Call me The Hunger Games hypocrite. Yes, I raced through the books. Yes, I got advance tickets for opening day. (Not the midnight show—not since I slept right through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) And no, I could not concentrate for much of Friday thanks to the zeitgeist of anticipation via email, Facebook, and Twitter.
The books are hugely readable and addictive. Suzanne Collins offers up lots of great plot twists, which keep them far from predictable. Collins must be commended in hooking, not only girls, but also the elusive non-reading demographic of teenage boys on a story told from the point of view of a schoolgirl. That is a phenomenon in itself. It’s refreshing and exciting to have a strong, determined, and capable heroine, and I know that my teenage self would have loved to read about Katniss Everdeen. Still, I have some real problems with these books.
For starters, the body count is higher than a season of 24. Spoiler alert: pretty much everyone dies. And they die savage, gruesome deaths. Kids—yes, these are kids here. They’re dying and killing each other like something out of the 300. The grisly fate of stylist Cinna in Catching Fire would work great in a pulpy noir novel about Russian mobsters. But, um, this book is aimed at ages “12 and up.” To contrast, in Lord of the Flies, three boys die and it is a really big deal. In The Hunger Games, every kid dies and it is no big deal. At least it seems to be no big deal judging by the hordes of kids (not teens) who packed the theater.
Also, the dispassionate tone of Katniss, the narrator, really unnerved me. She seems fairly anesthetized to all the violence and takes a disturbing matter-of-fact approach to her Death Wish-esque rampage. Gosh, even in Jason in The Bourne Identity (book or movie) seems more conflicted than Katniss, um, as does Darth Vader at the end. When nice guy Peeta dispatches another wounded and helpless tribute (that’s a child/teen competitor), the book plays it off like that was a smart move, as though it were some heroic reach to protect Katniss. Again, little remorse. Even in Saving Private Ryan, the trained soldiers—men who have just been through D-day—find themselves torn about whether to execute their German prisoner.
This lack of emotion and also the frenetic pacing made me feel like I was reading a video game. Snipers shoot unexpectedly from trees or roof tops, assailants jump out from behind corners, and there’s a constant stream of surprise dangers—fires, rabid mechanical dogs, poisoned gas—that Katniss keeps dodging. Particularly the third book, Mockingjay, feels a bit like “Call of Duty” as Katniss is almost continually shooting at someone. The whole underground trek in the tunnel was dizzying, as menaces popped out at nearly every turn. I had to stop several times during this book, because the choppy pace was so bing, bang, boom that I was getting a headache. My 13-year-old nephew told me that his teacher did not like The Hunger Games because he said it doesn’t offer the same sort of ‘patience and reward’ as traditional books. And I do wonder if kids are getting the same benefits to their comprehension and concentration skills when reading this flash-and-dazzle compared to say, Treasure Island, or eventhe Harry Potter series, which featured plenty of more ruminative passages and lots of complicated plot lines and backstories.
In the film Jennifer Lawrence, who was so striking in Winter’s Bone, added nuance and complexity to Katniss. I liked the character better than in the books. It’s interesting, because there was a bit of an uproar when Lawrence was cast, as Hunger Games fans called her too pretty or too old. But, she nailed it.
I’m not sure how they will handle Katniss as the films progress, but it really bothers me that the books never resolve the difficulties between her and her mother. They have a distant, unsettled relationship which percolates throughout the trilogy, and it was a real let down to have that go nowhere. Katniss is able to forgive and accept Buttercup, the cat she hates, but why not her mother? I must add that I loved the fractious dynamic with Buttercup.
Indeed there are many things to love in these books. Collins delivers memorable characters—Rue, Haymitch, Cinna, President Snow. Even the tributes who we don’t know that well (Foxface, Glimmer, Thresh) we can visualize clearly. Collins is also a wonderfully descriptive writer and does an amazing job creating the sparkling Capitol, the rundown “Allentown” of District 12, and the workaday poverty of the Seam. You really sink into the world of Panem. Also, it is quite a feat that with only her words, she sort of put me off the smell of roses. I got some right after I finished the last book, and they did smell overly sweet and almost sickly. With each whiff, Katniss’s negative associations came to mind. Now, that’s some pretty impressive wordsmithing.
It was great fun seeing all of this come together on the screen in The Hunger Games movie, which so far seems to be a hit with both the diehard fans and those who’ve never read the book. I do look forward to the next movie and also the next book by Suzanne Collins, although before I crack the spine, I will brace myself.