Have I become Am I too much of a snob? Is that why I wasn’t enchanted by The Hunger Games? Because by most accounts, the book is packed with virtues: a dystopia that hasn’t had its suspense sucked out by commentary; a female protagonist who doesn’t stumble into the bland territory occupied by so many of her peers; an accessible style with good pacing; a lack of cheap drama. Plus, M likes it! Hooray! I am so totally on board with all of this.
And yet, by the end of The Hunger Games I was just bored and disappointed–disappointed not only in the book, but in myself. Because this is not the first time I’ve failed to enjoy something that’s captivated so many people, and thus lost myself the will to emulate what’s probably a very desirable quality. Bah. This is why I am here. The least I can do, to give both of us (the book and me) the benefit of the doubt, is to figure out and discuss why I found the whole business so disappointing, and in doing so hopefully gain something worthwhile from the experience. I believe that as much can be learned from books you don’t like as books you do, especially when they’re books lots of other people completely adore. So!
Things About The Hunger Games That Were, Actually, Pretty Awesome
(Let’s give credit where it’s due–there were some, for sure.)
1. Pacing and brevity. There are waaaaay too many bloated novels out there purporting to be brilliant and exciting, and then heaping on piles of description that nobody cares about (lookin’ at you, George R.R. Martin). The Hunger Games is not one of these books. It moves fast, but you never feel you’ve missed anything; it’s never confusing; it accomplishes its objectives with few words wasted. You’d think this wouldn’t be as rare as it is, but it is rare, and so I commend Collins for it. Our sense of a world that feels relatively foreign is established clearly and swiftly and also thoroughly. This makes it much easier to invest yourself in the plot and the fate of the characters–you’re not too busy trying to construct a ramshackle model of the setting.
2. No female character fail. This thing does pass the Bechdel test with flying colors (partly because 90% of discussions are about raw survival, but still) but that’s not a catch-all indicator. Katniss avoids lousy female character stereotypes like it’s her job. The girls in the Games aren’t any less lethal than the guys; in the Districts, it seems like they’re not any less useful (or less starving). Collins seems to have determined a kind of social equality is a side effect of living in a Crapsack World, which…makes a surprising amount of sense, when you think about it, and also means she’s not having to work against societal structures that usually breed lame female characters.
3. The plot really is an engaging one. “But then why were you so bored, you nitpicking twit?” I’ll bitch about that in a minute. I have to take this moment to say that The Hunger Games really is well-plotted, and I intend to read at least its immediate sequel for this reason. Yes, the premise bears a distinct resemblance to Battle Royale (which, for the record, I prefer) but the role it plays in society is quite different, and a lot of the new elements introduced make it more complex. I liked that participants in the game were ‘tributes’ from various Districts. I liked that you could volunteer. I loved the idea of ‘sponsors’ for participants and the resulting PR aspect of the proceedings (though that last reminded me a lot of the relationship between performers and audience in Gillian Rubinstein’s fantastic Galax-Arena). And, yes, damn it, I found the course of Peeta and Katniss’ relationship interesting. Their ‘romance’ for the cameras alongside their uncertain actual feelings, and Katniss’ decision to move it forward being a survival decision–that was fun plot stuff.
Really, my issues with The Hunger Games were rarely about premise or plot, and almost entirely about execution. Which brings me to List #2:
Why I Didn’t End Up Liking The Hunger Games
1. Narration. M pointed out in her blog that “to write a story from inside the head of a naive, reactionary character, and yet show nuance and subtlety” is “impossibly difficult.” I agree. First-person narration is really hard. Most people aren’t very good at it. I certainly suck at it a whole lot, which is why it’s a bit rich of me to criticize Collins, but I’m here exercising a reader’s right to criticize a writer: the first-person narration in The Hunger Games may well be the number-one reason why I disliked the book, and it’s definitely the number-one reason I disliked Katniss.
This merits its own paragraph. As I see it, the principal reason first-person narration is so darn difficult is balance. The author is required to balance the usual roles of narration (description, exposition, clarity) with establishing the personality of the narrator themselves; sometimes the protagonist (as with Katniss), sometimes a secondary observer with varying degrees of importance. This balance is easier, sort of, if you cast someone reasonably naive and reactionary as the protagonist. Such a person can conveniently get across information to the reader as they themselves learn it. A more volatile, decisive protagonist-narrator runs the risk of muddying up the pacing or the storytelling, stomping off on tangents or refusing to answer questions or giving a fractured picture of the setting rather than the whole one a reader might prefer. The former type lends itself more to suspense, swift pacing, and a linear plot; the latter to more wandering, loopy territory ripe for stylistic experimentation.
