Wednesday 5 June 2013

Review: The Hunger Games

  Back in January I felt the need to vent a little after finishing the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. While that blog post wasn't exactly a critical in-depth review of the book in question, it was most certainly a very impassioned response to how the series ended.
  I may be a little late to the party, but I think it's high time I laid out my thoughts on what attracted me to the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins in the first place. As usual, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible, focusing on the general strengths and weaknesses of the book rather than going into plot specifics.

  So what is The Hunger Games? It's a group of impoverished children and teenagers murdering one another in a grim dystopian future during a televised annual event designed for the entertainment of the upper classes. It's jam-packed with action, emotion, nail-biting tension, and a healthy dollop of a teen love triangle to boot.
  I've heard a lot of people comment on the social commentary aspect of The Hunger Games, and while this is something that certainly does play a part in the novel, it isn't what makes the story work. The connotations to the exploitative nature of reality TV, the disconnect between the audience and the people on screen, and the idea of media desensitisation are all very straightforward and obvious themes in the novel, but they aren't what makes it engaging. They are not the high concept.
  I feel this is something worth mentioning because I've heard it brought up a lot when people discuss The Hunger Games. This book is not an allegorical work. It's no Animal Farm or Watership Down (another novel I really have to review some time), and readers looking for a deep social commentary are going to be left wanting. I have no doubt in my mind that when Suzanne Collins first came up with the idea for this story she wasn't thinking of it in terms of allegory, but in terms of "fun concept for an exciting story". And the latter is exactly what The Hunger Games is.

  So, let's talk about the novel itself. First and foremost is the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. One of the major strengths of the story is Katniss as a character. She isn't a particularly groundbreaking protagonist in and of herself, but she is an incredibly effective and engaging one. The trait that stood out to me the most about Katniss was that she wasn't a typical goody two-shoes heroine. Quite the opposite, in fact; while she does possess many admirable traits that we associate with a likeable hero, it is her flaws that make her who she is. The author accomplishes this primarily through the contrast between Katniss and her co-tribute in the Games, Peeta Mellark.
  Peeta is a goody two-shoes. As a character I honestly didn't care for Peeta all that much, simply because of how straightforward and archetypical he was. However, the good-natured heroism we see in Peeta serves as a wonderful contrast to Katniss, highlighting all of her flaws and failings as a human being. While the later books in the series take this to something of an extreme, The Hunger Games does a brilliant job of portraying its main character as a deeply imperfect young woman, with judgemental and selfish impulses that ground her in reality and lend a distinctly human touch that allows us to empathise with her.
  It might not sound as though I'm portraying Katniss is the most glowing light in this segment, but these flaws are an integral part of any interesting protagonist, particularly one whose head we spend an entire novel in. Katniss is a fantastic action heroine, and the contrast between the selfish and the selfless we see in her over the course of the novel is key to her character.

  The plot of the novel is a relatively simple yet endlessly compelling one; survival in the wilderness in the midst of a ruthless game of life and death. The dynamic of the Games -- the alliances that form, the victims and victors, the individual methods each tribute employs to survive, and the ever-looming knowledge that only one of them will get out alive -- is ripe territory for a hundred different scenes filled with tension, excitement, and page-turning compulsion to find out what happens next.
  Very similar to the Harry Potter concept of "high school with wizards", The Hunger Games, while winning no prizes for exceptional originality, is such a solid formula that a talented storyteller like Suzanne Collins is able to wring endless engagement out of it.

  It's hard to find much to critique the book on, primarily because it accomplishes the goals it sets for itself so effectively. It's not a deep story, but it isn't trying to be. It doesn't have the most complex and nuanced characters, but it doesn't need them. The majority of the issues I could point out here are nitpicky and pedantic when looking at the story as a whole, and they certainly aren't compounding weaknesses that had an impact on my enjoyment of the novel. If there was one criticism I had to make, however, it would be a relatively common one voiced by other readers.
  There is a section in the latter part of the book during which Katniss and Peeta spend an extended period of time together in close confines, and their relationship is explored and re-explored by the author to a slightly tedious degree. Coming in the middle of a story with such fantastic pacing for the most part, this segment sticks out as an overly lengthy stumbling block that has a tendency to reiterate information we already know and serve as little more than filler. The change of pace is nice, but it only needs to last for a short while to be effective. This part of the book drags, and it's a blemish on an otherwise shining gem.
  That being said, this is a minor fault, and one that many great books often suffer from at some point. It is by no means bad or unenjoyable, but I can't help feeling like the editing shears should have come in to trim this section down a little.

  The Hunger Games certainly falls within the ballpark of my favourite kind of story; a simple, highly focused, and thoroughly entertaining one, with near-perfect pacing and incredibly solid execution across the board. It's not a book that's going to change your life or enrich you as a human being, but goodness, it's one heck of an entertaining read!

  The Hunger Games gets an incredibly enthusiastic Page-Turner-Out-Of-Ten from me!

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