Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Book 1, The Hunger Games)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins book cover
The Hunger Games (2008) is a dystopian novel that imagines a North American of the future, where the country has been split into 12 separate districts, which are presided over by the privileged people of the Capitol. Years ago the districts rebelled against their authoritarian masters. When the rebellion failed the Capitol imposed a cruel and barbaric punishment on the districts to remind them of their subservience. Each year a teenage boy and girl from each district is selected at random and sent to the Capitol to take part in the hunger games, a reality gameshow in which all contestants are abandoned in a carefully controlled environment and left to fight to the death – all for the entertainment of the Capitol’s populace. In some districts it is a privilege to take part in the games, the honour of winning enough for teenagers to volunteer to take part, but in district 12, the most impoverished district, being drawn to fight in the games is tantamount to a death sentence, and so it is that when her little sister’s name is drawn Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place in the games. With the help of district 12’s only surviving winner, the drunk, Hamytch, and fellow tribute Peeta, Katniss must use all her well-honed survival skills to politick and fight her way through the 74th hunger games.

The first thing to say about The Hunger Games is that it borrows significantly from other works, most notably Battle Royale by Koushun Takami; a far more complex book, aimed at a slightly older audience. Whether the hugely derivative nature of The Hunger Games is a problem, is a matter of personal taste, but as it’s written for a YA audience, adult readers may find Battle Royale a more satisfying read overall. Having said this, both deal with similar themes on different levels; rebellion from conformity, the Darwinian struggle to survive, and the strength of the human spirit when set against unspeakable horrors and impossible odds. The Hunger Games also explores the banality and voyeurism of reality television. However, it has to be said that none of these potentially interesting ideas are developed to the extent they could be, and most are vague themes, rather than well-observed critiques of society.

The novel is cleverly paced, with around half the book devoted to the build-up to the games, creating a connection between the reader and the central characters as they are, before the barbarising effect of the games. On the whole the writing feels too simplistic for the adult reader, with uncomplicated sentence structure, and little characterisation beyond the very central characters. Indeed, the potential for moral ambiguity is entirely shunned, with characters either being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. On the plus side, Katniss is a strong, rough, and yet at times, vulnerable heroine – a refreshing combination for a female YA protagonist. However, the central relationship didn’t work particularly well, with very little chemistry evident between Peeta and Katniss. In fact the book itself is oddly sexless, particularly when compared to YA fiction like Twilight. This strikes a discordant note with both Katniss and Peeta having reached sexual maturity and coming from an area of impoverishment; such areas often experiencing high levels of youth sexual activity.

Some parents have expressed concern that the book is too violent for young readers, but more troubling than the violence is the characters’ response to it. There is very little horror expressed by the contestants as they brazenly murder their fellow tributes, and even the ‘good’ characters show little hesitation in delivering the killing blow. There could and should have been so much more emotion attached to the gruesome situation and the horrendous acts that the children were forced to carry out; this is a huge failing morally and, more importantly, dramatically. There is also a strange juxtaposition to the central theme of rebellion against authority, as Katniss spends most of the novel killing the other contestants, each of whom is being exploited in the same way as herself, as required by the Capitol. It’s not until her final act in the games that Katniss truly begins to rebel against the Capitol, and there is a sense that this is building the momentum for the next book in the series.

The Hunger Games is an addictive read, and the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta as they try to engineer their survival is interesting, however adult readers may well find the book unsatisfying on the whole, with too simplistic approach taken for the most part, and some lazy plot contrivances. For young readers a fun and involving read, but for those desirous of something more complex and satisfying, Battle Royale is a far better option.

As a YA novel I think this works pretty well, although in honesty I think it's a little simplistic at that level too, with young readers perfectly capable of dealing with more complex ideas than are presented here. With a little more emotion and complexity this could have been really great, as it is I'd say it was a good read; quick and enjoyable.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Hunger Games on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Hunger Games on Amazon (US)

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Shannon (Giraffe Days) said...

I think your comments here are spot-on. Especially where you talk about "the book itself is oddly sexless" - so true, I hadn't thought of it in those words but you're right. It brings to mind the common theme in our societies/countries where sex is more taboo than violence, like how blockbuster movies full of violence get a lower rating than a film with some sexual content. Also the bit about reality TV - books like this could really do a lot more in their social commentary, I agree.

I liked this one a lot more than the next two, but like you I kept thinking of Battle Royale which I loved (Collins' has said she had never read it or seen it but I wonder whether she'd heard of it, even if she then forgot? The similarities are hard to pass over!). The last book just got silly (and the sexless ending sooo drawn out and by then Katniss was just boring) but I'm very interested to hear what you think.

