Hunger Games Postmortem (Spoiler-Free)

This book is pretty dark. Eh? Eh? "Dark"? Get it?

So I’ve finally caught up to the rest of Western civilization and read The Hunger Games. I haven’t looked at any other reviews, nor seen the movie, so this is my own, reasonably unbiased take on the book itself.

You probably know at least something about the story already, so I’ll spare you an in-depth summary. The premise is simple: 24 children, ages 12 to 18, fight each other to the death. The heroine, a 16-year-old hunter named Katniss Everdeen, saves her sister’s life by volunteering to take her place in the Games. The whole sadistic event is orchestrated by the Capitol, the elite rulers of a future North American country called Panem (as in panem et circenses, Latin for “bread and circuses“) to keep the masses under control. Political intrigue, a love triangle, and lots of violence all keep the story moving.

First things first: yep, the book is good. I read the whole thing in a weekend, which is saying something, since I haven’t made time for a whole novel in months. The formula sounds simple – take a likeable protagonist, throw her into impossible danger, watch her scramble her way out – but as legions of aspiring novelists know, it’s devilishly difficult to execute this well. Suzanne Collins nails it. From start to finish, the pages never stopped turning.

Of course, in a book that does so many things right, the flaws stand out all the more. For instance: as fast-paced as the story is, it does take a little while to get going. I found the first 60 pages, up until Katniss starts training for the Games, pretty slow. Especially tedious are a series of flashbacks, which set up Kat’s relationships with other characters but seemed like a distraction from the main story.

The language is also a bit clunky. You get sentences like this one, talking about a faraway pack of monsters: “Up close, I’m sure their more menacing attributes will be revealed.” She also overuses the word “somewhat.” I guess that sounds nitpicky, and certainly most writers have little tics like this (myself very much included), but I did find it distracting in places.

The biggest problem, though, is that I never really connected with Katniss. I liked her okay, I wanted her to win (and survive), but I never felt a visceral attachment to her character. I can think of two reasons for this.

First, she comes across as pretty mechanical in her thinking. She dismisses music and storytelling as useless, assumes other people’s feelings are cynical calculations, and spends surprisingly little time thinking about whether there’s any way she could survive without killing other innocent children. Even her love for her little sister – the whole reason she enters the Games in the first place – never felt especially believable. Katniss is a survivor, but not a lot else. Sure, that’s understandable and explainable and sensible, but compared to (say) a Frodo Baggins or a Harry Potter, she seems a little heartless.

And second – as crazy as this sounds – I never felt like she was in any real danger. Yes, she spends most of the book surrounded by people (and things) trying to kill her, and yes, she gets injured quite a few times, but I never got to a moment where I believed she was on the verge of losing. She always seemed to be in control, even when she wasn’t.

(By the way, “Couldn’t connect with the main character” was by far the #1 complaint my own beta readers had about The Counterfeit Emperor, so I understand how hard it is to get this right. Certainly she does a better job at it than I did. But still.)

I’m realizing now that I haven’t gotten into enough detail about the book’s positive aspects, and there are many, but unfortunately I’m running out of time. In lieu of that, I’ll simply go back to my earlier statement, which is among the highest praise possible for any book: it kept the pages turning. And since the story doesn’t really stand complete on its own, I may have quite a few pages left to turn in books 2 and 3.

Have you read The Hunger Games? What did you think?

4 responses to “Hunger Games Postmortem (Spoiler-Free)

  1. I haven’t. You’re the third person to ask me, just TODAY, if I’ve read them. It’s getting more than a little annoying. And it’s not even noon.

    I’m not that interested in reading them, honestly. A mixture of peer pressure and curiosity, though, is probably going to make me read at least the first few chapters.

  2. I’ve read the book and seen the movie.

    I’ve written my own review on my own blog. I was a little disappointed with Hunger Games, but overall it is a very highly addicting book. I agree that Katniss is a bit cold, but I think it fit well with her since her only real concern is survival. While I agree that I also didn’t feel her attachment to Prim (mostly because her love is told to us more than it’s SHOWN to us), I did feel her attachment and sadness towards Rue.

    I like the flashbacks. But I agree, it was a bit slow in the beginning. There was a point where I was thinking “When are these games actually gonna happen?” and then when they did start, I felt it was a bit lacking in the action/suspense department.

    I also agree with the danger part. I think this has to do with the fact so many people were looking out for her. Peeta. Haymitch. Cinna. Etc. I felt like she was in very good hands and the fact she’s so adept at surving, I also didn’t really feel scared for her (Instead, I was scared for every other character who surrounds her, especially Peeta.)

    If you enjoy the book, you don’t need to watch the movie. While it includes stuff that’s not in the book, I feel your imagination would do better to fill in the gaps and the scenes that were in the book were very lacking in comparison to the book.

    But I feel the sequels are a whooole lot better than the first book. Especially Mockingjay.I could not stop turning pages. Collins is a master at ending each chapter with a good cliffhanger or dropped bomb.

    I hope you enjoy them 🙂

    • From your review post:
      “Katniss’ choices were too easy, her actions too noble. I mean hell, she only killed 4 people and three of those were not directly. I wanted her in a situation where she had to kill when she didn’t want to. Where I didn’t want her to kill because I liked her opponent. Like put her up against Thresh or Foxface, who I really liked. I wanted to feel conflicted. But that never happened.”

      Agree 100%. I kept waiting for her to have to kill somebody in cold blood – or else to realize she couldn’t do it, and turn against the Capitol. Really surprised Collins didn’t push that angle harder.

      You’ve got me excited about the sequels now. I may have to check them out sooner than I planned. 🙂

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