Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins)

My thoughts on the books after just finishing the three of them. Spoiler alerts! Best to read on only if you know the story. Having said that, I won't be recounting what the books are about, just some of my impressions.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)

Well-written, well-paced, enjoyable, a page turner. Any book that I want to pick up and continue with is on to a good thing. I enjoyed the story, characters and twists.

I wasn't so keen on the use of the present tense - I'm so used to reading novels in past tense that this regularly grated. I was also a bit surprised at a few errors, considering the book will have been edited so many times and made so much money - publishers cutting back on polishing books? For example "I know one has found me and the others will be honing in". Should be "homing in" (though it is a common error). There's also some badly-planned sections that come across as unconvincing placeholders. For example, Katniss decides she wants to hunt alone because Peeta is noisy, then come back for him, but doesn't think he'll agree. She hasn't said anything about it aloud but immediately he states that's what she should do, for those reasons. It's the kind of thing an author writes because they have an omniscient view, but later editing should remove the too-obvious god hand.

I should also go and fuss the big grey thing stood in the corner. When I started reading The Hunger Games I knew little about it, having avoided mentions and spoilers and films. I just had a vague idea that it was popular and was dystopian sci-fi, maybe like 1984 – I switched off whenever Hunger Games was mentioned online to avoid knowing more. As such I was surprised as I read it that it seemed so familiar – and immediately connected it with Battle Royale. I kept thinking “Wow, that’s similar, surely it can’t be an accident?” Suzanne Collins says she never read Battle Royale or knew of it as she was writing Hunger Games. I can accept that, though it still seems strange to me. I knew about Battle Royale years before Suzanne Collins wrote Hunger Games. Battle Royale was widely talked about and praised - I bought it from a Waterstones display. It wasn't something obscure. Then they made a film of it and it became even more well-known due to the controversial violence. Still, this has been discussed elsewhere, I just wanted to mention it as someone who knew nothing of the controversy or what Hunger Games was about, but the resemblances immediately struck me – children forced to kill each other as a punitive lesson by a controlling, hi-tech Government; an arena with randomised weapons, areas altered to force victims together; a person forced to enter the games twice; a hero finding a way to outwit the controllers; rules saying only one can win, but a pair of potential lovers finding a way to both survive; technology to track and observe the children and so on.

As an editor I always critique things, but don't focus on that as my full view - my overall perception of the book is very positive, and I looked forward to reading the sequels.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2)

The novel kept me intrigued and I wanted to know what happened next. So that's a success. The mix of outer-world plot and in-games plot works well. Again, I enjoyed the cut-back prose. I even managed to mostly ignore the use of present tense throughout (it's a tense that disrupts my reading, and was a big obstacle for me at the start of the first book in the series).

Unfortunately the second part of the novel, during the games, felt a lot weaker than what had preceded it, and the games in the first book. I tried to analyse what I found unsatisfying about this section.
  • It didn't feel like there was as much threat. Katniss had powerful allies this time; plenty of food and water (lots of parcels kept arriving); and because she didn't plan to survive it lowers the dramatic stakes of her survival as an issue.
  • Name soup: the other contestants had been briefly mentioned in various scenes, so when the games began I spent time flicking back to find out who Gloss or Enobaria were, what their features were and so on. There was also a dramatic scene where Katniss hangs a dummy and paints a name on it in red ... and I had no idea who it was supposed to be. I went back through the whole book until I found a mention right near the start. You can't give lots of significance to names that the reader only saw in passing.
  • The arena layout for the games was confusing - I had to flick back and forth a lot until I started to understand it. I'm sure it could have been described more clearly.
  • The way Haymitch had won his games seemed extremely contrived - a forcefield which somehow calculated where something had come from, and returned its trajectory? Even if I swallowed that, surely it would have hit the throwing girl's hand, not killed her? (She didn't throw it from her forehead). And the chances of it landing blade forward were slim. All in all it was unconvincing.
  • There was an awful scene where Peeta's heart stops. Finnick gives CPR. Peeta revives. Except ... that Hollywood cliche isn't what CPR does. CPR is a method to pump oxygen around the body and keep someone alive long enough for proper medical attention to arrive. CPR is not a process to "restart the heart". It's just to keep a person alive long enough for a defibrillator to be used to shock the heart out of an erratic rhythm (in other cases more advanced techniques and drugs can be used). In the average case in Western society, even with CPR from a bystander, followed by a medical team arriving, hospital, and defibrillation, the survival rate is 10-15%. (In Hollywood and books the survival rate increases to 98% as long as the character is important to the author...)
  • The ending was confusing. Why was Beetee paralysed? He was too clever to stab a knife into the forcefield, and knew that throwing or stabbing it wouldn't work anyway, it would just rebound. So what had happened? What was the plan, and what went wrong? Why was his arm cut? (Removal of a tag?) Why had Peeta run off? The explanations at the end were incomplete, unconvincing, and came across as Columbo giving a bored summary of the crime before booking the criminal. The reasons for not telling Katniss and Peeta the plan were stupid - if Katniss and Peeta had been told the truth things would have gone much smoother. Any fool could see that. (The real reason to keep them in the dark was to be able to hide the truth from the reader and make things seem more dramatic). She wasn't saved through her actions but by deus ex machina - almost literally as a machine claw descends from the sky.
I think that when a book is good, and has the potential to be great, any flaws stand out even more. That's why these criticisms stuck in my mind and made me sigh in frustration. But it's still a great read.

