So here we are, still rather some ways out from the movie release, and I figured it was as good a time as any to read through these books and figure out if they were actually any good. I was very skeptical, as I usually am with YA stuff. I'm going through them in audiobook form, and I'm just about to start the third book (having now completed The Hunger Games as well as Catching Fire), Mockingjay. This review is going to get split into two parts. The first (this one) being for the first book only, and the second (to come when I'm done with Mockingjay) covering books two and three.
One reason I was very skeptical of THG was how derivative it seemed from the get-go. I'm not really spoiling anything by describing the structure of the society and setting, so here goes: (please ignore any spelling issues...remember, audiobook and looking up actual spellings is too much work, so everything is phonetic)
It's somewhere in the future, post some WWIII or such that has totally changed civilization. The United States is no more, etc. In place of (I think all of?) North America's countries, now there is a single nation, Panem. The basic structure of this nation is one capital city, with 13 provincial districts. The Capital maintains an iron rule over the districts. A bit under 100 years before THG is set, there was an uprising. The Capital crushed this ruthlessly, destroying one of the districts entirely to make an example out of them (kind of their modus operandi). In addition, they instituted the Hunger Games, which is a yearly thing where all the districts send a boy and a girl to compete in a battle royale. The Games are a fight to the death, you see, and there can be only one victor. In case you weren't paying attention, the Capital uses this as a reminder that they are all powerful, and can cull the population of the districts at a whim. It is their (very tangible and mandatory) yearly reminder of the social order in Panem.
So there's your back story. Does it sound familiar? It should. The more detail you give, the less derivative the notion seems, but at its base level I was struck by something. In particular, this basically seemed to be directly ripping off The Lottery, Running Man, Battle Royale (1 and 2 I guess), Nineteen Eighty-Four/your favorite other dystopian literature, and a great many other things. It seemed so ridiculous that I was pretty set against it. How could these people not know that it was blatantly ripping off so many classics? Did they not care? Did it actually manage to pull it off?
It was the last of these questions that I set out to answer as I fired up the book and hit the trail for a listen. And now, a couple important thoughts:
- First person present tense. (For real, that's what Suzanne Collins went with here.)
- Stereotypical YA main character. (Think about what that means, what are young teenagers like in stereotype?)
The reason these two things really are important is that they completely set the scene for how the story is told, the filter through which the story is told, as well as the actual content of the story (both from the character's perspective, as well as what the author had to put in to fulfill the latter of these). So, essentially you have a young teenage girl telling you about these things happening to you in the present tense. It means that there isn't the sort of reflection that someone looking back would have. Collins does, actually, a really good job of that. It's very clear that it is a teenager that is telling the story. It does mean that certain elements from the Coming of Age trope are present, namely...lots of them. The heartache, the loss, the rebellion, the romantic confusion, etc. Collins does all of this, but actually does it fairly well. If you can get over the present tense thing, and get past all the drama, it's clear that she's thought through what writing in this manner requires.
The more particular details that are put in, the less THG seems like a total ripoff of beloved science fiction titles of the last seventy years. While I maintain that it is not impossible to write something new, Collins does actually manage to give an interesting new spin on all of those old themes. I would posit that she does not, in actuality, butcher these tropes and fail to do justice to source material.
Should one read THG alone, and ignore Catching Fire and Mockingjay? Definitely not. If you're able to read between the lines at all in the first book then it is obvious where the series is going. That place is something that should be ultimately much more fulfilling than the first book alone, even if the execution is one that isn't perfect. If it was a choice between the first one alone, or nothing...I'd say skip it and choose nothing. Have the others available? No problem. In that case:
Overall: 8.88 out of 12 for a score from the Gamemakers (read the book, you'll understand), which translates to a 3.7/5. Bottom line: Read, preferably from a library.