Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why "The Hunger Games" Isn't a Very Good Book

Since The Hunger Games is apparently in theaters now (or something) and everyone and their mom and their geeky brother is excited for it, I thought I should finally read the damn book. Being sick on Monday proved to be a great opportunity and I finished it in a day.

Disappointing. What is the fuss over this book? Is there something in the water back home that has yet to make it to Korea? Have I just become so bitter and cynical that I can't like anything anymore?

If you haven't read this book yet, don't bother. Here's a whole bunch of reasons, which can be grouped in two larger categories: "World-Building" and "Story-telling."


Katniss lives in a futuristic dystopian place called "Panem" (from the Latin phrase "panem and circenses," or "bread and circuses," thanks Wikipedia). Which, first of all, seems to be a misapplication of the phrase, if Ms. Collins thinks it has anything to do with what goes on in her book. Again, quoting Wikipedia (just so we're all on the same page about this, and not like my dad, who thinks that being "on cloud nine" means you're really pissed off):

[Bread and circuses] is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. It was the basic Roman formula for the well-being of the population, and hence a political strategy unto itself. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction, and/or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.

The Hunger Games, as they happen in the book, aren't really any kind of superficial means of appeasement. They might be, if Collins indicated that there was greater unrest and trouble within the Capitol (the people for whom these games are staged) and that child-on-child gladitorial combat was something the government did to quell this unrest. Apparently this is the case in the rest of the books? But I'm cynical and I feel like that only came around after the first one was a huge success.

Arguably it could be an ironic use of the phrase: the "bread and circuses" used as a means to keep the populace in line by making them downtrodden and depressed, instead of happy. I will accept an ironic use of the phrase as justification for the name, but nothing more.

Anyway, needlessly pedantic. On to real issues.

1. Where is the rest of the world? Maybe I missed this because I skimmed a few parts here and there. Okay, the world ended once, floods or whatever, then "Panem" rose from the ashes of North America, there was an awful civil war, and now Panem is united again and demands two children from each district every year. Is this the only habitable place left on the entire planet? If no, why the hell don't people flee and seek political asylum in, you know, the nearest country that doesn't suck so badly? If it is, well, why? I'm assuming that Panem is the only country left, but still, why? Why has the rest of the world succumbed to unliveability?

2. Unbelievably shitty overlords. The biggest problem I have with the book is the problem I knew I'd have from the beginning: shitty premise. Children battling to death? It's been done, and done well and to the point where I can suspend my disbelief (see: Battle Royale). Here? Not so much. Did we, as the human race, used to have deadly gladiator combat as a form of entertainment? Unfortunately, yes. Have children been exploited and murdered? Unfortunately, yes. We have done great evil, and we'll continue to do great evil, it's unfortunate.

Nonetheless, we hardly condone evil. We do our best to move away from it and to fight it whenever we see it. We're horrified at the thought of ordering random strangers to kill each other for our entertainment, or of violence against/perpetrated by children. (See: KONY2012 OMG). As humanity progresses, it becomes more sensitive, more enlightened, more whatever. Better. A world where something like The Hunger Games is not only acceptable, but the norm? That's humanity taking a simply unfathomably HUGE step back. Even if it's a post-apocalyptic sort of scenario, you have to work really hard to justify, in the story, such extreme levels of sadism. Collins doesn't really bother to try to justify or make it work, it's just there. Sorry, I'm not buying it.

What's more, it wouldn't have been that hard to make it plausible:
  • Make it a humanoid alien race on another planet who does this out of some weird tradition.
  • Make it a population control tactic.
  • Make it a way to put the fear of God into children grown sadistic, spoiled, and complacent (like in Battle Royale).
  • Make the games voluntary, not compulsory. People register in the raffle because they get food rations and stipends every time they drop their name in the hat.
  • Have participants be prisoners or dissidents.

See, look at those ideas I just tossed out there in the space it took me to get dressed one morning before work. All of those would have been way more plausible than Collins' current model of "tool of political oppression," and would have made the book so much better. They were so obvious that there's no way she could have NOT thought of them.The only justification I can think of for keeping the Games the way they were was so that Katniss could have the dramatic "I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE!!!!" scene, and if that's the case, this is why you murder your darlings. That scene you really love? Might ruin the rest of the book.

3. What's so awful about District 12, anyway? I get that Katniss is poor and so is her home district but, uh, nothing about life in District 12 seems oppressively miserable. Katniss and her family are kind of hungry for a long time, then Katniss starts hunting and foraging and trading and they're fine, only a little bit hungry. The only thing that's so bad, really, is that District 12 is a coal mining district so you have the inherent dangers of that—cave-ins, the black lung—plus it just generally being dirty. Not fun, but not TERRIBLE OPPRESSION STARVING TO DEATH EVERY DAY. Everyone in District 12 is basically a little dirty and a little hungry. Cosmetically poor, as it were (is this a TV trope?), and nothing more. From now on, anyone who wants to write any kind of novel that includes unearable, backbreaking poverty needs to read firsthand accounts of life in North Korea: chewing grass and fighting over dried dog shit and looking all day for a few scraps of pine bark to boil.

