In June 1982, Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was drawing record crowds in theaters, and I was in college studying computer science, punk rock, and cynicism. Disillusioned by some previous big box office hits that failed to live up to their hype, I declared E.T. couldn’t possibly be as good as everyone claimed. I vowed I wouldn’t see it until the excitement was over, when I could judge it objectively and not be swayed by the mass hysteria following the film’s release. When I finally saw it one crisp October evening, I had the theater to myself. Honestly, I thought the film was sappy. As a college-age goth-in-training, I’m sure I wasn’t the film’s target audience. But who was? (Flying bicycles! Give me a break!) Yet, despite teetering between kitsch and shlock, the movie grossed $435 million.
Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2008
Audiobook: Narrated by Erin Jones
Reading time: 9h 14m
Ten years after The Hunger Games became a runaway dystopian bestseller, I decided I could finally read and evaluate it with fairness and objectivity. As an adult, I’m less cynical than my E.T.-era self. And I already knew I loved dystopian YA (young adult) fiction after I devoured Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
You might be expecting a dissertation on dehumanization or an analysis of the resurgence of archery in popular culture. Instead, this is just a book review—albeit one from the perspective of an emerging author still learning the writing craft. Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder provide lots of guidance on plot pacing and character arc. The Hunger Games is a good example of when and how far to bend those rules.
I liked it. The biting commentary on our entertainment values, wealth gap, and government out of control were all well done. The story’s reality show nature was eerily prophetic of our current US president, a former reality TV star. It resonates with readers today in ways Collins could not have foreseen. These are the things that make a good dystopian novel.
But the story had some flaws.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that The Hunger Games places the protagonist Katniss in an arena with 23 other teens for a fight to the death. By making the arena large, Collins made room for characters to avoid each other, which added opportunity for relationships, dialog, and character growth. But she sacrificed the claustrophobic immediacy of Alien, The Shining, or even the Minotaur myth she cited as inspiration.
Collins assembled the story in three roughly equal-sized parts. This created a beautiful symmetry and gave the story a unique feel that set it apart from other books. Peeta announced his love for Katniss one-third of the way into the story. According to Brooks and Snyder, that plot point arrived late, but Collins aligned it with the act break and made it work. It was a stunning revelation and powerful plot twist, even if part one did drag on a little too long.
The Hunger Games might be a good first book in a trilogy but is somewhat handicapped as a standalone novel. The plot followed the classic hero’s journey storyline, with an unsatisfying twist—the book ended before Katniss returns home wiser and more experienced. Instead, the story terminated with a hook to purchase the next book. This might be good marketing, but it’s not a good way to end a novel. It was Star Wars without Luke Skywalker getting his medal. It was The Hobbit with Bilbo never returning to Hobbiton. It was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure without Pee Wee watching his biopic at the drive-in.
Many characters disappeared after the first half of part one, most notably Gale and Prim. It made me wonder why Collins included them. The answer? Trilogy. Read the next book.
Throughout the story, Katniss matured as a woman. Collins rendered this character arc with the deftness of a master craftsperson. I enjoyed watching Katniss deal with all the complexities that adult relationships bring. When Peeta declared his love for Katniss, I wondered—did he really love her, or was this some reality show strategy in disguise? After all, the contestants were groomed to play a part. Even Katniss wondered if Peeta had some ulterior motive. That’s a love lesson many of us don’t learn until we’re old and cynical.
Collins handled the Cato character well. I’m sure it was tempting to write Cato as a psychopathic antagonist. Instead, he ultimately became another casualty of the Capital and pushed Katniss further along in her bitterness.
I had mixed feelings about the alcoholic former champion Haymitch. I loved this bitter, sarcastic antihero. Anyone who falls in his own vomit is okay by me. But this character quickly lost his edge halfway through part one. I wanted a few hundred words devoted to his inner demons and struggle with PTSD. With this psychological struggle absent, his character seemed flat.
Based on my limited knowledge of the writing craft, I might have done things differently if I were the author. But Suzanne Collins is sitting on a multi-million dollar franchise and I still haven’t published my first short story. That should give you some idea of the value of my opinions.
I’m glad to see the fanbase growing for dystopian speculative fiction, and The Hunger Games is responsible for a lot of that growth. This chilling adventure will stick with me for years.
And, no, I still haven’t read Harry Potter. Maybe the hype will die down by 2030.