The Hunger Games is a 2008 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the first in a trilogy. In a post-apocalyptic dystopian totalitarian state, children are selected to fight to the death on live television.
This is hardly an original idea; it’s most strongly reminiscent of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and, to a lesser extent, Stephen King’s The Long Walk and The Running Man (the movie more so than the novella). Yet Collins manages to keep the setting and the games themselves reasonably fresh. And, after something of a slow start, the book becomes an entertaining, page-turning affair.
Like far too many recent young-adult novels, The Hunger Games is written in the first-person present tense. I don’t know if this is an attempt to engage teens perceived to have short attention spans or what, but it’s obnoxious, and it provides no benefit over conventional past tense (one eventually gets used to it, fortunately).
Aside from this, Collins’ writing is solid (although the copy editing on this book is rather poor – not her fault). Katniss is a satisfactorily sympathetic character: she’s impulsive but self-sacrificing, and clever, resourceful, and self-sufficient without being deal-breakingly sassy or annoying. The book has a couple of convenient plot coincidences, but nothing unforgivable.
As young-adult books go, The Hunger Games might be as dark and violent as they come. And the novel stumbles here because it doesn’t seem to have much to say about its subject matter (beyond “the government making kids kill each other is bad”). The protagonist is forced to kill other children to survive (most of them, like her, are in this situation through no fault of their own) – you would think that this scenario would lend itself to some psychological self-exploration, but Collins punts on this issue, as Katniss, with only superficial reflection, is implausibly businesslike on the subject – she never thinks much about the people she’s killed, even during her many quiet times. This suggests a disturbing degree of amorality. It’s as though all these kids get dumped into the arena already in full-on Lord of the Flies mode. Collins herself seems much more interested in 1984-style criticism of totalitarian government, which is the subject she’s set herself up to address in the sequel. All of this may put off certain readers, and not unreasonably. In short, Collins’ treatment of moral issues is a legitimate concern, and a missed opportunity – her scenario, unlike, say, The Running Man, doesn’t lend itself well to action movie-style morality.
On the whole, The Hunger Games, while hardly a perfect book, is suspenseful and entertaining, which always overcomes a lot of flaws. It’s recommended to readers who like this sort of thing – if you can acknowledge the moral issues.