was a bad book. I'm just saying that there was nothing overly compelling about it, and I'm not really sure what warrants all the hoopla.

The story takes place in the future ( mysterious), where the nation of Panem has risen from the ashes of North America. Supposedly, a barrage of natural disasters resulted in the extinction of the former, while the creation of the latter led to the country being divided into 13 districts, "which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens." Subsequently, there was a rebellion of the 13 districts against the governing body of The Capitol, which saw the complete destruction of District 13, and the creation of the annual Hunger Games competition, during which 2 teenagers from each of the remaining Districts are forced to battle to the death until the last one is standing. This leads me to my first issue with The Hunger Games. It's never clarified why there was a nationwide rebellion if all of Panem had been enjoying an extended period of peace and prosperity. If you and everyone you knew were prospering your entire lives, would you rebel against your government? Granted, it's possible this is addressed in one of the subsequent two books, but even if it is, the first novel in a series is supposed to lay the groundwork. That piece of history not being explained at the outset prevented me from believing the entire premise of the story, which is never a good thing.

My second issue with Games, is that, despite the central focus of the story being the intense and bloody battle amongst the 24 contestants (called "tributes") in the aforementioned competition, very little time is spent describing the moments when each tribute dies. I suppose Collins avoids this for obvious reasons, but if you're writing a violent story, you're going to have to include violent aspects of the narrative.

Next, one of the supposed dramatic aspects of the story is that the main character, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is torn between her growing feelings for Peeta, the other contestant selected from her district, and the fact that at least one of them is eventually going to have to die. The problem is, the budding romance is boring. The real engaging part of the book is the battle for survival, and Collins completely overshadows that with this drippy, bland relationship.

One of the things Collins does well is building the non-romantic relationships in the book. Katniss' affection for her 12-year-old sister, Primrose is sweet and believable. There's a really emotional aspect of that relationship that I will not discuss here, so as not to reveal a critical turning point in the story, but suffice it to say, Katniss' love for Prim, and to some extent, their mother as well, is a central driving force in her determination to defy the odds and win the Hunger Games.

However, this positive aspect of the story also leads to the final, and most grievous flaw of The Hunger Games. 

--SPOILER (but not really) ALERT BELOW--

Since it won't be a huge shock to anyone to find out that Katniss survives the competition, I feel it's safe to mention this here. As with the majority of stories, be them novels or films or what have you, Collins completely fumbles the climax. There is an interesting twist, but it's somewhat predictable, and doesn't compensate for the fact that the description of the final moments of the Hunger Games competition and the immediate aftermath is extremely dissatisfying. In particular, Katniss' emotional response to her victory is simply not believable. Here's someone who never thought she stood a chance, who firmly believed she was facing her last days on Earth, and her reaction, in this blogger's humble opinion, belied that reality. Lastly, Collins never describes Katniss' reunion with her family. What should have been the single most dramatic moment of the story was not even included! I neglected to mention that all of the citizens of Panem are forced to watch the competition on TV, so Katniss' mother and sister have been following her travails the entire way. And we don't get to see their reaction when they first get to embrace their loved one, knowing she's overcome incredible odds to survive?

There were some other intriguing characters and aspects of the story, but overall, the problems I mentioned detracted too much from my reading experience. I don't even think I will be compelled to read the subsequent novels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, to follow the subsequent adventures of Katniss. As for the Hollywood adaptation, how do I resist the urge to see Jennifer Lawrence on screen? Well, I've barely seen any of Jessica Alba's movies, so I suppose logic can prevail here as well.

Now that I've gotten a taste for what happens when I jump on a proverbial bandwagon, I don't feel as left out for not having read or seen any of the Twilights, Harry Potters or Lord of the Rings. OK, so I didn't really feel left out anyway, but you get my point.

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