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My Thoughts on THE HUNGER GAMES

(This is part of a series of “book reports” I’m doing – recording my thoughts on the books I’m reading as part of a general desire to read more. This will typically be talking about what I liked or didn’t and why I did or didn’t, generally related to thoughts on story-telling. It won’t be a discussion of deeper themes and meanings. Comments are always open to tell me your take. Click here to see all the books I’ve talked about.)

My Thoughts on The Hunger GamesI recently finished The Hunger Games (first book) and while I really enjoyed it, there were some things that kept me from loving it. Most came up in the first part of the three part book and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of it so much as just kept me from being pushed into “wow, this is amazing” territory. That is, until the third section of the book…

The Breakdown (for those who don’t know): The Hunger Games is set in an updated version of Ancient Rome. The excessively ravish and clownish Capitol rules over 12 other districts. They’re effectively slave states who pay tribute to their overlords via harvest of their primary industry as well as annual tribute in the form of two gladiators, aged 12 to 18, who are either selected at random or are volunteers. These twenty-four gladiators are then dropped in an arena where they fight to the death. It’s Survivor for real, as the event is broadcast across the country.

Let’s say now the rest of this will be rife with spoilers, yeah?

Katniss Has It Too Easy

A Mary Sue is a character in a book or story (particularly fanfiction) that’s idealized to the point of being wish-fulfillment fantasy. The stereotype is undeveloped and one-dimensional characters –male or female- for whom things come too easy.

The term is more broadly associated with characters who are exceptionally and improbably lucky. The good luck may involve romance (“Mary Sue” always gets her man); adventure (“Mary Sue” always wins a fight or knows how to solve the puzzle) and popularity (the “right people” seem to gravitate towards the character). These characters have few problems while attempting to achieve their goals. “Everything goes her way” is a common criticism regarding “Mary Sues”, the implication being that the character’s inability to fail makes her insufficiently humanized or challenged to be interesting or sympathetic. — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue

What you’re thinking is: Katniss is plucked from her home and forced to fight for her life, killing twenty-three other children in a gladiatorial-style arena. How is that idealized and/or wish fulfillment for anybody?

My first reply is that I don’t see Katniss as a one-dimensional stereotype. She’s a well-defined character with a strong inner life but I feel she does straddles the line of being a well-camouflaged Mary Sue. She’s a young girl eking out a mediocre existence in a poverty stricken slave community who, through a courageous act of self-sacrifice, is elevated to the ranks of rich and powerful. On some level, most people –particularly teen girls- can relate to a hard-knock life, and who wouldn’t want to be plucked from obscurity and made all famous-like?

Katniss is also the girl everybody can’t help but like and who, through the entire first part of the book, does everything right without even trying. After she sacrifices herself for her sister Prim (who was chosen as tribute by random lottery), the main part of “The Tribute” is preparing her for the Hunger Games.

  • Her grand entrance earns her the moniker of “the girl who was on fire” thanks to the work of her personal designer.
  • Her pre-game interview leaves her labeled one half of star-crossed lovers thanks to Peeta’s declaration of love – this supported by Haymitch’s order to always appear friendly and hand-holdy in public.
  • She gets her high training score of eleven –highest of the group- largely by accident.

Katniss didn’t really have to do much of anything herself to go from being the serious underdog from District 12 that nobody would care about to being the girl everybody was going to be watching, if not rooting for. This was all very easy.

Personally, it may have been more interesting to keep her an underdog but I will concede that the second part of the book “The Games” gets much more interesting, with Katniss having to make choices, work for things, and take some hits along the way.

Reality TV 101. Know what you’re talking about.

The other thing that bothered me a bit was that while the Hunger Games takes reality television to its ultimate extremes, Suzanne Collins didn’t seem to have any real knowledge about reality television – especially Survivor, which is the closest relation to The Hunger Games.

Survivor 101 dictates: form alliances and have a game plan going in. Yeah, sure you’ll make multiple alliances, you’ll lie and betray people, people will lie to and betray you, but you go in having some plan of alliance because not having one puts you at a serious disadvantage.

Survivor is on its twenty-something season currently. In the first season there weren’t any alliances early on. Midway through, Richard Hatch set up a voting block with his team to quickly eliminate their competition and so the first alliance was born. As soon as he did that, he defined the game of Survivor. From that point on, almost every vote was planned in advance. Now, alliance play dominates the game. Who do you trust? Who can you trust?