Surprise surprise, my tastes run toward the latter, ’cause you all know I like character studies and outrageous language even at the expense of popular page-turning compulsion. My favorite protagonist-narrator of all time is Rai from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for crying out loud. ❤ More on that another day. Maybe I should write a narration manifesto.
But. Katniss. The Hunger Games. First-person present-tense. I don’t think she pulls it off. Katniss is less bland than your standard ignorant female lead, but she’s not charismatic enough to come across vibrantly in dialogue, so we’re stuck learning about her through her narrati0n. The problem is, she’s saddled with doing exposition at breakneck speed. She succeeds at getting across all we need to know, but in doing so buries any sense of a distinctive narrative voice. There are two ways you learn about a protagonist-narrator–through what they say, and through how they say it, and with Katniss we get nothing from the second. Collins’ writing style is like…I dunno, plywood; you can build something sturdy out of it but not with much character. It’s not even that clunky, but it feels clunky because it’s forced into first person. Especially since it’s not written as a recollection, but as a present experience, which really makes you wonder how on earth Katniss’ narrative voice is so calm, clear and straightforward when she’s thrown into terrifyingly awful situations. Could that just be part of her character? Perhaps, but it comes across as a writing convenience.
And that’s the problem with Katniss. It’s not that I don’t like her. It’s that I don’t care about her. I don’t know her at all. Speaking of which…
2. I don’t care what happens to these people. Dorothy J. Heydt via TV Tropes– the Eight Deadly Words. I should perhaps amend it to the less deadly “I don’t care what happens to these people yet,” since I’m just a few chapters into Catching Fire, but one-plus books into a series isn’t a good place to be feeling that. Katniss is the most glaring example, but by no means the only one. One might expect some apathy caused by the premise–“almost all these characters will die, why should I bother caring about them”–but I’ve proved myself more than capable of caring about doomed characters before. xD Besides, none of the characters doomed by the Games are developed very much. The only two tributes we see enough of to form conclusions about are Katniss and Peeta, both of whom will pretty obviously survive. If I ever seriously thought either of them would die, I might have felt some mild concern, but we’ll never know.
So it’s not darkness-induced apathy. It’s something else. Remember that pacing I praised before? One problem–the beginning. It moves too fast, or starts too far on in the timeline. This is the same problem I had with the movie Avatar, incidentally. Avatar is about a zillion times worse than The Hunger Games. But one of its (many) issues was that we knew pretty much zip about the protagonist before he underwent a massive transformation, physical and otherwise, and embarked upon a life-changing journey. Being in the military =/= a personality trait. Being paralyzed =/= a personality trait. And that was indicative of the movie’s biggest problem, which was that we saw very little of planet Earth and humanity before the movie began, so the protagonist’s decision to ditch his own species and fight for the aliens had almost no impact. Psht.
Katniss’ personality is vague at best before she volunteers for a life-changingly awful experience. Her decision to volunteer to protect her plot-device of a younger sister indicates a remarkable bravery, but not a particularly distinctive one. Yes, we get some (less than elegantly deployed) exposition on Katniss’ past, but that’s not the same–I want to see some of her past, some of what she likes and dislikes other than liking survival and disliking starvation, see what she thinks about when she’s not participating in major plot events. As for Peeta, I found him occasionally interesting, but aside from being Captain Love Interest he never really amounted to much of a person. He’s quite fond of Katniss, and a decent sort. He seems pretty smart. Okay. Cool? Now what? The reveal that his feelings for Katniss were genuine and not a PR ploy was the least surprising reveal ever. Of course he fancies Katniss. So does Gale. I knew that before Katniss even left her district. And my feelings on the matter are a resounding “whatever,” because I don’t know these people well enough to believe in any chemistry they might have.
Also, %$#@ love triangles.
This was actually also a problem with Battle Royale, which is frustrating, because I’d think the most interesting part of characterization in the scenario Battle Royale and The Hunger Games share is seeing what people become: what such a horrific reality does to various individuals. When you haven’t gotten to know the cast before they’re in the scenario, you can’t see how they’ve changed–or who has changed and who has stayed the same. This was particularly glaring in The Hunger Games because of its present-tense first-person narration. I’d damn well expect to see the mental shifts happening right in front of me, in the text, in Katniss’ head, but since she’s relegated to describing all the action and showing us how her world works she has precious little time to convey her own personality, which…we never knew before she was dumped into the Games, so…pretty much all we get re: the effect of the Games on the tributes is “It’s horrible because these children must become killers.” Well…sure. But, sorry to say, that’s not enough to interest me anymore.
My best hope for the next two books is that they compel me to care about the characters more. Either through putting them in more varied situations, introducing more characters to play off the existing cast, just plain developing them further, or better dialogue.
