renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
cover of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins with a golden bird inside a golden circle on a black background

The Hunger Games. Surely everyone knows this series by now, what with the buzz about the books and the upcoming movie fronted by an Oscar nominee. In the remains of the former United States, a new country, Panem, has risen, oppressive and cruel, ruling over their 12 Districts, controlling them with the yearly Hunger Games. Two tributes from each District, all pitted against each other. Only one person can survive. Well. Sort of.

It's Battle Royale for a western audience, basically, with less bloody violence — seriously, the violence in THG is so tame — and rape commentary. It's odd that the rape commentary is what I remember most from Battle Royale and the thing I was most relieved not to see, although there's still awesome sexual skeeviness that generally goes unremarked. Rad!

I read this book a few years ago. Of course, when I did my city was in the middle of the worst ice storms in years, we were out of power for three days and I was freezing and grumpy. Also, I had just finished Battle Royale and was wigging out about how terrifyingly awesome it was even with a shaky translation. It was not the best time to read The Hunger Games. There was no way I was going to give it a fair shake under than hostile and extremely chilly circumstances. When we discussed this week, I thought it would be the perfect time to give it another shot! Dsytopia for the win! A fresh start, a new chance!

Except distance, as they say, did not make my heart grow any fonder.

Before I get into the plot and the characters at all, I have to boggle over the writing. I have this thing about writing in that it took me years and years to consider myself a writer properly. I told stories and I was a storyteller and my childhood was about getting down to business with characters and setting orally. There were so many nights lying in a field of fireflies with stories, hanging out down by the river with stories and giant mosquitoes, car trips going nowhere except to have time to tell stories on the long ride home. I have this really sensitive inner-ear for how words lie together and when the flow is off. Just ask anyone I've edited for. They can feel free to rail at me in the comments. I deserve it for forcing you to rewrite that paragraph sixteen times.

I don't actually know if there's a term for being able to hear narrative and dialogue sing at you (potentially an apt description given them theme of singing and songs in this book, i.e. the complete lack of it for me). Apparently I am a freak communing with words on another plane because when the flow of a narrative is off, I'm constantly jarred out of a story. Even if the book has the best plot in the world, it's not going to work if the flow is wrong. It's like trying to listen to scratched CD, an out-of-tune piano, and in some cases, nails on a chalkboard. It frustrates people when they recommend me books or fanfic or movies with writing that isn't meshing, writing that's not coming together to sing but instead playing Row Row Row Your Boat in round-robin style, five seconds off from the previous iteration.

Some books are worse than others. The Hunger Games isn't even the worst offender I've come across, but the writing flips between okay, mediocre and then outright painful to me. It's utilitarian, basic, like it's not trying to do anything else but tell this story as straight-forward as possible, like it's trying to imitate the stark world it's describing. It's at times embarrassingly unsubtle, lacks any subtext whatsoever, treats its readers like they're morons, spells out every tiny detail in a really sloppy manner, and does this somehow while still being mildly engaging. I just keep hoping for the writing to get better so I can actually like the story. I don't even know how to explain it. It tugs me forward only half the times and the other half I have to paddle myself through the river of the lazy characterization and writing and stop myself from editing it in my head. Sentences are weirdly abrupt and paragraphs read haltingly. About the only thing I could let ride was the dialogue and sometimes — and I know this is definitely something my history and my culture caused — I couldn't imagine anyone saying the things they're saying out loud. I would read dialogue out loud and it would sound wrong, awkward and floppy in my mouth.

Not every narrative can meet my standards. I will be be fine in my lonely corner of weird narrative quirks. *tear*

I liked the story itself, especially since I spent most of the book rewriting it in my head to be more interesting. It's a plot that can interest me, after all. I like Evil Empires and the characters who take them down, so I consider myself pretty easy. This time around, I decided to not let it bother me that Collins coded the ending of the book with a love triangle where one side was absent for most of the novel and only cropped up when it was convenient. Seriously, YA, what is it with the love triangles? What it is with the heterosexual love triangles, even, I might even take them with a little variety. I knew what was going to happen, and I thought, "well, if I just let that go maybe the rest will be okay!". But it wasn't okay.

I found myself weirdly sidetracked by the characterization of almost all the female characters. In a Surprise Twist™, the Dead Father is golden and the mother, surprisingly, is useless. I see this is other types of fantasy, too. The mother is downplayed. Maybe she dies or leaves. Father is alive and he's moving the plot along. Or maybe the father dies, and the mother remains, but she doesn't do anything but sit there like a lump while the protagonist calls up fond memories to get them through the hard times.

