The perverse, contrary part of me enjoys panning books that receive wide acclaim. It's a calling (in the same way that being a creepy funeral home director is a calling). Giving a wildly popular book a bad review is almost as fun as giving a bad book a bad review. I'll be honest: it's an ego thing, a sense of smugness that comes from not succumbing to the hype.
So when I like a book, when I really like a popular book, as I did with The Hunger Games, I humour that sceptic-within. I comb through the unfavourable reviews to see if I missed anything, if my emotions, having been manipulated by the author, are clouding my critical evaluation. Such a tonic usually serves to cool my ardour toward a freshly-finished book. Still . . . I really, really liked The Hunger Games. Not enough to gush over it, and to some extent, the unfavourable reviews reminded me of some minor complaints I'll express later.
For all of my scepticism, however, there are some complaints with which I disagree. I found the characterization neither shallow nor sappy. Suzanne Collins' style is easy to read, has well-placed exposition, and perfectly captures Katniss' voice. It was the strength of the protagonist that won me over. After all, the premise of The Hunger Games is certainly not original—and most of my problems with the book are in the premise and setting rather than the plot—so it's Katniss and the cast who carry the story.
There's certainly a debate to be had over this book's "young adult" status. I have some reservations about this whole "young adult" label in general; I won't get into those here. Nor will I discuss charges that this book shouldn't be for "young adults" because it has too much violence and isn't innocent enough. Such statements are absurd. If anything, The Hunger Games isn't young adult fiction simply because the characters themselves don't offer "young adults" anything.
Even this analysis misses the mark, in my opinion. One of Katniss' defining traits is her independence. It's entwined with a resentment toward her mother, who retreated into grief after the death of Katniss' father, forcing Katniss to take care of her mother, her sister, and herself. Not only do I think that adolescents can identify with this sentiment, but I think it's a timeless sentiment of adolescence. For one reason or another, many children eventually find themselves taking care of their younger siblings (or even a parent or two). Responsibility is thrust upon them, unasked for and unwanted, and you have children who are twelve or thirteen years old running a household. This aspect of Katniss' life, while ultimately a product of her post-apocalyptic society, is proximally unrelated to the Hunger Games, to a violence-obsessed and oppressive culture, etc. She's just the most mature member of her family, struggling to keep things together.
Beyond her independence, Katniss is obviously a survivor. But she's not ruthless, not much of a fighter, in fact, even if she's not too friendly to everyone around her prior to the commencement of the Games. This, too, is a product of her life growing up in the Seam. She leads a pragmatic life, trading for what her family needs, with little time to indulge in a rich social life. District Twelve's Seam isn't a community so much as a group of people who have managed to get along so far; only in Katniss' sacrifice of herself to save her sister do we see the people begin to rally around something.
It's that one act of volunteering that initially cements Katniss as a heroine. Prior to that, she was obviously the protagonist, but she hadn't quite won me over. But Katniss' compassion doesn't end there. She struggles with her growing sense of amiability toward Peeta, which could be a problem come Game time. Then, in the Games, she befriends Rue, who reminds her so much of her sister. Katniss is a protector, not a killer, which is why her participation is more than just a tragic loss of a child's innocence (even if one wants to claim that there exists, somewhere, a theoretically innocent child, let's not try to argue that the children of Panem are innocent). It's a tragic waste of an individual who so clearly has a contribution to society beyond "reality TV show celebrity." Even if she survives the Games, she can't ever go back to a "normal life" in the Seam. She'll be a star, and she'll have to mentor next year's tributes—her life will never be the same. The Capitol has her, and it will let her go only in death, if even then.
Those hoping for a story of a girl single-handedly sticking it to a dystopian power will be disappointed. Katniss manages only one or two acts of rebellion against the Capitol (although you could probably get away with viewing the second one as a major rebellion in principle). Indeed, I have some issues with the lack of realism in the way Collins structured her dystopia, with the neat partitioning of geographical districts that provide certain needs to the Capitol. Despite making it such a big part of the plot, however, Collins never addresses many of the thematic issues that arise from the setting in which The Hunger Games takes place. Katniss never does confront the major moral issue, that of becoming a killer.
I didn't find the ending as sappy or too-convenient as some people did. I liked the hesitant nature of the romance (if you can call it that) between Katniss and Peeta. We can't tell if Peeta really cares for Katniss or if he's just going along with it for the sake of the Games, nor can we tell if Katniss really falls for him. It looks like, in the end, Peeta is telling the truth; he really does care for her. At the very least, he's reluctant to kill her when the time comes. The resolution to the necessary showdown is clever and dramatically appropriate.
In my review of The Giver, I called that book "good utopian literature" but said there was much better literature available. The Hunger Games clearly falls into the same genre; yet even though I liked it much, much more than The Giver, I still can't call it better in its handling of a dystopia.
Collins seems to be setting up for a more explicit confrontation against the Capitol in Catching Fire, and hopefully a deeper exploration of the issues inherent to the Hunger Games and the quality of life in Panem. I'll be happy if my hopes are borne out, but the first book in a trilogy should never just be used to set the stage for book two. I'm not saying that makes it a bad book—there's no doubt that it's an entertaining read, and it certainly has worthwhile themes. Nevertheless, I had hoped for more moral conflict, and for a depth that The Hunger Games is lacking. For all of its flashbang excitement and its fast pace, The Hunger Games is heavy on style and light on substance.
Having let my inner sceptic express itself, I'll return now to some praise for The Hunger Games. As an example of dystopian fiction, it's not quite a paradigm case. As science fiction, however, it hits all the right notes. Collins presents us a society very different from our own, but one that's easily imagined and with the same kinds of people who populate our society. Most importantly, she left me wanting more—not only because of my reservations, but because I became invested in these characters and want to learn what the Capitol has in store for them next.