April 6, 2012

Hungry After the Hunger Games

Just about twenty-four hours ago, I finished reading the Hunger Games books. Each book took me two days to read, spread out over two weeks. Last night, I read the last page, closed the cover, and waited. I sorted out my emotions, went back through the story mentally, and waited some more. Told Jason I had finished the series. He asked “So what’d you think?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m not sure I liked it.” That’s the answer I finally came up with.

I was hesitant to write this post in the face of these books’ enormous popularity. After all the hype I'd heard  about them, I was ready to embrace them, ready to love them. So many of my friends are fans. And yet, I can't say that I love them. I can't say I'd read them again. I don’t want to step on toes here, but I feel strongly enough about this story to share my honest opinion with you.

I liked the first book. I enjoyed the movie, too. A little tough to swallow in places, but an excellent beginning to a larger story. Books 2 and 3? Not quite what I hoped they’d be. Interesting? Yes! Well written? Absolutely. A good story that resonated and inspired me? Weeeelllll . . .

I think what I liked least about the books was the sheer volume of violence. The first book wasn’t too bad, but the author really ramps up the violence in #2 and #3. She invents more and more creative ways to kill people. And they’re always grusome, vivid, and psychologically perverse. If these books are made into movies and continue to stick to the story, they’ll probably be rated R.

At first, I was shocked by the violence. The brutality of it. The senselessness of it. But the “shock and awe” factor soon wore off and I began to wonder why the author needed to tack on so much carnage. Certainly by the time you’re into Catching Fire, you’re already convinced that the Captiol is pure evil. Heck, halfway through the first book, I was ready to launch a rebellion and overthrow the Capitol myself. We’re ready to see the bad guys lose. We’re rooting for the girl and the guy(s). So why the continuous, copious bloodshed? A little goes a long way. Less can actually be more, serving to highlight the evil your protagonist is fighting, instead of bashing readers over the head with it.

That’s how I felt when I finished the book last night. Bashed up. Emotionally gut-punched. In the last chapters, it was like riding one big wave after another. Big bad thing would happen. Character would recover just in time for another big bad thing to happen. Rinse and repeat. And that kind of roller coaster ride leads to another complaint I have about these books: a lack of happy moments.

Throughout most of the books, Katniss is never really happy. At best, she’s grateful for the moments when she doesn’t have to fight for survival (which are few). But she is almost never happy. That presents a problem for the reader because if the protagonist is never happy, what is she fighting for anyway?

Now I don’t want to knock Katniss’ heroism. She fights tooth and nail for the safety of her family and those she cares about. But how much stronger would the story be if the author had written in some happy scenes with those people? Moments that mattered. Moments that made you care about those relationships and to understand why Katniss would fight so hard for them? We barely see her mother or Prim throughout the story. There are some nearly-happy scenes with Gale and Peeta, but they are brief at best and don’t usually end well. The lack of happy moments, and the resulting large amount of difficult, scary, emotional, dangerous moments, is draining after a while. Main characters need a break now and then. To refresh. To remember what’s important. Readers need those breaks, too.

Something else nagged at me as I read. Katniss doesn't really change. She's basically the same character from beginning to middle to end. Perhaps a bit more compassionate. A bit less introverted. But basically the same. And that bothers me, because characters are supposed to change. Look at great stories from the past, the classics, and many best-sellers, and you will see this principle at work: Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. Eregon. The four Pevensie children who visit Narnia. They each undertake a journey that transforms them. If they were cowardly at the beginning, they are brave at the end. If they were selfish, they become generous. Readers look for such transformations, crave them even, because they give us hope. If a character can change for the better, maybe we can too. I wish Hunger Games offered such a transformation for Katniss.

One last note. Somewhere in the pages of The Hunger Games, I became uncomfortably aware of a masterful stroke of genius on the author’s part. By deciding to read the book, I made myself a spectator of the Hunger Games. Cruel and brutal though they were, I read and was entertained. Just like the Capitol's citizens, watching their television screens, waiting to see what happens next. I don’t like this realization, this position the author put me in. I don’t want to identify with the Capitol. And yet, I voluntarily picked up this book and decided to read it. Even though I won’t condone the dystopian government, neither did I stop watching.

I’m not sure what that says about me, or about the millions of other people who are buying and reading these books. Are we bored with happy stories? Are we hungry for something that feels more “real” and less “fairy tale”? Or have we, like the people in the Capitol, acquired an appetite for blood?

What are your thoughts? Are you a fan? If you are, what was it about the books that you liked? What compelled you to keep reading?


LeAnna said...