Other female characters are treated badly, too. Katniss often critiques their looks and behavior in offensive ways or the book frames them in really problematic ways. In the opening chapters before the game, we meet several female characters, and all the adult women are worn down, bony, have super awesome gross nicknames marking them out (crones) or are actually called witches or otherwise shown to be evil and no-good. Attractive women are judged for clearly "working for" the attractiveness. The one man like this is very flamboyant. Boy, where have I seen that before?

It's very strange and it hit me the wrong way all through the beginning of the book and into the story once we leave District 12. I also found it very weird how many of the women were useless, evil, "bad", or ditzy — while the men were expert hunters, kind and generous and thoughtful, or a special snowflake dead father who imparted wisdom. Unless they were flamboyant. Then they were probably gay, and therefore like women, and therefore catty and shallow.

There is a problem with this picture. This is pretty much where the book lost me.

It's not kind to its female characters. Katniss manages to be a good character and fairs pretty well, except she's given male traits, a male role in her life, numerous male role models, and for all intents in purposes is a man (she even looks different than her other family members, marking her out). Unless she needs to be cute and young and innocent (which she does later). She is terrible at emotions, and several times in the text she rejects the role of "nurse" — typically a female role — even as she goes through the motions. I'm sorry, but I expect a little more than this. I've talked about this before, where a female character is assigned a traditional male role, a traditional male attitude, and considered to be spunky and badass. But you gain that by them being someone emotionally stunted, and Katniss's problems manifested in her trust issues and failure to recognize her own emotions and be led around by the metaphorical nose when it came to heart issues. So you can have a strong woman, physically, but she has to be an emotional dimwit to offset all the awesome.

I don't find that cool or subversive. I find that predicable, boring and ignorant.

There's no suspense. Everything in the novel is handed to us on a platter. Yes, easy reads are one thing, but the level of telling is obscene. Even the premise — the games themselves — fail as a tool of suspense, because so much of it is off-screen, bumped for a ham-handed, sexually exploitative romance that was never really dissected in the text.

All in all, I get why these books shot to super stardom. It's easy to see, because they are easy to gobble up, popcorn-style, and I like books like that. Think they're totally fine. But when they come paired with what I think are really problematic characterizations, I just pop out and can't get back in again. My first reading of this book was not wrong: it's just not that good if you try to critique the text.

Here is what I said last time I read this book and I find it still applies:

The Hunger Games is too busy shacking up its main characters. Theme? it asks. Here, Katniss, make out with your competition for some drama as men (don't think I missed that) steer you into appropriate sexual behavior that will get you rewarded. Is that actual critique of our reality-obsessed based entertainment, that the big corporate sponsors (men, in the form of Haymitch) bully and entrap people (girls) into doing stuff that maybe isn't so smart for fun times for other people? Maybe the whole thing works as a critique of something. Maybe I'm not the audience. Maybe I am a big old bummer who wants to dislike everything popular!

I don't know if I'll be reading the second and third books. Friends want me to, and I might do so just for comparison's sake: to see if Collins manages to mature in her writing, to see the resolution of all the obvious hint-drops in the book, to watch the (vomit) love triangle play out in a horrible way just for my own personal pleasure. TAKE THAT, YA GEOMETRY.

Lady business: big old bag of bile.
Minority report: there were a few (don't look here for GLBTQ reps), but the body count was high in this one, captain.
Ink notes: I've read fanfiction better than this. In fact, I bet the fandom for this book writes better than the author.
Shelf impact: themed, carried off nicely. Possibly the best thing about the book.
Final thoughts:

photo of bear with arms out with text reading How About No

Other reviews: Iris On Books, The Literary Omnivore, 1330v, Bibliotropic, yours?

Date: 2011-07-23 01:39 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
'Maybe the whole thing works as a critique of something.' Oh hai let me talk about totally unrelated Twilight again because apparently I am obsessed. This is where I get stuck with that series, because you can read parts of it as a critique (so many people going 'No Bella I don't think it's a good idea to put all your eggs in Edward's basket') but for some reason that critique element doesn't seem strong enough to over ride all the contradictory sentiments of the main characters. But you can get bogged down in intent in that argument - how does Meyer mean to direct her readership's thoughts....and is that really relevant, or knowable. Doesn't examining a text this way rely too heavily on examining a text in light of the authors biography (which is a form of criticism, but it seems to be still heavily frowned on by academia and a lot of writers when it's used as the main method of criticism)? I guess we can ever know for definite if something is being written as a form of critique, but maybe that frees us from having to put a whole lot of weight on trying to work that out and we can just go with our own interpretations, as long as we can justify them?

Also I like your bear :)

Date: 2011-07-24 10:13 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I'm sick Renay, help me! Although there are some interesting broad connections that can be made (not that well written, love triangle, anti-feminism perpetuated by tropes) but aggggghhhh I must STOP talking about those books. Looking at both of them though I wonder if there isn't something to be learned about what is prompting film companies to pick particular well selling YA books to adapt into films (I guess HG and T went more viral than other best sellers, but is there something in their narrative make up that makes film makers see them as projects they can use?) Stops talking bout this damn series now - moves on.

