I try to keep up with what is 'hot' but since the quality generally doesn't live up to the hype, I've developed a sort of aversion to anything that gets popular accolades or a movie deal. I sometimes think that popularity itself is what does a series in, because the fan base becomes so big as to be certainly unpleasable, and in an effort to please mostof them, the books just die on the vine with later editions not living up to the original promise (or premise). Other times, however, something mediocre launches into popularity -- because it brings a new idea to the table or it has a few moments of charm that really, really shine. Sometimes I can see through the mundane and enjoy those moments, and I was hoping 'The Hunger Games" would fall into that category.
In this post, I talk about how authors writing for Young Adult audiences are forced, either by their own conceptions of what is selling or their publishers, to play 'plot bingo' at the expense of the actual story they want to tell. In my opinion,"The Hunger Games" shows signs of having played the game, and not played the game at the same time. Katniss, as described in the books, is pretty unsexy. She has suffered from life-long poor nutrition, which is going to affect her skin, her hair and her teeth. It's also rendered her childlike in appearance (and it seems likely since she is described as having almost no breast development, showing ribs and an overall scrawniness, she is also not as sexually mature as a 14 year old in our own time.) Her mental development, however, is on par with someone in college. That makes sense because her father's death has forced her to grow up very fast. Despite these characteristics, she's the focus of a love triangle -- the biggest element on the plot bingo card I described. Furthermore, she becomes an object of longing and admiration after a brief public appearance. She is desired by many. She is the white knight. While Katniss doesn't have a pet homosexual best friend to get her dressed, her stylist Cinna provides some of that angle, and the story between Katniss and Rue is given a veneer of budding sexuality. Which is kind of icky in context since they are both very young and under-developed. As I read the book, I could mentally tick elements off the plot bingo card and easily recognized elements that were substitutions.
(I'm not saying that individually these plot elements are bad. Just like with Mary Sues, it's the whole package that is the real problem.)
Fortunately for "The Hunger Games", when I put aside the plot elements that seemed awkwardly inserted, or particularly out-of-place, the book still had a story and recognizable plot. It hadn't been completely gutted in an attempt to fill out the bingo card. In the same breath that I say the plot still holds water I have to also say that the leftover plot doesn't have a lot of substance keeping afloat. Exposition about how the United States ended up becoming Panem is sorely lacking. Somehow, the games keep the districts in their place by showing the Capitol's strength. A bit of explanation of how that was supposed work would have been good because, as is, it makes no sense to me. (The book tries to say that this is to keep the parents in line, but historically speaking this tactic of killing children hasn't worked, so I don't know why it would magically work in this universe.) I can't imagine watching children slaughter each other as entertainment in any day and age. Even the bloody sports of the past were rarely fatal like this. The fact that they could be fatal was part of the rush, but gladiators had careers and retired. Death was not the only option, and gladiators were adults. Katniss and the other tributes that aren't 'careers' have only a few weeks of training. There is no way, in my mind, that this would give them the skills to be interesting on camera and provide a few weeks of entertainment.
I guess that's the second idea I can't choke down. (The first being Katniss as this object of intense desire by anyone other than Gale. Just don't see it.) This idea that the games are somehow entertainment to the citizens of the Capitol is beyond me. No matter how debauched they are, no matter how over-indulged they are, no matter how cold and detached they may be due to a life without any pain, darkness or deprivation, no one watches children killing each other with rapt interest like this. No matter how deep the current obsession with increasingly dark reality televisions shows goes, I don't think it could hit this kind of rock bottom. It makes the characters of the Capitol utterly despicable and foreign to the point they are more baffling than villainous.
Katniss is presented as fairly likable early in the book -- taking care of her family, caring about her fate. Very realistic, but as the book goes on I feel like I understood her motivations less, and less, and less. Originally compelling, she lost appeal. If she is a reader substitute, then I feel like she really should have encountered her break point, because I think in the same situation, we would probably break at the idea of killing someone that was our enemy simply because someone else had declared it so. Having grown up in Panem isn't really an excuse for her callous/emotionless response to everything that happens to her. She responds more to her 'flames' dress than anything else in the book. It's the first and last time I think she shows emotion. Even the scene where Katniss volunteers in Prim's place doesn't carry as much emotional force as Katniss giggling at her pretty reflection. To be fair, maybe that's because it's the first time she's really been happy in years, no matter how temporary. It's supposed to be a hope spot for both Katniss and the reader, but I have to admit that if I was going into an arena, to kill someone I knew and held nothing against, I would not give two shits about my clothes. Not even two microshits.
I can't get into Katniss's head, at all. That's sort of the final choke for me. And if I hadn't completely given up trying to swallow the first book, the end, the non-finish would have killed off any remaining desire to keep on with the series. I barely gave the venerable Jim Butcher a pass on killing Harry Dreseden in "Changes" and leaving us with a cliff-hanger. I'm not going to give anyone a pass when the cliffhanger is the end of the first book. All in all, "The Hunger Games" unfortunately reinforces my aversion to the 'hot' best-sellers due to an unsophisticated plot, poor exposition and a merely lukewarm main character.
(Would someone please explain to me why the last book of a series keeps getting chopped into two movies whether or not the plot is thick enough to support both movies? I find this a very unpleasant trend.)