You brought out some really great points, girl! I guess maybe I read them from a different perspective. I tend to be a "skimmer" when it comes to reading, so I blocked out a lot of the violence. I don't watch violent movies/tv shows, at all. I hate that all we have available are tv series on murder mysteries, and crime scenes. It does seem like the majority of people are so desensitized to blood shed. I think it's been that way for a very long time. The Godless people in the Bible sacrificed their own children to false gods, and much of Israel became vassel nations to the Assyrians who were the most blood thirsty people of all time. And then of course, you have the Roman empire, which the book closely mirrored.

So, that being said, I felt a lot of emotions about the books. I most keenly was aware of the utter lack of God. It reminded me that a world much like was presented in this book, is not that hard to imagine happening. If God's people do not continue to humble themselves and pray, repent and seek His face...life is so dark, desolate, and hopeless without Him. We see that in the lives of those who refuse to trust him, we see people tear one another apart. We see heart and soul destructed in ugly, ugly ways...

Totally agree with you about how Katniss never changed. I did appreciate that love "won" in the end, and that it was an example that real love stands the test of fire, and whatever else is thrown its way. After years of reading Christian romances (where everything is perfect and the men are flawless) I could appreciate the brokeness of Katniss and Peetas relationship.

But, IF those two characters were real, I can tell you that their relationship wasn't all of the sudden a bed of roses. Especially with no faith, and the haunting memories of their experience in the games, they would simply continue to live in misery...

GREAT post! I miss talking with you, it seems like it's been so long. I hope you guys have a wonderful Easter weekend, friend!

Anonymous said...

Hey Nicole,

I agree with your frustration at the lack of character development for Katniss. I too also like to see characters evolve, and I think adding an element of greater compassion or growth to her character would have improved the series tremendously.

As for the violence I think that it was necessary to the story, but that you are also correct in that she probably could have described it in less detail with similar results. After reading the third book I felt much the similar to you, a little beaten up. I remember feeling the very same way, although much worse after reading 1984. But I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. I would consider the book to be a thought provoking book, almost a warning, rather than an emotionally fulfilling book.

Although as a reader it would have been nice for there to have been more happy moments, I actually think the constant lack of safety and reprieve was realistic and reflected a war like situation. One thing I appreciated about the books is that the author wrote in permanent effects on the characters such as brain injury or loss of limbs. So much of the time everything gets a happy resolution, but when you meet people that have been through crisis that is almost never the case. Permanent damage can be lived with, but it is almost always there.

I thought your point of identifying with the capitol was an interesting one and I hadn't completely conceptualized it so succinctly. It is disturbing for the reader to be in that position. However, I think there is something to be taken from that. I think the books are very good at pointing out the manners in which American society resembles ancient Rome and the world which the author created. I appreciated the complexity that the reader can at once hate the capitol and yet identify the same evil within us. For me one of the biggest messages of the books was a warning about human behavior when taken to extremes and how easily any of us can get to one of those if we aren't careful.

On that note, I also think the rebellion was well done in it's own flawed imperfection. A poignant example of what happens to us when we begin to fight for "causes" rather than people and relationships.

Although I liked the books not because they ultimately made me feel good (certainly the last two didn't), but because they made me think, I do agree that further development of characters relationships...pretty much all the relationships is sorely lacking from the series. It does leave Katniss without a motivator and begs the question: what is she fighting for exactly? I suppose it could have been intentional to make the reader ask that question. I think the lack of a motive is somewhat realistic picture of a person in crisis, but the author could have made a powerful example if Katniss had shown better growth out of the mentality.

And even though I did like the books, it doesn't offend me that you didn't :) I certainly understand your rationale.


Nicole said...

Thank you both for your long and thoughtful comments! It's fun to sort of "discuss" the books with other friends who have read them. :)

I agree with you, LeAnna, that the love story between Peeta and Katniss felt realistic. After what they went through in the arena, they formed a bond (as I'm sure it would have in real life) that Gale could never understand or appreciate. That was one of the few things in the book I liked and I CHEERED when they ended up together. :) You're right, their relationship would probably never be easy, but it was based on real, unblinded love for each other.

Heather, thank you for your perspective. I hadn't thought about reading the books as a warning, but that makes so much more sense. :) And I think you're right that the situations of war and crisis were portrayed accurately and realistically. Certainly there would be permanent consequences, permanent disabilities, etc. And yes, fiction does all too often make things just a little rosy. :) I felt these books took it too far in the other direction (made things way too depressing), but perhaps that was the point?

Either way, I'm now fresh out of books to read. Need to find me a new series to sink my teeth into. :) Any suggestions?