Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review of The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is for all three of the books in the series.

My review is a complex one, because the books themselves are complex and the trilogy is a web of complexity. I read these for several reasons, not least because Marcie had read them and wanted to talk about them. One friend said she had a “book hangover” for several days after reading them— that’s a good way to describe the emotional oppressiveness that lingers for a while after you’ve read them. And yet, there’s also something welcome about the story told in these books, and I did enjoy them.

There’s a lot to say here, and it’s best to divide out the topics into pieces.

Taken by itself, the writing quality of these books is definitely above average. It’s engaging, well-paced, and effective for story-telling. There’s little to no cliché or tired convention, and there’s an honesty to them that is endearing—which is odd considering the subject matter.

The author has a great love for plot twists, and there are perhaps one or two more than I would have preferred. This is probably my only complaint about the writing.

If I were rating this book based on the writing alone, I would probably give it four stars, or perhaps 4.5 (if GoodReads would allow half stars!).

So, the story is more than a little dark. But let’s face it: dystopian tales are, by nature, dark, so that’s to be expected, right? As dark, dystopian stories go, this one is pretty good.

I’m no expert on the history of ancient Rome, but I believe that the Hunger Games trilogy offers a loose, future re-telling of the downfall of the Roman empire. Or at least, it has a number of echoes of that era and theme. This makes for an interesting twist, and also tones down the darkness a bit (because if the story was only describing future possibilities, it would be quite bleak indeed).

The underlying relationships in the story help a lot. There’s something of a love triangle, which has the potential to turn hokey (but doesn’t). This keeps the story from dragging at some points, provides a welcome distraction from the darkness of the main story (and at times actually seems to be the real main story), and offers motivation for some of the more important plot lines.

There’s a plausibility to this story that is striking, which is one of the real strengths of both the writing and the story-telling abilities of the author. I think this is an aspect of the books that has struck a strong chord with many readers, as is implied by analysis such as Slate’s“The Economics of the Hunger Games” and other similar articles.

As with the writing, if I were rating the book on the basis of the story, from a strictly abstract perspective I would give it four stars.

So why only three stars, if the writing and the story merit at least four? Because of two fundamental problems which present the more complicating factors.

First off is the ethical/moral structure presented in the book. I’ve read some reviews that complain that the writer presents an ethical worldview that is too flimsy; in Douglas Wilson’s review, for example, he points to the very “situational ethics” quality of the Hunger Games trilogy, and demonstrates how these kinds of situations don’t square with a biblical Christian ethics. He makes strong points, but I don’t fully agree with his assessment.

The problem with Wilson’s review is that he seems to assume that it is/was Suzanne Collins’s job to offer an ethical perspective that is biblical, or at least consistent with biblical morality and nobility. Why would this be a reasonable assumption? As far as I know, Collins doesn’t claim to be a Christian— and even if she does, I’ve never heard or read any claim that the books themselves are written as “Christian fiction”. Sure, it’s possible to have mainstream fiction that is consistent with biblical values, but just because some fiction is biblically consistent doesn’t mean that all fiction must be. (This is the kind of logic problem I would expect Wilson to suss out pretty easily.)

Still, I’m not indifferent to Wilson’s concerns, the ethical conundra presented in The Hunger Games are complex enough to be stomach-churning at times, which leads me to tend to rate it lower. I would have a hard time recommending it to younger, less-discerning readers.

Which leads me to my second problem area: these books (and the movie(s) now coming out based on them) have been presented as “Young Adult Fiction”— which is hogwash. They’re published by Scholastic, which explains (to an extent) why they are being marketed to such a young audience. But it’s very difficult to see how these are appropriate for young readers.

So much of the content in these books is disturbing enough to create multiple problems for younger readers. The ethical ambiguities mentioned above are one aspect. Another is how they would inevitably leave some (like my son) with recurring fears and nightmares. Generally, too, I imagine that they would have to create some doubt or even cynicism about the future, in terms of ecological concerns (since the setting of the world described is in a changed and reduced version of North America, affected drastically by climate change), governmental concerns, military/warfare concerns, and so on.

It’s not to say that some of these concerns are completely illegitimate, nor are they matters that younger audiences shouldn’t begin to learn about. Rather, I doubt seriously whether dystopian fiction is the venue by which we should teach them.

I think the thing that troubles me the most about The Hunger Games is that they are presented as Young Adult Fiction— indeed, that they (and any of the now garden-variety vampire stories) are increasingly seen as the new archetype of Young Adult Fiction.

For the ethics complexity, I would rate the book at two stars; the “Young Adult Fiction” categorization, though, ranks at one star for me. Overall, then, my review balances out at three stars.

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