I’ve seen The Hunger Games twice now and I’m still not sure what I think of it, and of the series as a whole.
I enjoyed the book series quite a bit. I don’t think they’re best books I’ve read, and they certainly don’t qualify as the new 1984. But I’ve also read and heard plenty of critiques of the series, such as this one, and while I think in some places the criticism is misplaced, I can agree with them on one thing for certain.
The writing and world-building of this series is awful.
I realize I’ve probably annoyed a lot of people by saying that the writing of the series is awful. But it is. Anyone who writes on a semi-regular basis has probably come across the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” The Hunger Games has far too much telling. There are two huge info-dumps within a very short first chapter- and it doesn’t let up throughout the rest of the series. Whenever Katniss is describing life in her district, the Capitol, the customs, or her surroundings, she functions as Captain Exposition. She lists off everything around her, never trying to layer it within plot developments or paint a picture. There is no immersion in her world; there are very clear action sequences and very clear explanation sequences in these books. The entire series is told as if she is talking endlessly at the reader, and this is a really bad way to tell a written story- or at least, it’s very hard to do well outside of a short story. Throughout the entire Hunger Games story, I felt like I was reading a transcription of a recording or film. It feels like something dictated.
The fact that the entire story is told in first person present tense makes for even more difficulties in the “Show, don’t tell,” department because the line between the two is very thin with this kind of narration. At some points in the story, Suzanne Collins is able use that narration well- the action sequences in particular are spectacularly written and horrifyingly vivid. I also admit that I liked Katniss as a character, because I’ve always read her as an unreliable narrator, one whose outlook on the world is warped and not necessarily correct. I liked seeing it from her point of view because I felt very often that hers was not the only way to look at the world in which she dwelt. I enjoyed seeing how what she endured was altering her and her interactions- and not always for the better.
Unfortunately, the extremely limited window of narration made it almost impossible to get a better and fuller sense of the world in which this took place. And for a series with a premise as strange as this, the limited viewpoint cuts off any chance we might have had to build the world and the reasons for the Hunger Games- in which twenty-four children are sent to kill each other. A setting such as this needs more thorough world-building and exploration of people’s mentality in that world than Collins gave it. I think the film did a better job with showing what the world was like- but it never showed the why. And understandably so when the original source material never did.But a why is needed. People generally need a reason, especially for something like this. In the Roman gladiatorial games (which Collins never fails to remind us of with her names), the gladiators were slaves, property which was perfectly acceptable for entertainment use. We’re told that the Capitol is using the Games as a reminder of power- but this is asking for rebellion in a way that should not taken nearly as long as it did in the story. Check out what happened to the last king of ancient Rome. The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think sending children to die should have worked as a statement of power. In order for people to accept that for seventy-four years, there needs to be a very definite mental state of the nation. I think the people’s mindset in The Hunger Games had shades of this, but it was never adequately explored.
People who accept this world will do so for a reason.Take Orwell’s 1984. The reader is thoroughly immersed in what living in Oceania would be like, and not just in terms of a physical setting. We get to see what this kind of living does to the minds of the people involved and how it warps their perceptions of themselves and what they can do. It does a great deal to explain why they accept their horrible living conditions- it’s because of how the government has affected their outlook on life.
This is never consistently explained in The Hunger Games. It’s very strongly implied that the districts hate the system and that the Capitol lives in oblivion, but we never get to see this played out in depth. It’s touched on, and it’s mentioned, and there are instances where the dichotomy seems like it will flare up to something central. But then the considerations of who can be blamed for what are never fully explored. There are many instances and mentions of the difference in the Capitol and the districts’ mentality, but the bulk of writing is given to war and fighting, which undercuts the premise of exploring what the lust for entertainment can bring. Katniss ruminates on these themes towards the end of Mockingjay, but since these concepts haven’t been highlighted as well as they could have been, it has less impact.
Having said all of the above, I still do like these books. But they could have been so much more. The poor writing makes what could have been an effective allegory or satire a cheap action thriller, with many implications but not enough substance. When I re-read the books, I feel as though I’m reading a rough copy of something that could have been much more. The violence the book decries is the most entertaining aspect and well-written aspect of the series, and that has grim implications for what we consider entertainment. And those implications stem from The Hunger Games’ writing and telling, rather than their message. It doesn’t say much for the telling of that message.