Date: 2011-07-23 08:23 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (lords of kobol)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Basically! I did actually read all three, and actually found them progressively more disappointing for failing to live up to the potential that is there in the story. And I agree that the writing isn't stark or plain, which would at least be style choices, so much as it's...really blunt, even painfully so. Which is a shame, because it's a great story. I think the books are REALLY limited in almost every way by the choice to remain in Katniss's head all the time, especially since she's so unaware (and uninterested) in the bigger picture or politics.

I really hated the stupid love triangle. (Why, YA, WHY?) The books use about every huge non-consensual trope, from aliens the press made them do it, right down to stuff I can't say because it would be spoilery for the later books (though without actual sex, because in flashing lights, Katniss is too busy and closed off for boys, see how non-romance based our books are?). I hated every bit of it, including its eventual resolution. But then, the majority of the fandom and reviews for the books seemed more interested in the stupid love triangle than anything else, so I don't know who to blame for that.

I think it's pretty hard to say they're criticizing anything, especially as the series goes on and the critique doesn't expand or deepen. Though this again is limited by being in Katniss's POV all the time. Her lack of self-awareness, or awareness of how she's being perceived by anyone, or intention to create any sort of effect, means that readers have to work really hard to see media criticism here, I think.

Date: 2011-07-25 03:28 am (UTC)
chaila: by me (bitches get stuff done)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I don't want to sell them too short, as there are definitely more interesting things going on in the second two books (the second one especially, I thought). But they do still suffer from the limited POV (and maybe even moreso, since all the setup from Katniss's POV in the first book is actually reasonably effective and only gets more wearing as the story expands), because the interesting things going on aren't what Katniss knows about or is interested in. I perpetually wanted to be in rooms Katniss isn't in to know what people are doing, and I wanted to listen to conversations going on off over in the corner. There's a way this stuff could've worked in the hands of a writer who can do subtext or subtle hints, but it never quite works. There are many parts of it that I feel like are trying to say interesting things, maybe even trying to use this limited POV to say them? But like you say, it's like it was hard and complicated and was easier at various points to talk about how nice Peeta is or whatever.

But yes the romance parts are HORRIBLE, but at least you are prepared. If you go on, I will warn you specifically that the romance thread at the beginning of the second book made me want THROW IT ACROSS THE ROOM (I honestly thought it might really be faily fanfiction for a couple of chapters), but it becomes less prominent after the beginning.

Date: 2011-07-25 05:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Your thoughts on Katniss are interesting because one of the things I kind of thought was interesting was that while Katniss was a hunter/provider and did maybe have the more traditional male characteristics or whatever, Peeta was the baker/artist had what are considered more traditionally feminine characteristics, this is most notable at the end of the books I guess.

And like I've said before I don't mind love triangles, and I didn't mind it in these books as well even though I never understood why there was one, apart from an obvious device to communicate theme--Peeta and Gale representing two parts of Katniss she had to choose between. I read an interview actually with her editor where they said they actually asked SC to ramp up the love triangle aspect.

But if you didn't like The Hunger Games then I have doubts you'd enjoy the rest of the books. I love them a whole lot but I already cringe to think of your thoughts on Mockingjay.

(btw this is Amy apparently blogger will never let me use openid again)

Date: 2011-07-25 05:21 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
uh or that error message I got was false. whatever. :)

Date: 2011-07-26 03:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
oh okay I think I understand what you're saying.

Of course you should review them if you want to! They are big enough books that there are certainly already a ton of both positive and negative things written about them but no one has the same perspective as you. :)

Date: 2012-01-30 02:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Renay, I love this post! The "give the boy a kiss and fake love him for food" bothered me & I kept waiting for Collins to discuss *something* through the books, you know, dystopian society, totalitarian rule, people as economic slaves, the use of propaganda, gender roles, but nothing nothing nothing. I did find the story compelling in a way (I wanted to continue reading), but I just kept feeling that THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH MORE. Why not invite questions & discussions from your readers? Perhaps I am spoiled by Chaos Walking, but I just felt that any ability to discuss our world through dystopian lit was lost in this book. Also, especially in the beginning, the repititive writing stood out, as did the "I better mention this three times, and spell it out for you, or you might not understand" wording of some of the sentences.

Don't get me wrong, I did somehow enjoy reading this too, I just don't feel the same love/like/passion for it that so many have, and I cannot seem to find the worldbuilding a little bleak compared to other books. Huh, very confusing experience.

Date: 2012-01-30 02:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
oops, that was meant to say that I couldn't help but find the worldbuilding bleak :)


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