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3) 

Again the book was well-written, kept you wanting to know what happens next, and has twists and turns that generally satisfy. The novel rounds out the trilogy well. The ending was perhaps rather traditional, as if the publishers wanted it to be acceptable to mainstream audiences, or asked for it to be changed due to focus group feedback. I can imagine more interesting and unconventional endings: she's so scarred that she turns to drink like Haymitch; District 13 was a Capital-run ruse as part of a Hunger Games variant; it was discovered there were other Capitals with their own districts, and further Hunger Games - a dystopian horror of such scale that it breaks them. Instead we have romantic love and babies to fix it all. Ho hum.

Fewer typos this time. "Could easily evapourate after the war"..."blood seeps through the labouratory-grown cells". I had an issue with the section just before the ending - Katniss does something unexpected and kills the head rebel. She is locked up, and there is a long trial. The ridiculous element is that she is never even asked why she did it. Didn't the rebels want to know? Wouldn't it affect the trial? Couldn't it be tied to things they needed to know about? Of course they would have asked her. The reason they don't is because the author wanted to delay explanations in order to focus on characterisation. Authorial reasons that undermine the plot authenticity. Likewise the dissipation of meaning from Katniss' assault on the Capital. Many tense chapters cover this, and then it is wasted, all the effort shown to be for nothing when she is beaten there by the rebels a few minutes previous, then taken out of the story at the key point. That totally negates the tension of large chunks of the book - what was the point when the protagonist achieved nothing at all? Imagine if at the end of the film Blade Runner Deckard arrived for the climactic fight with Roy ... then got knocked out at the front door, police arrived, Roy was arrested, Deckard woke up in hospital. Well, Mockingjay is like that.

Still, reservations aside, the book as a whole works. The trilogy works. The imagery is sometimes overt, waving a flag, but perhaps that's a convention of the Young Adult genre, and since it is still effective it gets a pass. I'll be interested in how the films interpret the novels, and can say I've had a good, escapist time reading them. Thumbs up.


  1. Having also just read them I would say I haven't analysed them as much as you, and wasn't annoyed by some of the things you mention. I thought they worked well as potential futuristic world scenarios, which are not too far removed from reality. In terms of the writing and pace, I would agree, you definitely cannot stop reading.
    I don't usually read YA fiction, and also generally don't like to read things that become so huge everyone has read them, but it was worth it for these books.
    I don't know if I had read them when I was c.15 if they would have such an impact as Z for Zachariah had on me when I was a young teen. I suppose the scenarios presented in the Hunger Games are a reflection of today's concerns whereas the Z book with its nuclear war is very much realistic for when it was set.

  2. Thanks Alyson, you're right about the concerns - sole survivors in a nuclear apocalypse versus media, manipulation, punishing the innocent and so on. Maybe I came across as harsher than I feel (due to thinking more from the perspective of a writer), but also you're right about the readability of the books.