Thursday, 26 April 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

From my review of the film The Hunger Games:
In a dystopian future America, the nation has descended into a brutal dictatorship divided into twelve districts that exist to serve the needs of the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol. As part of their programme of control, the government requires that each district send two children between the ages of twelve and 18, selected by lottery, to participate in a bloody last-man-standing gladiatorial game. Kaitness volunteers to participate in the games to act as a substitute for her sister, who has been selected in the lottery, and it sent off to the Capitol where she is introduced to a bizarre contest that is half show business and half fight-to-the-death.
No point in doing a synopsis twice when the film tracks the basic plot of the book so closely.

The first thing to say about The Hunger Games is that it was the first part of a planned trilogy, which is already one strike against it.  J R R Tolkien's publishers have a lot to answer for.  The Lord of the Rings was always intended to be a single book, but the publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes and now everyone thinks that trilogies are the way to go.  Maybe for publishers, but for readers they're a pain in the fundament–especially when the writer doesn't know what he's doing and leaves you scratching your head over volume three because he can't be bothered to recap the action from one and two.

Anyway, Hunger Games.  Better written than Harry Potter (though a curry menu could manage that) infinitely less annoying than Twilight, but still a long way from justifying its baffling popularity.  Let's start with the good bits.  Collins can string together an acceptable sentence and she does have some understanding of her craft.  Her writing is clear and lucid, much of her imagery is charming and she does master the first-person, present tense style well.  She can pace her individual scenes, though the book as a whole drags badly, and she has clearly put a lot of time and energy into her world.

Her heroine is also well conceived.  She could have been that horrid creation Action Girl, who is as tough as any man and can cold-conk a drill sergeant three times her size with a left hook, but Collins is wise enough to make her a poacher with hunting and woodcraft skills that make up for being a girl in a situation that calls for Andy McNabb, not Andy McDowell..  Also, it's made clear that without her bow, she's a pretty vulnerable individual. Collins is also wise enough to keep her hero Peeta badly wounded and feverish for the last part of the book.  That way Katniss can plausibly take the dramatic lead of the story without making her paramour look like an utter weed.

That being said, however, much of that effort is wasted.

Let's take the basic premise; the gladiatorial contest known as the hunger games and the world in which they take place.  Both of these are so standard that its a wonder that there isn't a keystroke shortcut for writing them, but Collins had a lot of trouble here.  Her back story is overly complex and the way she designed the games is so convoluted and easy to subvert that she makes a basic writer's error; she was unwilling to step back, rip the lot to shreds and start over.  Instead. it's obvious that very early on she kept coming across flaws in her world that rather than correcting, she merely papers over or stuffs with equally weak material until the final product is an overly complex mass that never holds together.  I'm not saying that she needed to pen a complete, dauntingly researched history and ethnology ala Tolkien.  Quite the opposite.  She should have kept it simple enough that it can be explained in throwaway dialogue, allusions and incidents.

An example of this is District 12.  Why doesn't it have a name?  Why doesn't the Seam?  Or the Meadow?  Or even the Capitol, come to that.  Are proper names abolished in the future?  More to the point, there's almost nothing that gives us a sense of time and place.  District 12 as described in this book could just as easily be set in 1930 as in the future year of whatever.  Compare this to the economical style of E C Tubb in the Dumarest books.  Dumarest often finds himself on harsh worlds with a very primitive standard of living, but Tubb keeps reminding us that this is the future by pointing out that the beggar's bowl is made of plastic and that the guards have laser guns.  The setting may be medieval, but we never forget that it's the future.  With Collins, we rarely get that.  In fact, there's very little science fictional until late in the book aside from the general dystopian setting.

The other problem is that the plot is so thunderingly predictable.  From the very first plot point you know exactly what is coming next and can almost predict when.  I spent three quarters of the book hoping for some sort of twist, some spanner in the works to liven things up, but it never comes.

It also doesn't help that Katniss fails as our guide.  Normally, the protagonist in this sort of story is discovering the world along with the reader, so as she's introduced to this strange, new place, so are we.  But Katniss is completely familiar with every aspect.  She knows exactly what everything is and why.  It would be nice if once and awhile she'd let us in on it.  Still, this does dovetail with another problem, which is that Katniss never sounds like a teenager from Appalachia.  She sounds like a university educated, middle-aged woman who worked in television a lot.  Sort of like... Oh.

In all, The Hunger Games isn't a disastrous book.  In many ways, it's very good, but it compares poorly to, for example, Heinlein's juveniles where you had a much better sense of the man inside the boy and where the story telling is much more efficient and focused.

No comments:

Post a Comment