Monday, January 17, 2011

Entertained But Not Hungry for More Games, Yet

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
Scholastic; Hard Cover; 384 pages; ISBN:

One part Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, one part post-apocalyptic fiction, and one part reality television makes a compelling young adult novel.

As I read it, though, I wondered if the first book of Collins' Hunger Games series is a work of literature or a film script in book form. Learning about the author's past as a TV show writer was no surprise. Her story has a very cinematic quality that makes it a fast read. I was very pleased to learn Collins is adapting the book for film.

This writing style, though, also skips a lot of visual details and world building that would have been a delight to discover. Maybe that will just have to wait for later in the three-book series.

Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old girl and skilled hunter, narrates how she is picked from children among a dozen districts to compete in a deadly gladiator game.

This game is hosted every year on television by the technologically advanced and blood thirsty Capital, the ruling city of a post-apocalyptic America. It's one of many techniques used to intimidate the twelve districts, the thirteenth of which was scorched off the face of the Earth when it rebelled. Food and wealth is strictly monitored and given as payment for which ever district wins the game.

It's a solid and terrifying idea and Suzanne Collins carries it wonderfully. She especially succeeds with the action of the story. Told in the present tense, it's difficult not to feel the fears and starvation that Katniss go through. She brave, honest, and an excellent point-of-view character.

Also well done are the links between blood sport and reality television. Katniss, along with surviving the games, must also win over the audience. She goes as far as to concoct a syrupy romance with her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark, in scenes verging on a Harlequin romance novel parody.

Sometimes, Collins's scenes and situations are under-dressed. Katniss and her family live with the threat of starvation hanging over their heads, but what do they do to escape a life of unrelenting hardship? Do the televisions set up in everyone's houses provide other entertainment that keeps them too distracted to think of new ways to rebel?

And how does the Capitol justify its dehumanization of the districts? Yeah, they're wealthier and more technologically advanced, but I can only assume the people living there have convinced themselves that the poor are either subhuman or happy to sacrifice themselves for sport.

It's still a good premise, but I wish Collins had spent more time building her world.

So. Is this book good, fun, both, or neither?

The book is constructed to reel the reader in and is successful at it. It's especially fun when Katniss is running through the forest terrain of the stadium, figuring out traps and learning how to out-smart her opponents.

Some parts of the story were really unsatisfying, though. Most of the tributes have flat personalities, reduced too quickly to competitive creatures when they're as young and innocent as Katniss.

The experience of rooting for a character to kill other characters is deeply unsettling. Well-crafted and addicting, but unsettling. In a book about reality shows and the horror of living under a tyranny, I guess that's the intended effect.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for certain readers and friends, especially ones with short attention spans, but myself? I'll be waiting a little while before I pick up the rest of the series.