This review isn’t about the movie. It’s about the books. I haven’t seen The Hunger Games movie yet, but I have tickets for tomorrow at the Seattle Pacific Science Center and I just read a Hunger Games movie review by MSN critic Kat Murphy . She gave the film only two and a half stars.
I don’t find it surprising. Movie critics tend to be…well…critical. Murphy’s point was that the film is not that artistic, or violent, and because it moves so fast you don’t get to know the characters. The reason I don’t find this discouraging is because Murphy’s review of the movie reflects my thoughts about the books as well.
The books are not particularly artistic. They are all page turners, but they are not lyrical. This works, however, because stoic prose fits Katniss’ character. Taking this into consideration, the movie seems to be a decent/faithful adaptation. Maybe it doesn’t take any cinematic risks, or improve upon the story, but it should please its audience.
Why am I posting about this? I already wrote a summary of The Hunger Games and analyzed its popularity. Has this blog become about The Hunger Games? No. But I think this movie, and the sequels that are sure to follow, are going to be “kind of a big deal” for the next couple of years and I want to get my thoughts out on the BOOKS before I see the movie, and before I read too many other people’s opinions, which may influence me… for better or worse. So, as a former English teacher, aspiring author, YA entertainment fan, and professional analyst (for whatever that’s worth) here’s my opinion on The Hunger Games:
———————MILD SPOILERS ARE MILD———————
I loved The Hunger Games novels. I couldn’t stop reading them, or thinking about them after I had finished them, and that to me is a good series. I read all three books (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) in about a week. I read the first one on a plane and it kept me absorbed for five hours straight.
I have to congratulate author Suzanne Collins for writing such a riveting story. I think YA is a very difficult genre and these novels do what many YA novels fail to do: they don’t insult their audience. Instead, they make them think, and they make them care, and they encourage them (teen readers) to think beyond themselves, not just to their friends and family, but politically and globally, even to their enemies. For that I say BRAVO. With the movies, I believe Hunger Games will become even more popular, eclipsing even Twilight mania, but with a better message. I think it is a good thing (though we will probably all soon be sick of it).
That being said, the books aren’t perfect.
Here are four things that disappointed me about the series:
1.) All things considered, The Hunger Games plays it pretty safe
The violence is extensive, especially in Mockingjay, but given that it’s YA, it’s not that descriptive. Maybe you didn’t notice when you were reading it, but you rarely actually see anyone get hurt. Not in a visceral way. A lot of the violence is summarized or left to your assumption.
Also, though the characters are put into some truly terrible and traumatic situations, there aren’t that many hard choices that Katniss makes (until the final third of Mockingjay at any rate). This was surprising, as the story’s premise was essentially about having to make the hardest choice imaginable–killing other humans beings, innocent human beings, and for no reason other than that someone is making you for their entertainment.
But in The Hunger Games Katniss only ends up killing enemies–vicious, blood-thirsty killers intent on killing her. The Careers are convenient antagonists because they take out all the weaker, more sympathetic tributes, leaving only Peeta to keep us guessing on what is going to happen. We don’t learn much about them or their reasons for being Careers so they are easy to hate and/or to sacrifice. Katniss only kills Careers. And the only one she REALLY kills is Marvel. Her actions do result in some other deaths (e.g. dropping Tracker Jackers on Glimmer and blowing up the camp supplies) and she shoots Cato, but the latter is more of a mercy kill.
I’m not saying this made for an unenjoyable story. Or an untraumatic one. It just wasn’t as gritty as it could have been.
2.) I couldn’t make sense of the setting, especially the Capitol
Suzanne Collins is vague about Panem. We know it exists in what used to be America, but we don’t know what happened to create it and I never could quite grasp the dimensions. I’ve seen a number of “fan maps” laying out the Districts throughout North America, but it seemed to me that the Districts were much too small (and the human population is said to be threatened) to cover the entirety of the United States. District 12 read more like a town. It seemed like Katniss could walk across it and there seemed to be only one major market. District 11 was much larger, but it couldn’t have been THAT large. And the Capitol was particularly confusing, especially in Mockingjay where it seemed like the civilians were living amongst a bunch of booby traps and rabid animals (those scenes read rather like an RPG video game–Monster Attack! Actually, that’s another thing that disappointed me about the world. I disliked the Mutts. They just seemed unrealistic to me. I felt that characters who were killed by them deserved more meaningful deaths.)
I guess it doesn’t really matter. I am not terrific at writing setting either, and the setting was not particularly important to the plot, but I do wish it had been a little bit more defined. I am actually interested to see if the movie improves upon this because I really wanted to know more about what the Capitol was like and I didn’t feel that I got the chance to really understand it.
3.) Teenage love triangle drama
Again, it’s YA. From a market perspective, Suzanne Collins did it right. She created a story about teenagers and included elements that teenagers care about–fashion, frivolity, fitting in, falling in love, feeling confused, and so on. But it was a bit much for me sometimes. In the first book, I had only a passing interest in the love story. If I was Katniss, love would be the last thing on my mind, and to the author’s credit, that was how Katniss felt too, but I could SEE the love triangle shaping up, and it was hard to take seriously given that Katniss was going to have to fight to the death.
By the third book, love comes to matter more. It means something real and is more important. I ended up loving the ending, but prior to the last chapter, and really the last few pages, there were many moments where I felt “this doesn’t matter right now”.
4.) Katniss wasn’t the heroine I wanted.
Katniss is kickass, or has that potential, but she is a fairly passive character for most of the series. On the upside, she is a well crafted character. When you read from her point of view, you get the feeling that she is a real person with flaws as well as good traits and she has a unique way of thinking. I find her relatable and likable, but she doesn’t take charge of her destiny. Mostly, things happen to her. And she reacts.
To be fair, though, I think this was deliberate by the author. I wanted Katniss to be kickass. I wanted her to stand up to oppression, to cruelty, to The System. I wanted her to be the Girl On Fire. But she wasn’t. Throughout all three books, Katniss is a pawn in a game between other powers. She accidentally trips a rebellion. She is threatened by her enemies and deceived by her friends. And then she is thrust in the midst of a revolution with little choice as to her role. She does what she can. At first, she just wants to survive. Later, she wants to keep the people she loves from harm. By the end, she just wants peace for the survivors and for the people in power to act sanely and leave her alone.
Saving Grace: What The Hunger Games Is Really About
By the time I got to the very end of the story, I understood what the author wanted and was doing. From the premise, I had incorrectly assumed The Hunger Games was a story about a heroine who takes a stand.
What Collins actually wrote is more like an anti-war novel.
Katniss’ story is rather realistic, and gripping, from this perspective. What she faces is what young people actually face when they are conscripted or thrust into war or revolution or some other violent situation not of their own choosing. Even if they are strong (and Katniss is a tough survivor), they still get hurt, and they suffer, and they lose people they love, and if they manage to make it through all of that, they are never the same and it is all they can do to pick up the pieces and find a way to keep living.
That is the story Suzanne Collins set out to write with The Hunger Games and that is ultimately why it has become one of my favorites.