The Hunger Games seems to have become a relative commonplace recently, especially with the imminent release of the film, but for those not familiar with the story: The narrative follows Katniss Everdeen as she competes in the Hunger Games, an event which takes one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 from all twelve districts in order to put on a televised fight to the death. The narrative takes place in a post-apocalyptic place called Panem, which is what the countries of North America have become. The Hunger Games is the first book of a trilogy called, aptly, The Hunger Games Trilogy.
In a lot of ways, I think The Hunger Games is a great book for YA lit. Danger and death have had a place in the genre before, but The Hunger Games features children engaging in battle with one another in a sometimes-gruesome, often-explicit kind of way. Some people have written about the growing presence of darkness in YA lit. as a negative thing (and I don’t want this review to be a response post to that), but the presence of mortality in the Games is actually nicely juxtaposed with the ever-present threat of starvation in District 12, which allows it to function as a continuous threat against which every character needs to fight. I actually really appreciated the manifestation (vis-à-vis the other participants in the Games) of the pervasiveness of death because it takes what is always present in post-apocalyptic novels (the threat of starvation, dehydration, exposure, radiation–all of those not-so-tangible things that terrify adults) and puts it in a form that the kids in the book (and the kids reading the book) can conceptualize and deal with. The killing is gruesome and hard to read about at times (especially when you consider the age of these kids), but I never felt like it was without purpose. Collins does a nice job of tiptoeing the line between meaningful mortality and unnecessary carnage. She’s able to make death a part of life (in a very active sense) while still maintaining the emotional resonance it can carry, and that, for me, makes it absolutely worth it.
On a larger level, Suzanne Collins demonstrates a really keen sense of plotting in The Hunger Games; the narrative is structured like a really fast-paced play in some ways, and it’s well constructed enough to keep the reader turning pages from (near) the beginning to the end. And for me, that’s probably the best part of this book. There are rough patches (I’ll get to that next), but I was so invested in the action of the novel that it ended up alleviating any other concerns I might have had. It’s not the most insightful thought, but there is something to be said for an author who can craft the kind of narrative that makes you stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading. And Collins definitely did that for me.
My only major complaint is this: The writing (on a very sentence-based level) is pretty rough for most of the novel–I understand the need for first-person, and I think it starts to get the audience involved in the intensity of the various situations of the story, but it tends to be pretty clunky. And really, the plot is so action-focused and intense as it is that I’m not sure a poorly written first-person narrator is going to add that much. Also, add in the awkward difficulties of a present tense narrative voice, and the whole thing, on a totally micro level, comes up a bit short. To be clear, I do think the plot of this book saves the whole thing, but there were more than a few cringe-worthy sentences (or paragraphs) that gave me pause while reading.
All in all, I liked The Hunger Games and, given my thoughts on the writing, I’m especially excited for the film. I think it has the potential to be one of those rare instances where the movie is better than (or at least as good as) the book. The Hunger Games gets four hearty slices of lasagna.