The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This book review is going to be a bit unconventional, so please bear with me.

Normally, I only review books on my blog if I feel I can recommend them.  They might not be perfect, but overall, the praise outweighs the criticism. However, for me personally, The Hunger Games was a huge disappointment.

I’m not going to do a little book blurb like I usually do, because I want to spend all the available space on this post explaining the reasons why I was so disappointed.  Also because of that, this post will be full of spoilers.  Consider yourself warned.

First, let me say that I don’t think this book was all bad.  Suzanne Collins is very good at plot and pacing, and she knows how to keep a reader hooked.  In that way, this book reminded me of the old Michael Crichton thrillers that I devoured as a kid.

However, two crucial things killed about half of the suspense for me: the fact that this book was the first in a series, and the first person viewpoint.

From the very beginning, we know that Katniss isn’t going to die.  We know it, because she’s narrating the story to us directly (in present tense, which personally irks me, but I won’t go into that).  Unlike other gladiator-style heroic fantasies, where the major draw is to see who lives and who dies, we have that spoiled for us.

Of course, the argument in favor of the first person is that it helps the reader feel a closer connection with the viewpoint character.  The problem is, I never did.  At the end of the book, Katniss still feels like an outsider to me; I never felt like I got inside her head well enough to know who she really is.  When I try to imagine her, all I can envision is a wide-eyed mannekin.  She just didn’t come alive to me.

Why? Because the whole time, she’s only got one thing on her mind: survival.  I don’t see anything but fragmentary glimpses of her other motivations, and those are never fully fleshed out.  Her experiences growing up were just so traumatic that I can’t relate to her, and Suzanne Collins never provides a reference point outside of the awfulness of Katniss’s crapsack world.

Which is another thing that got to me: the setting.  Every time I opened the book, I dreaded going back to Collins’ world–and not in a good, “ooh, this world is so creepy/frightening” way, but in a “man, this place just makes me depressed” kind of way.  It wasn’t even that original–Panem is basically the USA as North Korea (though it could take place anywhere, for all the details Collins gives us).

What’s more, the setting is full of inconsistencies.  The people are starving to death, but the forests are full of game and wildlife.  In North Korea, people raze the forests for fuel and timber, driving all the game out.  Yes, I know the people of District 12 mine coal, but all of it presumably goes to Capitol, just like in District 11 all the grain goes to Capitol and the people still starve. Which makes me wonder: why are all the districts specializing in only one commodity?  That’s just stupid.

Which brings me to another thing: the sheer idiocy of the rulers of Panem.  If the Hunger Games are supposed to remind the people of how subjugated they are, why allow the tributes the opportunity to do something like pull a romance stunt?  Why spend all that time primping and preening them, interviewing them, and giving them an opportunity to manipulate the crowds?  When the people of District 11 sent Katniss the bread, why didn’t a government censor stop that from happening?  And finally, when Katniss and Peeta were the only ones left standing, why give them the opportunity to upstage the games by falling on each others’ swords?

Seriously, that last point got to me more than any of the others.  When they announced the rules change, that Peeta and Katniss were supposed to kill each other after all, why couldn’t the GM see the potential for things to go wrong?  Seriously, having them both kill each other–or refuse to kill each other–was such a blatantly obvious choice, I saw it the moment the rule change came into play.  The fact that the villains didn’t just threw me out of the story.

But that wasn’t the first thing that threw me out of the story.  The first thing was the parade, with Katniss and Peeta marching into the arena with their flaming cloaks.  All this time, Katniss has been set up as the underdog–she isn’t pretty, she isn’t strong, she’s mildly sympathetic for volunteering in place of her sister, but the audience in that arena is looking for blood, not sympathy.  So when the crowd goes wild for her and Peeta, I just didn’t buy it.

It only got worse as things went along.  When the tributes did the skill check, Katniss–who, from the beginning of the story, has been set up as the underdog–scores higher than anyone else.  Every time she’s in front of an audience, everyone is oohing and ahhing.  It made me want to gag.

Honestly, you know what it seemed like?  It seemed like Suzanne Collins fell in love with Katniss so much that she wanted to spoil her, even though the story required her to keep up the pressure.  She made sure to torture Katniss in the games–so much so that it felt downright melodramatic at times–but while they were still in Capitol, waiting for the games to start, Katniss felt like a spoiled Mary Sue.

