I don’t usually read YA. I want to get that out of the way early, because that’s probably the only reason it’s worth reading this review. The Hunger Games is one of the most popular books in the world at the moment, and if you haven’t heard of it, that’s only because the movie hasn’t come out yet. Yes, it’s one of those books—the ones that get so popular they become pop culture phenomena, like Harry Potter or the Twilight series. If you haven’t read it, you’re probably one of those people like me who avoids pop culture phenomena and can’t stand to be seen walking out of the bookstore with a paperback that has a movie star’s face on its cover. Or maybe, like me, you tend to think of YA as cutesy stories about kids that are probably really interesting to kids, but you don’t like being hit over the head with childish things any more than you like watching Nickelodeon.
To be clear, YA doesn’t have to be like this. I respect YA authors and a ton of my writing community friends write exclusively for YA. The reason I’m going on about this (and I’ll continue for a bit, if you’ll forgive me) is that The Hunger Games is the absolute best kind of YA: the kind where you wouldn’t know it was targeted at younger audiences unless you were told. There just happens not to be any sex or dropping of f-bombs, and it doesn’t feel contrived in any way. The protagonist just happens to be sixteen years old.
If you’re a YA author who dreams of having movie-making appeal, to write stories that take over the imagination of the world, read this book (as if you haven’t already) and take note. This is how you do it. This is how you amaze someone like me, who has no kids, comfortably watched the movie The Aristocrats, and wants to lead the horde down the FCC with torches and pitchforks every time I listen to the radio and hear an artist’s work censored. This is how you get to someone like me, who when he sees a version of a movie where all the sex and swearing removed thinks only “You took out all the best parts!”
To be fair, The Hunger Games isn’t on the young end of YA (I hope). The themes are quite mature without being adult, and the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, isn’t really all that young in a society where people die young all the time.
Still, it’s worth noting as a great member of a popular genre. This isn’t just fantastic YA, this is fantastic fiction. The Hunger Games is a great story. I wouldn’t know it was YA if I hadn’t been told. There exists good YA that fails this test, that makes you know it’s aimed at children—Harry Potter is a great example of this—but the chances of ensnaring those of us who tend to avoid the genre is far smaller.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most glaring irritation of an otherwise fantastic book. The damned present tense. Why writers do this is beyond me. The few scenes where Katniss is narrating about the past come off far more naturally and don’t make me trip over myself. I’ve never been a fan of present tense writing; the only author I read who did it and still got me through the book is Neal Stephenson with Snow Crash—and to be fair, that’s Snow Crash and I’m a nerd so you’d have to ring the pages with Hello Kitties to keep me away. The best argument against writing present tense I’ve ever heard is also the simplest, and I heard it from Orson Scott Card (so now you have to believe it). Present tense is simply not how we tell stories. Imagine a child sitting in front of you that wants to hear the story of the three little pigs. Most of you will say that the first little pig built his house out of straw. But that could be backstory, and justifiably in the past tense even if the story is told in present tense. But be honest, how many of you included this line?
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” said the pig.
Said the pig. Not says. What happened when the wolf came to the house made of bricks? Wouldn’t it sound odd to hear me ask what happens when the wolf comes to the brick house?
There is one class of stories commonly told in the present tense. Many of them start a little something like this.
A priest, a rabbi, and a leprechaun walk into a bar…
Jokes. We tell jokes in the present tense. We also summarize in the present tense. I’d say that Katniss Everdeen takes her little sister’s place in the reaping, even though it rankles me to no end that Suzanne Collins said it the same way in the book.
I’ve ranted on long enough. Use of the present tense doesn’t kill The Hunger Games, but it could have killed a slightly less interesting story. And I suppose that’s the second (somewhat backhanded) compliment I can give The Hunger Games: it’s too good to be dragged down by reading the present tense. It’s also too good a story for someone who doesn’t read YA to pass on it just because it sits on the shelf in that genre.
That’s the biggest thing about The Hunger Games—you can’t pass on it because it’s that good. The world is beautifully put together, even though author Suzanne Collins spends very little time laying out the rules of how things work. It’s set in a dystopian future where the United States has ceased to exist and dissolved into a collection of fourteen smaller fiefdoms. Thirteen of them rebelled against the Capitol and had their asses resoundingly handed to them, culminating in the nuclear annihilation of District Thirteen. As punishment, the remaining twelve districts have to give two tributes a year to participate in the Hunger Games, a sort of battle royale where only one child lives, broadcast live on TV. Viewing is mandatory in the districts. Each district must give one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, randomly selected (though volunteers are allowed), and all children must be eligible. The districts are all far poorer than the Capital, and District Twelve, where the protagonist lives, is the poorest of them all. You can feel the desperation, the hunger, and the resignation in all of the characters.
When I described the plot to my wife, she immediately asked why the districts didn’t rebel again. If you read The Hunger Games, that answer is clear. It’s the same reason why North Koreans don’t rebel, why warlords can run regions of Africa without fear of an uprising of the people they oppress. If the oppressed people are desperate enough and fighting just to survive, “the Resistance” with a capital ‘R’ simply doesn’t organize. The people are fighting too hard just to put food on their plates. Political dissidence is beyond their concern.
Collins captures that tension perfectly. She also does something that all good writers have to do. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is by far the most interesting character in the book. You can’t help but love and respect her. You need her to win. The supporting cast is no less lovingly stitched together and interesting. Perhaps the most “YA” aspect of the book is Katniss’s confusion and utter incompetence at romance, though I can forgive her for wondering whether or not she has feelings for a boy she may or may not have to kill.
It’s a brutal and incredibly interesting world that Katniss lives in, and I found myself imagining being there, as I do with all stories that I get caught up in. And that’s when I knew that The Hunger Games was a fantastic story. In my opinion, it’s a better story than Harry Potter, though I doubt if it’ll become quite as much of a cultural phenomenon. It’ll have its day in the sun, and deservedly so.
I haven’t yet read the second and third books, though I certainly will. Of course the book ends with the conclusion of the Hunger Games, so I’m worried that in later books she won’t be able to match the intensity of having twenty four adolescents fight to the death—it’s kind of a tall order. I have enough faith in Suzanne Collins, though, that I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I’ll even forgive the present tense.
If you’re a YA fan, you probably only read this to see whether or not you agree with me. If, by some odd coincidence, you haven’t yet read it… well… what are you doing? This is the best work of YA in the last decade. GO READ IT. If you’re like me and you tend to shy away from things intended for youths, do yourself a favor and pick up The Hunger Games. You won’t be sorry. If you hurry, you can get one that doesn’t have a movie star’s face on the cover.