Oh, and what other works did you find it borrowed from? Aside from the obvious classic dystopian works, I hadn't thought of anything else.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It wasn't until the end that I really noticed how sexless the book was. I think it's a flaw not too have addressed it at all. After all, if you throw a bunch of hormonal teenagers together it's almost certainly going to be an issue, particularly given the situation. Takami deals with the issue in Battle Royale in relation to the urge that surfaces in some of the males to force themselves upon some of the girls. It doesn't have to be deeply explored or in anyway graphic, but I think it should be acknowledged at least. Young readers are a lot more intelligent than is often made out.

I'm interested in how the plot develops too - I'm hoping to have them read by the time the first movie comes out in March. If Collins has really made that claim, then it smacks of ignorance, and can only be disingenuous for me. Personally, I don't have a problem with the story borrowing from other places, and actually it's not nearly so much as some people have suggested, but I cannot believe that she hasn't read or seen it. Very poor.

On the issue though, I do truly believe that The Hunger Games is a work in it's own right. Stories have always been borrowed and adapted, Shakespeare did beautiful things with other people's stories, and I think that's the real problem here; the plot is similar, but Collins's writing is nothing special, she doesn't add anything to the idea. Personally, I felt the first half of the book was pretty good, but the actual games were written badly; lacking entirely in drama, or interesting commentary - this, I think, is why the comparison to Battle Royale is a problem for so many people.

As you say there are a few dystopian novels which spring to mind. I'd also point out The Lottery, a pretty famous short story by Shirley Jackson, which has strong similarities with the reaping. There's some mythology thrown in there too, a little Lord of the Flies, and something which I can't remember without my notes. :)

Anyway, thanks for the comment Shannon, lovely to have you stop by.

Kelsey said...

Great review! I do agree about the simplicity of the book. I didn't touch upon that in my review just for the fact that I am in my 30s but in relation to other YA books I felt it could have had more stuffing.

I found the the fact that there was no sex a bit refreshing. I liked how the author gets her readers invested in the characters emotionally.

Once again, loved your review. I have just recently finished the Catching Fire and I am very curious how this will all end!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I'm just about to start Catching Fire, but like you I'm interested to see where the series is headed.

I think all the preamble to the games is a good way of getting the reader emotionally-invested in the characters, but I did think the glossing over of all sexuality felt rather odd.

The simplicity should certainly entice less regular readers to embrace the series. I wanted more, but the book is probably not aimed at me :)

muyiscoi said...

Despite all the obvious shortcominfs of the book and indeed the series, it suceeds at keeping the interest of the reader. one would still want to go back into the world of the Capitol and the 12 districts to find out what became of peeta, katniss,and the rest of rhe crew. Having finished reading all 3 books, I have to say that I found the series entertaining, albeit with minimal mentally stimulating content. It is a good read for YA and adults alike.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

muyiscoi - thanks for dropping by. I think Suzanne Collins definitely achieved an addictive read. Easy and light, what I've read of the series so far zips by and you always want to know what's going to happen next. Interesting to see how the rest of the series of the series holds up.

Brenna said...

I broke down and bought this a couple of weeks ago and just started it yesterday. I haven't read YA since I was a YA and it's interesting to go back. I don't remember the language being quite so simplistic, but other than that it's an interesting story so far. I don't see myself falling head over heels for it, but I'm happy to be giving the book a shot, nonetheless.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It is pretty simplistic although I don't have a lot to compare it to, as I didn't read much as a YA (although, I'm not prepared to consider myself as a regular adult until I'm at least 30, so maybe I can still count myself as a YA :P)

I can see why it's popular, but it didn't blow me away. See how you go, and let me know what you think.

Kate {The Parchment Girl} said...

This is the best analysis of the book I've read yet. The Hunger Games was the first YA book I had read in years, so for me it was an a new and exhilarating experience. I didn't mind the simplicity of the writing, though I do think there is a gap between the age level where the content of this book is appropriate and the reading level.

I agree with Kelsey about the sexlessness of the novel being refreshing. I felt like I got to know the characters better than if there had been a greater emphasis on sex.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks very much Kate - that's a lovely thing to hear :)

Like you, I don't read a lot of YA, so it's always a case of adjusting my perspective. I think you're right too, there is an interesting contrast between the level that the writing and the level that the content are pitched at.

I've heard quite a few people say that the lack of sex was refreshing, so I think I'm in the minority here. Although truth be told, I probably could have lived without the romance altogether.

Kate {The Parchment Girl} said...

Wouldn't that be something--a YA novel without a romance that actually makes it onto the bestseller list. One can wish...

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It would indeed - sadly, I think the post-Twilight era is set to follow that particular formula.

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. However, I do believe that Katniss is, significantly, an important female character. Whilst her mother is too frail to do anything and Prim too young, she leads and grows in confidence - although I found her weak in the third novel.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Hi Matt - thanks for stopping by. I've just had a look at your own review of the book, and I have to say, you write very well.

Katniss is a good character, and pretty positive, as female role models in popular fiction go. However, I think a lot more could have been done with her, particularly in the later books in the trilogy, when she really begins to fade.

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