And as for the romance, it fell completely flat from the beginning.  Katniss was nothing but a manipulative faker from the beginning–granted, because she needed to in order to stay alive, but the least she could have done was coordinate that with Peeta.

And that’s another reason why I had such little sympathy for her–she’s a callous, manipulative, lying little heartbreaker, like far too many women in this world.

So yeah, The Hunger Games was, in my opinion, a huge disappointment.  I can partially see why it did so well (strong female protagonist, excellent plot structure and pacing, lots of hooks and cliffhangers), but personally, I don’t think it deserves half the praise it’s gotten.  And after what friends have told me about the rest of the series, I can guarantee that I won’t be reading them.

Author: Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek is the author of more than twenty science fiction books, including the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He claims Utah as his home.

24 thoughts on “The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins”

  1. It sounds to me what you didn’t like was a book with Manipulation as a central core of its themes. (From your comment about women and manipulation, I’d even venture to say it struck a nerve. *amused*)

    For example, the reason why Panem keeps all the Districts’ responsibilities extremely narrow isn’t to be financially wise (the distribution of resources back and forth from the Districts to Panem to the Districts again must be costly). Rather, it is to manipulate the Districts into being easily managed. You simply can’t stand on your own two feet if you have to rely on imports for all of your goods. If you rely on your central gov’t for everything it’s not likely you will want to rebel from it.

    However, the system is inherently unstable, true. The gov’t’s main control is hunger and keeping its subjects completely dependent.

    That system won’t work within the Capitol itself, however. You must remember that it’s the gov’t that’s evil not the citizens of the Capitol itself. They’re just clueless, thoughtless and desensitized–for the most part.

    That’s why when the crowd goes wild for Katniss and Peetah’s float down the parade, why when the Gamemakers do interviews and so on–it’s to create the exciting show the vapid, silly citizens of the Capitol need. Think of the Romans’ gladiatoral shows. They were SHOWS first, bloodthirsty events second. The crowd goes wild for gorgeous, unique costumes, for conflict and plot, for proof that they’re powerful and in control. They don’t care who Katniss is, only that she’s got an amazing costume on and that Peetah is in love with her.

    The Capitol manipulates the districts but it’s got to manipulate its own people, too. So when they give Katniss a high score, it creates mystery (even if it’s just a number) and it means she will be singled out and will hopefully die soon, killed by the districts who are jealous enough to want what she got.

    But it’s the show, the veneer, the delicate balance and manipulation that keeps everything together. It’s not finances, it’s not weapons, or anything else. It’s just pure politics, manipulation of what people see, what they know, and what people have to work with that is keeping Panem afloat.

    The story acts very well under these conditions. If you were expecting other conditions I can see how it completely falls and becomes a disappointment. If you wanted real love, this isn’t the romance for you. If you wanted real battles, then the showy drama in the Arena isn’t what you want either. If you wanted real fighting then Katniss’ manipulation of the system would fall flat. If you wanted a character with compassion and honesty as her main features–she would be dead and there would be no story. We also would be clueless to much of what is going on, hence the reason why we don’t see Peeta’s point of view. He’s just too honest. He’s not broken into the lying and veneer yet. That will come later.

    Many of the other questions that you raised–such as why is the forest teaming with life and people are starving inside the fence, get answered later. Collins isn’t a stupid writer, she’s just writing a story you don’t like.

    *amused* Met one too many manipulative women?

    1. Have I met too many manipulative women? Yes–but even one is far too many.

      If Collins explains all the economic inconsistencies later in the series, that strikes me as retconning. Even if it makes sense, why not make it make sense in the first book? Though you do bring up some good points re: the specialization of commodities and government control.

      But still, from the villains’ perspective, it makes way more sense to let Katniss and Peeta kill each other than to rush in and stop them. By letting them both die, you give the love story a touching, tragic end, while emphasizing your own control over your citizens’ lives. By rushing in to stop them, you may satisfy the crowds somewhat, but it makes you look weak and undermine your authority. It’s a no brainer.

