The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

On October 30, 2012, in General, by Neil Stevens

This review will avoid spoilers. Though I know I’m late to the Hunger Games series, I doubt I’m the only one.

So, some background before I begin properly. I’m no stranger to ‘young adult’ fiction. I’ve been reading it since before I was a young adult, and know full well that Fantasy and Science Fiction have always been lumped in there since the themes seemed to inappropriate for actual adults. I grew up on (contrary to Martin Prince) Asimov, Herbert, and Tolkien, with dalliances with Anthony and LeGuin. In college I got into Clarke and Heinlein, and in adulthood I’ve branched into Turtledove. This stuff is my pleasure reading home territory.

So, I wasn’t afraid to try the Hunger Games. It was an impulse buy at Costco a few months ago. I just hardly read anymore, so I only picked it up last night thanks to having no power for 25 hours after the passing by of Hurricane Sandy.

That said, I’ve had mixed feelings about it, and while at first I came way feeling badly about it, I think in the end I came into it with the wrong expectations. Contrary to the above, this is a book for teenagers. Go in expecting otherwise and you face disappointment.

I put down the book twice*, and the second time I nearly did quit reading it for good. In fact, had I not been without power so long, there was an actual chance I’d have quit reading for good. But, I was hooked just enough to press on. So in the end I started Monday night and finished it Tuesday morning. I pretty much got it in all at once, thanks to a rare moment without technological distractions.

Why did I quit? I felt the book dragged on in certain parts, but mostly I felt the book was manipulating me. This is a book that does justice to a post-apocalyptic setting. To borrow from the new Leonard McCoy, the world of the Hunger Games is “disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” It’s what you get if you take the proles from 1984 and put them in Room 101. It’s harsh. I was shaken for a while even after it was over.

Once it was over I decided I was done. I was through. I felt I’d been cheated. But still, the book gnawed at me. Even as I sat at McDonald’s charging my iPhone and backup battery, I thought about the book. And I came to a realization that made me realize the problem wasn’t with the book, it was with me.

I assumed The Hunger Games was to be just another F&SF story sold as Young Adult Fiction. But it’s not. It really is aimed at Young Adults. Teenage girls in particular. I think a middle or young high schooler is supposed to see if not herself, at least echoes of what her life is like, in what happens to Katniss Everdeen. Hence the dwelling on clothing, the awkward and noncommittal treatments of boys, and on how old she felt like she was at any given moment (9, 12, you name it, she feels like she’s not living up to her actual age).

I think this also explains the way Collins has to dial the emotions up to 11. I think that you really have to do that in order to break through to a teenager and make the kid feel it. I certainly know that in a more subtle series like Dune, as a teenager I didn’t get the full depth until later. Hunger Games should make the teenagers sad as well. But the colors are just too saturated for an adult, perhaps.

I don’t intend to read the rest of the series. Despite enjoying the first three books, I never finished Rama Revealed because the terrible things happening to characters we’d come to know were just too much, too constant, and too unbearable for me. Hunger Games rubs me the same way, and I’m done.

But again, this isn’t the fault of the book. This book has the aim of Twilight but has a fleshed-out world, interesting characters, and is capable of engaging you in what happens and in why. I just think it tries too hard, and really doesn’t carry as well to an adult audience (particularly to men) as other well-known series do.

Had I known this coming into it, I wouldn’t have judged it so harshly on Twitter, but I still would have found it too manipulative of my emotions to keep reading. But, I recommend it to those with daughters. I think fathers in particular will appreciate the encounter of a decadent, sexualized culture with a shy, perfectly normal teenage girl, who is put under pressure, hates it, and rebels against that culture.

I just hope they didn’t turn the movie into the Truman Show. This book really does deserve better. I might even watch the series. I can handle 90-120 minutes of, ahem, dusty rooms.

* I quit once just after Katniss met Cinna, and once a bit after the Cornucopia.

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