This article is a recap of my book club discussion of The Hunger Games, which might interest some people. The question I wanted to explore was ‘What makes The Hunger Games such a sensation?’ There are many reasons.
People are naturally drawn to Katniss Everdeen. She is a strong female character, which is a rarity in science fiction. She is also the antithesis to Bella from Twilight, whom some readers dislike. On the whole, Katniss is also believable and compelling.
This is a plot driven book, so most of the other characters are not especially noteworthy, with the exceptions of Peeta and Rue. I’m only going to talk about Peeta, because Rue is pretty self-explanatory (she resembles Prim, Katniss’s sister). Peeta is not merely Katniss’s love interest, he is a compelling character in his own right. He always seems to say or do something significant that illuminates his character as well as Katniss’s. He makes Katniss insecure and unsure of herself, which makes her far more interesting and well-rounded than she would be alone or with Gale. Peeta is a foil–a mirror–who reveals parts of her character that she wasn’t aware of before or doesn’t like. Using another character in this way was smart because it efficiently developed Katniss’s character without slowing the pace (one of the biggest strengths of the book).
The backstory is interesting, but it mainly provides a backdrop for the breakneck action. The pacing is excellent for the most part; however, it does slow down considerably in the second half as Collins tries to build up the love story.
Her decision to use first person was smart. Readers are drawn to Katniss from the very beginning. It also keeps the book from becoming a gore fest (because Katniss doesn’t witness every killing) and intensifies the suspense and intrigue by limiting the information the reader receives to only that which Katniss knows.
One reader commented that if not for several ‘beautiful moments,’ the story itself was only average. What kept him reading more than anything was the desire to experience the next moment. I can identify with this because I too read for such moments. Moments that take me away from the everyday. Moments when characters come to life. Here are several such moments from The Hunger Games (SPOILERS follow):
- When Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place – sacrifice
- When she shoots the arrow at the Gamemasters – doing the right thing impulsively
- Her interview and her reaction to Peeta’s interview – puppy love
- Any scene with Rue, but particularly the last one – because Rue is so likable
- When Katniss says, “I don’t want the boy with the bread to die”
- When Thresh ‘returns the favor’ to Katniss – a rare moment of civility in a world of brutality
Muttations climax – A real head-scratcher. This was suppose to be horrifying, but it was so bizarre and out-of-the-blue that it was hard to take it seriously. It needed more build up, but even then, it probably would have been jarring.
Love triangle – I felt that the love triangle was somewhat forced, and it caused the second half of the book to drag a bit. It’s fine for Katniss to be confused since she’s young and inexperienced in matters of the heart. However, it was difficult to believe that she would so clueless as to repeatedly wonder if Peeta really loved her despite all of the things he did for her, particularly since she’s so astute about everything else.
Originality – One major criticism of The Hunger Games is that it’s not original. Both The Running Man and Batttle Royale explored the same premise. In many ways, The Hunger Games is eerily similar to Battle Royale (kids fighting to the death on TV, love story, weapon caches). However, there are enough significant differences to distinguish the two works. The Hunger Games focuses on one character and follows her before and during the games. The first person perspective also limits the gore. In Battle Royale, the focus is on the games and all its gore. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the controversy certainly raised The Hunger Games‘s profile.
And “unoriginality” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One reader commented that The Hunger Games reminded him of all the books he read as a kid (Lord of the Flies, 1984, and Romeo and Juliet) combined with some more recent movies (The Truman Show, Gladiator). The Gladiator connection was definitely intentional as most of the Capitol character names were Roman. This familiarity seems to be one of the major reasons why the book appeals to such a broad audience.
Movie vs book – Something always seems to get lost in translation from the book to the screen, and The Hunger Games is no exception. The book was written in first person, but the movie was shot in third person. This lessened the focus on Katniss. On the flip side, viewers now experienced the story from multiple perspectives, which some readers appreciated. However, movies cannot easily translate thought processes, so most of the book’s interesting psychological dilemmas were lost. There was also insufficient time to tell the entire backstory in the movie, and some characters were eliminated/combined to save time.
Movies adaptations are always tricky because people have different expectations as to what the characters should look like. With book, this is not an issue because each reader can customize the characters using his imagination. While Jennifer Lawrence received mostly positive reviews for her portrayal of Katniss, the same wasn’t true for Peeta, Gale, and especially Rue. Apparently, many people had imagined Rue to be white, despite the book clearly describing her as being darker skinned.
The Hunger Games has a lot of things going for it, particularly strong characters and storytelling. Even its alleged “unoriginality” seemed to strengthen is mass appeal. All these things were more than enough to overcome whatever shortcomings it had, making The Hunger Games the sensation that it is.