Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Hunger Games - Book Review

I started and finished “The Hunger Games” trilogy this weekend. It has the gritty teenage violence that fans of “Ender’s Game” will love and an improbable love triangle that “Twilight” fans will obsess over. It is written in a breezy style that nobody should find challenging. In other words, it was engineered to be a blockbuster. And popular it is - a big-budget movie adaptation is hitting screens less than four years after the first volume was published.

From the perspective of a young male reader, the action too often halts for a rehashing of the love triangle. When we embark on yet another trip around the hamster wheel which is Katniss Everdeen’s brain running in circles over boys my eyes automatically shift into skim mode. But the author’s sense of pacing saves the day. When my patience starts to wear out, Katniss snaps out of her romantic stupor long enough to put an arrow through somebody’s throat. Suzanne Collins is mindful of serving her bimodal audience consisting of action-craving boys and boy-crazed girls.

The books are incredibly gory. Contestants in the games are killed by an endless array of explosion, electrocution, trident, arrow, axe, sword, bee sting, poison, fire, drowning, acid, beast, and too many other ways to remember. It's fun and disturbing to cheer on the shy Katniss as she grows into a killer. The movie budget must have a eye-popping line item devoted to buckets of blood and rancid flesh. And it is a relentlessly bleak story. Katniss is repeatedly disillusioned and abused. All her supports prove to be ephemeral as her friends betray her with a hidden dark side or otherwise are killed without ceremony. By the end of the series, I was forced to like the protagonist out of sheer pity. The Hunger Games contain the most abuse of a main character since Elie Wiesel's “Night”.

Politics and culture in The Hunger Games is shallow. The political system underlying the world of the Hunger Games is self-evidently evil and designed to be so. When she’s not in the world of kill-or-be-killed that is the eponymous games, the system that created and supports the hunger games is Katniss’s major enemy. There is little nuance or food for thought in the political realm but this is dystopia, after all. The most provocative scenes show ordinary citizens of the capitol who are fans of the bloody games without being conscious the moral evil they are supporting. People in many historical nations have been  complicit in similar evils, and it is easy to do so today if we are not careful.

The first book is clearly the best of the three - it most purely captures the creative vision behind The Hunger Games. But the series doesn’t die to sequel syndrome as it could. The second and third books wander for a bit, but they ultimately culminate in a satisfying ending.

Fans of dystopian sci-fi should pick up “The Hunger Games” to read on a long plane flight. It is a mass-market book and it shows, but it has many redeeming qualities.

Oh, and count me on team Peeta!

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