Katniss’ Hunger Games are the 74th incarnation of the games and everybody in the entire country is mandated by law to watch. Yet, during all the strategy sessions and prep talk, nobody brings up the possibility of alliances. Sure, it’s a bit different in that this is a fight to the death — Katniss even goes to lengths not to bond with Peeta from her own district because she knows she may have to kill him– but still, ally together to take out bigger threats and then deal with the rest. With their very lives on the line, by the 74th Hunger Games, there’s no way alliance play shouldn’t dominate the game like it does in Survivor.

So my problem is that nobody suggests that as a strategy to Katniss. Not even that her and Peeta should ally even though their public presentation implies that they’re going to. Haymitch I can almost understand, he comes across as not quite the strategic thinker and being he’s a bit of a drunk. But Effie trinket who’s a big supporter/fan of the games, or Cinna, the person Katniss bonds with most in the Capitol. Not one of them suggests that she find an ally as part of her strategy. Really?

I even think to myself at one point that maybe there’s an unwritten law about forming alliances. Until we get into the game and learn that the biggest and strongest group of competitors have all formed an alliance –in advance- to take out their weakest adversaries as a group. And that Katniss knew this was going to happen, saying that the “Careers” usually do form an alliance.

This isn’t advanced strategy, people. This is Strategy 101. Especially if your opponents are forming alliances, it’s obvious you’re not even trying to win if you don’t so much as bring up the word.

And of course, Katniss eventually does form an alliance. So there’s that.

No Charge

The first part of the book “The Tribute” was good despite the things I mentioned. The second part of the book “The Games” really drew me in. Katniss was working for her survival and had to do clever things to keep alive and it wasn’t easy. Then we hit the third part of the book “The Victor” and to be honest I was pretty well checked out by the end of the book.

I don’t even know if Suzanne Collins knew what kind of book she wanted to write. It started as this cool tale of oppressed people forced into Gladiatorial combat with the implication of Katniss becoming this rallying figure for the disenfranchised and turned into a romance novel with what was most-prominent in the first two thirds of the book taking a back seat to a false and forced-feeling romance.

First, there’s the announcement that now they’ll let two people win if they’re from the same district. Meaning Katniss has to track down the heavily injured Peeta and nurse him back to health. Not only is he a huge liability, but Katniss is forced to be his concubine to play up this romance that Peeta fabricated.  She has to pretend she loves him and make kissy face against her will in order to please the powers that be and earn free supplies.

And now we get back to things being too easy for Katniss. Yes, if you’ve read the book, you’re thinking: Easy! There were tracker jackers and wolf things and…

Yeah, sure. But let’s get down to brass tacks. Katniss survived the big bad Hunger Games with zero moral or physical cost. She killed two other combatants from afar with the tracker jacker (think wasps) nest. She killed a third completely by reflex. The fourth and final kill ended up justified as a mercy killing. Despite the crux of these games being that you put these people together and force them to kill one another, Katniss never had to make a conscious decision to kill anybody.

If there had been a legitimate fight to the death at the end, sure. But the twist with the wolf-things was strike two for me. I mean if Katniss had to fight the last tribute herself, find some clever way to get rid of him, and have to make the moral decision of, “now I’m going to kill a person” that would have been strong story-wise and it would have been wonderful and it would have created a moral cost that she’d have to live with. Instead, these wolf-things come from nowhere. They serve no purpose  and Bad Guy gets mauled nearly to death so Katniss’s final kill gets to be a mercy killing…. Really?

Then she gets back to the Capitol once the games are over and she’s fully healed. Not even a scar. At an earlier point in the games she caused an explosion and lost her hearing in one ear, which was a big deal because she’s a hunter by trade and so if that had in fact been permanent, there’d have been a physical life changing cost she’d have had to live with.

So Katniss goes back home, rich, famous, and none the worse for wear. With strike three being how forced that star-crossed lovers thing felt, I wasn’t invested in the book at all for the last chapters.

Honestly, this should have been Peeta’s story. He was thinking strategically the whole way through. Dealing with unrequited feelings of love for Katniss. Trying to protect her. Allying with scumbags. We know he killed, up close and personal, at least one person (moral cost) and he lost his leg, now having a prosthetic (physical cost). He tried desperately to make Katniss love him, and he thought she might have been opening up to him until right at the end where he finds out that for Katniss it was all just an act. Now there’s a story.

What did you think of the Hunger Games? Was Katniss all that and a slice of pumpkin pie, or should this story have been told from Peeta’s point of view? Let me know in the comments below

If you like, here are my thoughts on Catching Fire and Mockingjay, plus a couple of small additional things that didn’t make it into that post.