4. How big are these districts, anyway? Katniss says that District 12 used to be Appalachia. Well and good, but Appalachia is a damned large region. People think it's just cutesy mountainfolk in like, West Virginia or whatever, but no, let me school you (once again) with Wikipedia:

And yet it seems that everyone in District 12 is within walking distance of each other. When Effie comes to announce the tributes, Katniss and her family just stroll on over.

"Well," you say, "Effie just happens to make the announcement where Katniss lives, other people traveled."

Then how come Katniss never talks about how so many more people there are now that it's the annual "Call To Give Me Your Children"? Certainly seems like something worth mentioning.

Okay, so maybe District 12 is crappy and small and only comprises a tiny portion of former Appalachia. Maybe the districts don't really cover the entire continent and that's just propaganda they teach kids at school, or I just misread the world-building. But if District 12 is that small, then how could they ever supply enough coal for the Capitol (and the rest of the Districts?) being only a tiny piece of land? One coal town—and Collins portrays it as essentially one town—cannot sustain an entire nation.


1. First person present tense sucks. Maybe this is just personal preference but I cannot abide first person present tense. Or just present tense in general. The last book I read that used present tense was Please Look After Mother (second person present tense, blegh) and you know what? It was kind of crappy. Unless you're writing a Choose Your Own Adventure story, leave it alone.

2. Fragments/run-ons. Arguably a style choice, I guess, but way overused if so.

3. Goofy names. The baker's son is named Peeta? (Say it out loud: "Peeta Bread.") Tracker jackers? The guy who sets Katniss on fire is "Cinna"? Muttation? "Avox" is kind of a clever and appropriate one, I'll give Collins that. Otherwise...blegh.


Let me outline it for you.

4a. Katniss is total wish fulfillment. "Yeeeeaaah, I'd hate to be forced into a fight to the death with 23 other kids but she gets to wear pretty dresses! And boys like her! And everyone thinks she's pretty! And she's strong! And she's so sassy about evil corrupt authority! And she's like a badass Amazon!"

Let's just have a story, once, about a girl who is ugly—and the story is not about her being ugly. Or I'll settle for plain, that's fine too.

I also just found Katniss to be unbearably annoying to read about in the whole beginning of the book. Not annoying as a character, but rather how Collins chose to develop her. Lots of annoying and/or cliche tells and telling, not showing, just how super cool and capable and great Katniss is. "LOOK HOW TOUGH SHE IS, SHE'S NOT A FAINTING GIRLY-GIRL." We get the point, Collins. We got the point by the first page. You don't need to hammer this home for the entire part of the book that takes place in District 12.

4b. Katniss does not once face any really harrowing/interesting moral dilemmas in the entire book. Out of the 23 other contestants, she kills, by her own hand, two. One of them is the boy who killed her friend Rue: no moral ambiguity there, everyone feels good about it. The other one is Cato, who has been set up to be the "big bad" throughout the book.  Again, this one is arguable because the wild dogs got to him first and would have killed him themselves if Katniss didn't finish the job. Again, another "feel-good" kill: Katniss insists she does it out of pity more than anything else. She drops a nest of tracker jackers on some people, too, but that is a bit different from shooting an arrow through someone's neck.

She resides safely within the realm of the comfortable for the reader, never once straying into anything remotely resembling evil, or even morally ambiguous. And don't give me that "but it's YA!" trash. When I was the target age for YA stuff, I was also reading things like Fences, Crime and Punishment, and Lord of the Flies for class. YA readers can deal with moral ambiguity.

What if it had ended with her and Rue, for example? What would Katniss have done?

What if she had managed to catch another player in a snare, instead of game? (Granted, something to catch a rabbit is not going to catch a person, but for the sake of argument.) What would she do when presented with the chance for an easy kill?

You can make the case for the end being a sort of moral dilemma (more on that in the next section), but it's one that gets glossed over within, like, a page, and deus ex machina comes and saves the day.

4c. Collins still finds it necessary to introduce a romantic subplot despite Katniss being a (theoretical) ass-kicking ninja. The whole thing with Peeta is dumb. No other words. Yeah, Katniss is so cool that she doesn't really care and plays it up to stay alive and get sponsor items and nothing else (at the beginning), but that's kind of gross and degrading.

Let me back up: Every district sends two "tributes": one boy and one girl. Apparently Peeta, the boy from District 12, had been nursing a crush on Katniss since forever but she never knew until he admits it on the little talk show thing before the Games begin. What's more, he explicitly states that she has no idea and he's pretty sure she's not into him, and immediately the story gets spun as them being "star-crossed lovers." Last I checked, a relationship needed mutuality to actually, y'know, be a relationship. If I were Katniss, I would have shot him first, just to prove a point.

But no, their whole "relationship" gets exploited for publicity and for gifts from sponsors. Even to the point where the Gamemakers propose a rule change that there can be two winners if they're both in the same District, just to egg this shit on.

Later, the Gamemakers reveal it was just a ploy for publicity and to get the "star-crossed lovers" (who are apparently the most popular part of the whole game, again see my point about Katniss being wish fulfillment) to last until the end. You know what would have been baller? For Katniss to stab Peeta through the neck with an arrow once the little hover ship announced that they were the last two contestants. No thinking, no moping, just survival.

