Unfinished Business: The Hunger Games
November 5, 2009 By 4 Comments
To my mind, this book had the most distinguished plot of last year. The events were organized in such a fashion that they generated an enormous amount of suspense, and what was even more impressive is that Collins accomplished it with a single viewpoint character and a simple uncluttered narrative arc. I thought THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, THE LINCOLNS, and THE UNDERNEATH also had distinguished plots. Clearly, none of these books were as plot-driven as THE HUNGER GAMES, but I think you could make a case for them as most distinguished in terms of plot. A book doesn’t necessarily need to be plot-driven in order to have a distinguished plot because technically plot refers to the arrangement of the events in the story.
The characterization of Katniss was very well done, particularly during the Games. She was resourceful in stressful situations and she was able to think quickly and logically in order to solve unexpected problems. Plotting and characterization were woven together seamlessly. There is also a good degree of character development. The Hunger Games brought out both the best and worst in human nature–and the experience clearly changes Katniss. Perhaps the book does not rise to the standard of some of the character-driven novels of last year, but compared to some other highly praised genre fiction books, I think it is very strong indeed.
While there is some undeniably strong world-building here, some people felt that the world wasn’t sufficiently developed. I heard complaints about how the cameras worked, how the parachutes worked, how the arena was too big, and so forth, but, to my mind, these were niggling problems. And, of course, with CATCHING FIRE they will be non-issues because if we can draw inferences for WHEN YOU REACH ME then we can certainly do it for CATCHING FIRE. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Still, I’d let you argue that THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE UNDERNEATH had more distinguished settings than THE HUNGER GAMES, but I don’t think anything else did–or even came close. THE PORCUPINE YEAR? I’m willing to listen to arguments.
The sentence level writing is certainly undistinguished (not bad necessarily, just not great). Some people found the copyediting exacerbated the problem (although it’s much better in CATCHING FIRE). Then, too, the book is bloated with excess writing. It is a problem that affects too many young adult novels nowadays. The last several books I have reviewed for Horn Book have all suffered from excess writing. I think if these writers would write the same stories in fewer words they wouldn’t have such listless, disinterested readers.
While I do agree that CATCHING FIRE is a richer book thematically, the seeds of those themes are planted in THE HUNGER GAMES and the book’s exploration of political oppression, the manipulation of reality television, and the morbid fascination with violence in popular culture easily places it among the stronger thematic works of last year.
THE HUNGER GAMES was the most distinguished book in terms of plot. It was also distinguished in terms of character, setting, and theme–it certainly ranked in the top five in each of these categories for me. I do agree, however, that the book was merely average in terms of style, not even a top ten book.
I remain frustrated by vague criticisms about the "undistinguished writing" of THE HUNGER GAMES. If you are lumping character, setting, and style into one category–writing–then what exactly makes it undistinguished? I’m still looking for answers to this question: Why is plot the red-headed stepchild of the Newbery criteria?
I’ll turn my attention–finally–to a similar analysis of CATCHING FIRE next time, but I’ll warn you that I do so somewhat half-heartedly. While I thought THE HUNGER GAMES was a strong contender in last year’s Newbery field, I do not think that CATCHING FIRE is as strong in this year’s field. Certainly, the sequel issue complicates that, but so too does the strength in the nonfiction.