      Here’s what I think should have happened. The story should have been in third person limited, with viewpoints from Katniss, Peeta, Rue, Foxface, and a couple other tributes. The reader should have been made to sympathize with each on, thus heightening the tragedy as they killed each other off. Then, at the very end of the games when Katniss and Peeta were the only ones left, Peeta should have brought up the fact that he always wanted to make a statement against the government (restating the sentiment from earlier), Katniss should have realized that the love story wasn’t entirely a scam (as she realized at the end), and they should have killed each other with the nightlock.

      A tragic ending, sure, but it wraps things up so much better, with so much more meaning. Because honestly, when Peeta survived, I felt gyped. He totally should have died–him and Katniss both.

  2. The problem with them dying is then you’d get angry Capitol citizens. The reason why they like the games so much is partly because of what happens to the victors post-game, as you see in the second book. And that reason then gets flipped on its head and used for a major conflict point in the third one.

    True, it would make a much better closed-narrative for the book if they’d died, but it wouldn’t be true to the world she has presented in large that becomes more fleshed out in the second book. But waiting till another book for fuller explanations doesn’t bother me. I agree she did compromise the first book’s story to do it, however.

    I agree about the first person narrative being an unpleasant choice, as well. I don’t like first person narratives in any way, shape, or form and it was annoying enough to me that I had to “read” the book by listening to it from audible, because then at least it sounds like a woman is telling me her story, instead of reading it as if I am Katniss. *amused* But that’s just me.

    As for manipulative women… You’re going to hate me because I am one? I essentially tricked a guy I liked into going on dates with me, but hey, if I’d come out and told him I liked him he would’ve freaked out (because he didn’t like me that way) and this way I got to hang out with an awesome guy I liked when I needed a friend the most. Sometimes we’re forced into it. Or, if not forced into it, the world we live in makes it a very nice choice sometimes. I don’t believe everyone is completely straightforward, honest, and open every second of every day. It can be as small as withholding our pearls not to give them to swine–not everyone needs to know our secrets–or…well, yes, it could be really awful. But those women always get their action’s consequences and will be doomed to a lifetime of empty, tormentuous relationships. Don’t let it bother you. There are plenty of good women out there. 😉

    1. I don’t think first person is always bad–I think Dave Wolverton did it really well in On My Way To Paradise, for example. But yeah, I do think it didn’t really fit for Hunger Games, and I never particularly enjoyed Katniss’s voice.

      About manipulative women…basically, I just hate it when people lie. That’s just as true for men as for women, though just in my own experience, women tend to lie more (or perhaps more subtly). But I dunno, I don’t really HATE anyone because of it (yet), so I guess you’re off the hook. 😉

  3. Lol, bad Voice joke alert, but they found a good voice actress for the series for audible–so maybe that’s why I like it. *amused* It could be good acting on a bad script and I’d never know! haha

    When next I’m feeling up to being bold and daring and trying new things I will take a deep breath and plunge into another attempt at a good first person narrative. I have yet to read any of Dave Wolverton’s works–but I shall give it a try!

    And yes, women are subtle, aren’t they? *amused* Maybe it’s because traditionally they’ve had no public voice and have had to resort to secondary methods to be heard…. Hmmm… food for thought. Don’t know if that’s a true statement or not.

    (I probably should not use “they” on my own gender….XD)

    1. More action-violent, but kind of both. There is a graphic rape scene, and some Japanese-style suicide, plus a planet-wide genocidal war. The thing that makes it so disturbing, though, is how it affects the main character; he’s basically an old doctor who is caught up in a war he doesn’t want to fight, trying desperately to keep his humanity intact.

  4. Ooh a doctor. That does sound interesting! Rape scenes, though; I’m going to have to get some of my own guts of steel back before I can read one of those. Still, I’ll put it on my list to read!

  5. Not to be rude, but David Wolverton did say the mark of a good author is they offend half their audience. I didn’t like Katniss much, but I thought that was more because the author did a good job of writing a girl who needed to seriously grow up, not because the author made a mistake on her part.

