The Hunger Games – Before the Rise

It seems that it is ‘Hunger Games’ week.  I find the idea of an HG film vaguely exciting, but being a father of small children, probably won’t make it to the cinema any time soon.  It does occasionally happen, but then I just fall asleep. But I have read the books.

Thanks to a review copy from Amazon Vine many moons ago, I have followed Collins’ trilogy since before it became a phenomenon.  So, to allow me to post something new without doing much work, I shall   take you into the past as I dust off my old reviews.  At the time I posted my first review Amazon was showing less than twenty. Now there are close to 600.   Reading through mine, they still seem pretty accurate; the first novel was good, the second better and the third dire. (Ironically, Mockingjay is the only one of the three that I paid money for).  ‘Catching Fire’ is definitely ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

I have no idea whether I’m right or not, but I stand by my assertion that Collins didn’t originally intend for there to be a trilogy and I think the shambolic final instalment gives this theory some credence.  That said, she has produced a body of work that has swept aside the vampires, and filled bookshops with apocalyptic visions and smouldering unrequited because-we-only-have-fifty-seconds-to-save-the-world relationships, and for that, I thank her.

Battle Royale for the Squeamish – (Posted on Amazon 3rd Feb 2009)

The premise of ‘The Hunger Games’ is almost exactly the same as Koushun Takami’s excellent Battle Royale . i.e. a dystopian future, where the ruling government forces teenage children to fight to the death. Being aimed at a younger market (11+ according to the back cover) ‘The Hunger Games’ is a sanitised version of Takami’s classic; a simpler, less visceral story, with fewer shades of grey (and spatters of blood). The characters in Collins’ story are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there is little or no moral ambiguity. I would hesitate to recommend ‘Battle Royale’ to younger readers, but it is the superior of the two novels. That said, ‘The Hunger Games’ is still riveting and extremely readable .

In addition to Hi-Octane chases, breakneck action and bushcraft lessons, ‘The Hunger Games’ contains some calmer, thought provoking moments. The middle section of the novel is a thinly veiled allegory for the gulf in lifestyle between ‘First’ and ‘Developing’ World countries. The novel’s target audience are offered much to think about regarding the excesses of modern life and the vacuousness of conspicuous consumption.

Somewhat disconcertingly, it turns out that ‘The Hunger Games’ is the first novel in a trilogy. Although the story is more or less self-contained, a window is left open for further books. This feels somewhat forced and stinks of a publisher sensing an opportunity, rather than any real need to continue the story. Mind you, if the quality of writing and excitement generated during the course of this book are anything to go by, Collins’ next instalment should still be a cracker. ‘This Hunger Games’ is first rate teenage fiction, and should captivate even the most reluctant of readers.

A Superior Sequel – Posted on Amazon 26 Aug 2009

If the original Hunger Games novel has a fault, it is that the premise on which it is based is not unique. Koushun Takami got there first with the significantly more complex (and violent) Battle Royale. So was ‘Catching Fire’ able to step out of “Royale’s” shadow? For about nine-tenths of this book, I had thought ‘No!’, but in a scintillating final fifty pages, Collins turns her world on its head and shatters her reader’s preconceptions.

The sequel has the same page-turning qualities as its predecessor, but Katniss, having grown through her experiences in the first novel, now sees the world through older eyes. This gives ‘Catching Fire’ a grittier feel. Collins holds a mirror to First World nations, forcing the reader to ask the question, how different am I to the denizen of ‘The Capitol’? The social comment in this volume is stronger and more subtle than the first.

The action scenes are as exhilarating as ever, though for much of the book, I was disappointed that the author hadn’t been a little braver. It seemed she was content to rehash the first book, rather than take her characters in new, more interesting directions. In the end, my disappointment was premature. The climax to ‘Catching Fire’ is tremendous; action fiction at its best. The final pages reveal a masterful handling of plot, as well as action, and ends on the mother of all cliffhangers. After two excellent books the ‘Hunger Games’ saga is poised for a thrilling conclusion.

Third Helping Left Me Sick (Posted on Amazon 6th September 2010)

I had decided not to leave a review for ‘Mockingjay’ – I figured that such was the quality of the first two books, if you had read them, there was no way you were going to miss out on number three, no matter what sort of reviews it had. Since this page seems to have become a bit of a discussion board for the book, I thought I’d add my two-pen’orth.

After reading the first The Hunger Games novel, I felt that perhaps Collins’ publisher had pushed her into turning what should have been one book into three. I didn’t feel there was anywhere else for the series to go. Despite having essentially the same structure as book 1, book 2 allayed my fears. A strong underlying story seemed to be developing, and it ended with an intriguing cliffhanger. Volume 3 however, has confirmed my suspicions. After such a vital beginning, surely Collins could not have originally envisaged such a garbled and unsatisfactory conclusion?

The problem stems from ‘Mockingjay’ being set in a much wider arena. Collins conveyed the claustrophobia of the arena brilliantly, keeping the tension high at all times. Peculiarly, with Katniss in the outside world, the tension now feels artificial. There are long periods of inactivity, lots of navel-gazing and teenage angst (some might say whining) from Katniss. Then suddenly she is called to another zone, where something dramatic happens. Perhaps because she is not fighting for her life, these sequences lack the drama of the previous two novels. We’ve always known that Katniss will somehow survive, but this time, we know she has to make it to the end of the novel for the big showdown. I couldn’t help wishing Collins would get on with it.

With the first two novels centring around the games, the reader wasn’t asked to suspend their belief too much. Collins gave us a set of rules, and wrote a terrific story within them. The opening out the setting into the wider world, means it needs to stand up to closer scrutiny. The political and geographical system just don’t survive any sort of examination. There is no way an all powerful government would set things up that way. Once you start thinking about Panem too much, the whole premise becomes absurd.

It’s the same case with the city’s defences – it made for great reading, Katniss stalking her prey through the streets of The Capitol, but an it was entirely unrealistic way for a city to defend itself. As for novel’s conclusion, well I don’t want to give too much away, but although powerful, it is extremely disjointed. It feels like Collins bottled writing the ending the novel needed.

The separation of Peeta and Katniss in Mockingjay is a curious decision. The relationship between the two main characters elevated the original novels from good to great. With Gale thrown into the mixture we had a powerful and ambiguous love triangle. We all had our opinions on who Kantiss should be with, and Collins manipulated them expertly. Mockingjay sadly lacks this interaction, pretty much all the way through. Without Peeta, Katniss is diminished; an accurate assessment by the author, but one that spoils her book a little.

All that said, there is still some great writing in here. There are some excellent and tense set pieces, particularly towards the novel’s climax. The author poses questions about how readily the oppressed become the persecutors, in a subtle mirroring of contemporary world politics. Similarly, there is some great analysis of our media soaked lives, and the power of television. Panem is a thinly veiled metaphor for our own world, and anything that prompt questions about its absurdities, can only be a good thing.

So sadly, I was not impressed by ‘Mockingjay’ and feel it to be a sorry conclusion to what should have been an excellent series. In any case, I urge you not to listen to me. Instead, buy the book, read it yourself and make up your own mind!


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