3. Ultimately, I didn’t know what to do with it. Is this always a bad thing? Hell no. I actually have an aversion to books with capital-M Messages, shouted through a megaphone to ensure I understood them. I’m pleased as punch to spend hundreds of pages watching entertaining characters have intriguing conversations and vagabond about in odd, bouncing arcs without hitting a bull’s-eye. The Broom of the System was a bit like that: it was thought-provoking, but I at least never had any notion of what David Foster Wallace was driving at (if anything at all). And though with dystopia comes the expectation of chastisement (be careful, or your future’ll end up like this!) I’d just as soon not have a finger wagged at me unless the warning is incisive and deserved. However, you’ve got to invent a world for some reason. My reason is usually “for fun” with a side of “for ease of setting manipulation in order to explore theme X or question Y.” What’s Collins’ reason for the world of The Hunger Games? What reaction did she hope to elicit? What new thing was she aiming for?
I asked this and ask it because I can’t help but read The Hunger Games in the shadow of Battle Royale. Well, and Galax-Arena, but no one seems to have read that, so I won’t go on about it here. xD Battle Royale has a presence. Battle Royale I can’t speak to entirely, because I think it struck some chords with a Japanese audience that I completely missed, but part of it is definitely “for fun” in the sense of raw, shocking sensationalism, and a bit of hidden rebuke. It is gleefully violent and batshit crazy. Its vision of the future has something like our present as a past, which makes it more outrageous a suggestion. It makes government-sanctioned teenage murder contests a darkly hilarious idea, rather than just a repulsive one. And in being so viscerally entertaining, it makes its actual audience share a position with the in-universe audience, and (in my case) feel perverse and awkward doing so.
While I don’t feel like The Hunger Games is a moral text attempting to instruct me, I also feel it takes itself seriously enough and spends enough time on the plight of Panem’s impoverished population that I’m not meant to take pleasure in it, either. Katniss is gearing up to be a revolutionary figure, and I suppose the eventual uprising will take place and (perhaps at great cost) usher Panem into an era without Hunger Games or asshats who eat enough that they have to vomit just to eat more when people are starving to death. Yay! Viva la revolution! So…where does this leave me? If I cared about these people, if I cared about Katniss and Peeta and co. and their dreary world, the prospect of their liberation would excite me. If I was being invited to draw some resonant parallels, I might be curious as to what solution the plot of the trilogy proposed. But I don’t care, and I’ve seen no such invitation.
The Hunger Games has the stylistic simplicity of fast-moving escapist guilty-pleasure genre fiction, but its subject matter is solemn, its world bleak, and its characters without charisma. The heck do I do with that?
Bonus list! Books a Bit Like The Hunger Games, But Better (In My Opinion)
1. The aforementioned Galax-Arena, by Gillian Rubinstein (you may know her better as Lian Hearn, author of the Tales of the Otori books). The premise is not altogether unlike Battle Royale & The Hunger Games, inasmuch as children suffer for the entertainment of a warped adult society. In this case, children from six or so to their mid-teens (they rarely survive past that) are forced to perform death-defying acrobatics in order to provide constant adrenaline rushes for their audience, so the audience members can live unnaturally long lives. I remember this one as a real page-turner, but most of all I became extremely invested in almost the whole cast. It’s compelling, sometimes in a horrible way. All the characters react to their situation differently; they’ve all been there for different lengths of time and the culture they create for themselves is completely fascinating. The themes introduced are surprisingly complex for a YA novel, too.
2. William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy: The Wind Singer, Slaves of the Mastery, and Firesong. Aramanth is a wonderfully crafted world. I wish I could worldbuild like this guy does. So much envy. It’s familiar but foreign; it’s intriguing as hell; I even love all the syllable-salad names. I thought of this trilogy in connection with The Hunger Games because it’s got an awesome female protagonist contending with a spectacularly shitty society. To go into the plot would not only take too long but be an awful shame, since I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that Kestrel is one of my favorite fantasy protagonists in writing, and the pacing and storytelling of all three books is simply phenomenal. The writing itself is lovely. Elegant, epic, musical, occasionally quirky, versatile. Also, the trilogy got a great ending.
In conclusion, if the rambling above even deserves that phrase, The Hunger Games was not a terrific reading experience for me, but thinking about it has brought up some interesting questions, and it’s held in high enough esteem by people I hold in high esteem that I’m giving its sequels a shot. Plus, I read the first one in, like…an afternoon & a half. It’s not that big of a time commitment. Hoping for the best.
Forthcoming (shorter! I swear to God!) post about my current activities, sometime this week.
P.S. An anthem: It’s okay to not like things.