  6. If it was Katniss’s character or the thematic content of the book that bothered me, I could say that you have a point. However, all of my issues were fundamentally story issues–Katniss didn’t feel like a real person or a fully fleshed out character, the evil overlords of Panem were abysmally stupid, the romance fell flat, the worldbuilding was inconsistent and unoriginal, etc. These all point to a lack of skill on Suzanne Collins’s part–which doesn’t take away from her skill at crafting plot and creating suspense, but it is something that seriously takes away from the story, in my opinion.

    In short, I wouldn’t say that the book offended me so much as disappointed me–and that it disappointed me in a big way.

  7. First person present tense is taboo in genre fiction, but in the YA market it is very very common. I prefer first person present to almost any other viewpoint as a reader, but then, I read a lot of YA.

    And as far as Suzanne Collins lacking skill as a writer. I hope that some day I can rise to the level of poor skill you claim she has. The woman is amazing. Again, my opinion. You are entitled to yours, of course.

  8. I just finished the trilogy and am left with many of the same questions. The districts were much too simple and specialized to be plausible. The level of technology was not consistent when the best weapons the capitol had were contrived weapons pods and outrageous mutts to supplement their hovercraft and peacekeepers. With the ability to create force fields and elaborate arenas with the ability to capture every second on camera you’d think they could field a better military. Drones and armored vehicles would have gone a long way. You’d also assume that if the vikings could do it, they could manage to at least contact and possibly trade with people on other continents, unless of course zombies wiped out absolutely every single living creature except those in Panem. Katniss’ self-doubts also got old after a while and she didn’t really develop as a person in spite of all she experienced.

  9. Very good points. Looking back, I think the main reason the book was so successful was because it combined elements of the thriller genre with YA, and the YA audience up to this point typically didn’t have much exposure to either thrillers or non-YA science fiction. As you’ve pointed out, The Hunger Games is quite clumsy as a science fiction, and as a thriller, it’s only about average (Ludlum is a much better writer, and Crichton does a much better job building and managing suspense). However, because this was the first real time that these genre elements were combined in a major way with YA, it took that audience by storm and became a runaway hit.

  10. alright. so, i just read the hunger games, and am about half-way through the second book. the second book is a lot better than the first. both were enjoyable as quick reads.

    Things I did like:
    1) Pacing
    2) suspense
    3) fast-moving plot

    Things I didn’t like:
    1) if you’re going to take tributes, and want to teach the districts a lesson, just shoot all the kids on camera. don’t let them fight each other, because then you create heroes. and, heroes from the district are going to work against you. just kill everyone–that’s much more demoralizing.
    2) there are camera’s everywhere. everywhere. it’s like the truman show, except in the truman show they take time to talk about how the camera’s work. they never do in this book–it’s just glossed over–camera’s everywhere, we never know how.
    3) the gamemakers control the wind, rain, fire, etc.? like, the truman show, but more ridiculous because it’s never explained how it happens. at least, in the truman show, they explain the mechanics of it all.
    4) there are 74 years of hunger games, and they decide, all of a sudden, to change the rules and let two tributes live? don’t believe it. how can 74 years of blood lust be quelled by the love of two teenagers?
    5) werewolves. all of a sudden these tributes are turned into werewolves? there was no preparation for this. yeah, the mockingjays and the tracker jackers were somewhat of a prep for genetic mutation/engineering, but taking dead people and putting htem into werewolf bodies? didn’t like it.

    that being said. i really like the second one a lot–no complaints. and, i plan to read all three (3).

  11. The book will work as a movie because visuals can compensate for the lack of commonsense story, and I’m sure the screenwriter eliminated some of the worst of it. And, of course, watching the movie, you won’t have to occupy Katniss’s vapid consciousness. Collins’ prose is truly senseless, and, as has been pointed out already, it lacks elements of good storytelling like foreshadowing and clever plot twists. There are plenty of plot twists of the throw-the-paint-at-the-canvas variety, and it really has a first-draft feel to it. I think the books were successful because general readers have lost the ability to recognize or even care about quality prose. That these particular bad book among so many others have met with such astonishing success is simply luck of the draw. I can’t give Collins the credit because the astounding writing errors (person and tense mistakes) throughout are those of a truly amateur writer.

  12. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but yeah, I agree this story probably works better as a movie. Perhaps it will be one of the few cases where the movie is better than the book? I’m not particularly interested in seeing it, but I probably will eventually.

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