The Hunger Games

I recently read The Hunger Games and liked it a lot. I finished it in a few hours — couldn’t stop reading. In contrast, I read a few pages of the first Harry Potter and stopped. When I was ten years old, I read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and stopped halfway through the second book. I never went back and have not seen the movies. I have never read a book by Stephen King, John Grisham, Robert Patterson, Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, and so on. None of them appealed to me. The Hunger Games is different than other books that have sold huge numbers of copies. When it came out, Stephen King reviewed it in Entertainment Weekly and gave it it a B. The second book in the trilogy, reviewed by someone else, got a C.

Sentence by sentence, even scene by scene, The Hunger Games is mediocre. It is not quotable. There is no vivid writing. The characters are barely interesting. It is not Jonathan Franzen, much less Vladimir Nabokov. But it does a wonderful job of supplying the four basic elements of a good story: a hero, a villain, making you care about the hero, and putting the hero in jeopardy.

Beneath the surface, also, is something I rarely find in novels: the author feels strongly about her subject matter. Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, has said she is writing for teenagers about war. Her father, who was in the Army, cared deeply about this and taught his children about it. “A family trip to a castle, which [the 13-year-old Collins] imagined would be “fairy-tale magical,” turned into a lesson on fortresses [given by her father],” says an article about Collins. Did Vladimir Nabokov know this much about child molesters (Lolita)? No, it was a literary device. Did Tolstoy or Flaubert have the events of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary drilled into them in childhood? Unlikely. Both novels are built on basic novelistic subjects (actually, the same subject — infidelity). Somehow Collins’s deep connection comes through. I have no idea if you can write a good book simply because you love something. But you can definitely write a good book if you hate something: The Devil Wears Prada.


11 Replies to “The Hunger Games”

  1. “Was Tolstoy or Flaubert personally affected by the events of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary?”

    Seeing as a lot of Anna Karenina is autobiographical, this seems like a pretty weird question.

    Seth: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe “personally affected” is the wrong way to put it (and I will change it). Sure, many pieces of Anna Karenina are autobiographical — details of the marriage proposal, for example. But I never got the sense that the overall theme of the book was something Tolstoy had studied. On the other hand, The Death of Ivan Ilych seemed incredibly heartfelt.

  2. Just finishing the 3rd book now, I started the series 4 days ago. Honestly, they could do a lot worse than teaching this book in middle or high school English classes.

  3. “When I was ten years old, I read The Hobbit, the first book of Lord of the Rings trilogy, and stopped halfway through the second book.”

    Did you mean you read *The Fellowship of the Ring*, which is the first book in the LOTR trilogy? *The Hobbit* is the prequel to the trilogy.

    Seth: I read two and a half books: The Hobbit (the prequel), Book 1 of the trilogy, and half of Book 2 of the trilogy.

  4. Surprised by your surprise that authors feel strongly about their subject matter.

    I read the first two and found them a bizarre combination of bland prose, predictable plotting, and high entertainment. They were also the most morally irresponsible books I’d ever read. Same league, perhaps, as the Bible, Celine, etc, but the target audience is young adult.

    Take one case: none of the “good” main children are ever placed in a situation where they have to kill, except in self-defense. Highly convenient that all of the other good/innocent children are murdered by the “bad” ones, who thereby become worse in our eyes and can thereafter be acceptably dispatched by a protagonist. Zero meaningful psychological reflection by the about this situation.

    Seth: Yes, The Hunger Games is mediocre in so many ways — zero interesting psychology is one of them, as you say.

  5. I’m reminded of this by Philip Pullman: “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them.”

    Seth: Yeah, good point. Week after week I am puzzled that the short stories in The New Yorker (“good books”) are not more fun to read.

  6. First off, there is no way for you to know whether the authors mentioned above cared less for their stories than Collins. There is no way for you to equate Collins’ upbringing with the way her story is told. You just used what you read about her extraneously to make judgments about the text, and any text should always work alone if put under scrutiny.

    I would put forth that the main reason why I, and most everybody else, found the Hunger Games enjoyable, apart from the premise, is that every chapter ends with RAISING THE STAKES. Collins does this masterfully. But this is a function of structure, of weaving a narrative, and nothing to do with the premise of warfare itself. It’s the process of reading it that appeals.

    When I devoured the trilogy in two days, I had to step back and determine whether I had read a great series or if my senses had been manipulated by perfect execution of narrative. Was there something really there? I am doing the same after watching the film, although I’d recommend you hold out for as much as possible after finishing the trilogy before you watch it.

    Seth: “As much as possible”? You mean as long as possible? Why? I don’t remember this “raising the stakes”. Given that the narrator faced death, the stakes were high early. I don’t remember them going higher. Maybe the appropriate comparison of Collins is not with high literature (e.g., Flaubert) but with Ann Rule (true crime). Rule is a terrific writer and several of her books I could not stop reading. Her best book is The Stranger Beside Me — and that is the book of hers where she had the most personal involvement. I still believe that Collins’s personal involvement with warfare (through her dad) has a lot to do with why I enjoyed The Hunger Games.

  7. I think Tolkien knew quite a bit on a deep personal level of the subject matter of his books. He was a WWI veteran and witnessed first hand a lot of trench warfare, and subsequently became a philologist with an expertise in Anglo and Norse language, history, and mythology. I found his books gripping and aductive and have read his trilogy about 6-8 times all the way through since my teenage years. I also plowed through the Harry Potter books. Couldn’t put them down. I’m retreading them out loud to my daughters who love them, too. I also raced through the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. Another series I reread every few years is Asimov’s Foundation novels. The original trilogy is fantastic pulp fiction.

  8. I think there’s a lull in the middle of the “2 towers” (Lord of the rings book 2) because I stopped there too and never went back.

    As for the HP books, you could give them another chance. The first two are slow but Rowling starts to hit her stride at book 3. That’s where all the grand themes of the series start to show up. Well, that’s where I started noticing at least.

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