No, instead she and Peeta try to pull some dumb suicide pact bullshit so they both die together (because Katniss wants to, like, send a message to the Capitol or some other rebellious teenager thing). And because they are both such AWFULLY SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES they are both declared winners. Otherwise there would be no winner, OH TEH NOES!!

Also, Katniss stuck in a fight to the death with 23 other kids and she still finds the energy to worry what Gale thinks about the whole Katniss/Peeta thing? Seriously?

5. If it's supposed to be a dystopia, we have to be able to see bits of our current world reflected in this. Lawyer Mom had to read 1984 for class once. This was in unversity, well before 1984 rolled around chronologically. And she thought it was a really frightening read because, "It wasn't 1984 yet. So, all of that could still happen. We had no way of knowing it wouldn't be true, because it seemed like maybe it could be." Fortunately, 1984 turned out just to be neon windbreakers and lots of cocaine. Nonetheless, in Orwell's version, there were parts of that world readers years ago and readers today can see and relate to and immediately place as stand-ins for what we have now. Same with Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, or Lord of the Flies. Dystopias are only good and instructive insofar as we can connect them with the lives we are leading today. There's precious little connecting the Panem of The Hunger Games to the current 21st century US, except maybe reality TV. Even so, that's a half-hearted and tenuous connection, and not enough to be instructive. Which brings me to my next point.

6. If it's supposed to be a dystopia, we should be learning a lesson from the book. In Fahrenheit 451, it's about how the pervasiveness of vapid news and entertainment programming is endangering our "heavier," more thoughtful culture (not about censorship guys, sorry, this is the Word of God); in The Handmaid's Tale it's about how unchecked religiosity threatens the integrity and well-being of women; in Lord of the Flies it's about how people are inherently douchey most of the time. What the hell is the lesson in The Hunger Games? Too much reality TV is going to spawn American Gladiator: The Deadliest Child edition?

7. Is playing it as a couple really that original? The whole thing that apparently makes Katniss so interesting to all of the people watching is the whole "awww it's a LURV story" thing going on, to which I say: how dumb are these people? Hasn't this happened before? You've had seventy-three other games, with twelve boys and twelve girls in each one, children who are teenagers and therefore at the peak of their love-inducing, stupidity-making hormone phase, and this is such a huge goddamn surprise? Otherwise, you expect me to believe that out of seventy-three previous Hunger Games, none of the tributes feigned/had a love affair that worked a huge publicity angle for them? Yeah, no.

8. Why was the double-suicide pledge such a OMFG BIG DEAL anyway? There "has" to be a winner is the reason given, but why? If you're the kind of sadistic person who enjoys watching the Hunger Games, surely the point isn't that there's a winner but that you saw kids fight it out to the death. Having a winner is like an afterthought, if anything.

There are probably other things I could add to this, too, but this covers the vast majority of my thoughts so I'm going to get my ass to bed.


  1. I may have just read the entire trilogy in the last 72 hours… ("once you [start] you juuuuust can’t stop" is apt for my diving into series that aren’t absolutely, completely unreadable, which might explain why I still can’t bring myself to say I won‘t ever continue to read the Anita Blake series)…

    I agree on a lot of your points. In fact, when I reached the end of Mockingjay, my one major reflection was "well, that’s all pretty tidy." Katniss never has to make any major moral decisions, nor does she have to make a decision with her love triangle. It’s all nice, neat, and has a pretty little bow on top.

    I don’t have as much of an issue with the use of "panem et circenses" in reference to policy of the Capital. While there’s never any obvious signs of unrest, I think it’s more of a proactive policy within the Capital. I don’t think it applies to the rule of the districts, though. (Also, we later learn that there is unrest in the Capital, but they do indeed seem loath to do anything about it)

    That said, it was interesting enough, but my taste in reading material has plummeted in the last few years :)

    1. Oh! And while yes, some of the names are overly-literal and goofy, I actually thought Collins did a decent job of establishing motif with names. Just the name can give a pretty obvious indication of where someone is from. Be it some of the latin-inspired Careers’ names, or the botanical ones of the outer districts. I think there’s some foreshadowing, too. It’s pretty obvious that Rue will be important to Katniss, considering the botanical name that corresponds to a flower that is similar looking to a primrose (if the other descriptive text isn’t enough).

      Then again, I‘ve read enough sci-fi/fantasy that Collins’ names are almost normal compared to others.

    2. It's not even that they're goofy as much as they're so transparent as to be dull, or clearly planned around Katniss' fate (in the case of Cinna, namely). It's cutesy-poetic but once you pick it apart it kind of turns to shambles.

      I think I've just turned unnecessarily bitchy in my taste in literature. All those years of smiling and being polite and nice during fiction workshops (while secretly wishing death or at least basic literacy upon my classmates) at Hamtech have taken their toll. Now if anything published is less than perfect I just immediately go over the edge.

  2. Are you done yet?

    1. Uh, considering that I hit "post" on the entry? Yeah, I'm done.

      Not sure what the point of *your* comment is, however.