So, I suspect I’m the last person able to read above a second-grade level to actually read it, but last night I finished reading Hunger Games. As I suspect most people have already formed their opinions of the novel, I’m not going to bother with a review.
I will say that overall, I enjoyed it. It took me less than a week to read, which isn’t the easiest thing for me to accomplish. The plot engaged me, I found Katniss both flawed and likable, and the setting felt appropriately immersive. I’ve already started book 2 (though I suspect I won’t be rushing quite as much). I wasn’t blown away by the novel, but I suspect that’s more the Ender Effect – so many people had recommended it to me, that there was no way it could live up to the hype. Still, I greatly enjoyed it and I’m hungering (heh) to finish Catching Fire before the movie comes out.
Especially in the beginning of the book, I kept wondering how the heck the novel made it through the submissions process. Had I not already seen the movie or heard the good reviews from people I trust, I probably would have stopped before the good stuff hit. Let me explain a few of the things that bothered me.
Perhaps most egregious problem I saw was the method of exposition. Anytime the author recognized she had to explain something to the audience, rather than find a way to fold the explanation into the narrative or use context to provide exposition, she has Katniss directly tell the reader what’s happening.
I understand that a lot of the people who read the book don’t think the way I do (probably a good thing), but every time Katniss explained something, it threw me out of the story. Who is she explaining it to? For instance, when she first encounters the tracker jackers (genetically modified wasps), the narrative screeches to a halt so Katniss can tell us what these insects are and why they’re a threat. I get that Collins had to tell the reader what the creatures are, but her method irked me. Katniss would not stop in the middle of the arena to remind herself how dangerous they are, so why does her inner monologue – the text of the book – have to stop?
In a very related way, Katniss explains backstory in depth as it comes up. For instance, we find out very early in the novel about Peeta helping Katniss several years earlier by giving her bread. It is a touching story, but it stops the narrative in its tracks as Katniss tells the reader everything. Again, who would Katniss do that? In my opinion, the movie handled that particular plot element much better than the book by showing a quick image early on, and revealing the significance of the image as the narrative went on.
For rules of exposition, giving both backstory for characters and setting, The Hunger Games breaks pretty much every rule I’ve been taught. I know, I know, every rule is meant to be broken, but it needs to be broken in a way better than what Collins does here.
I think every novelist struggles a bit with making the set-up pages and chapters interesting. Until the inciting incident hits, it’s easy to lose the interest of the audience. Collins, though, fails miserably here. She shows us a good relationship between Katniss and Gale. However, compared to the crisp prose and driving plot of later in the novel, the beginning is… boring. When submitting a novel, an author will usually send the first chapter, perhaps two. Really, though, editors focus on the first five hundred words. If you can’t hook a reader by the first five hundred words, they’re less likely to buy the book. So why publish something a reader is likely to put back on the shelf? And in that case… let’s see here. The opening scene: Katniss wakes up and talks about her sister’s cat.
And so The Hunger Games puzzles me. I understand why it’s well regarded; again, I enjoyed the novel immensely. Yet, these issues of badly-executed exposition and slow beginning make me wonder how the thing got through the submissions process. Did Collins hold an editor’s child hostage until they agreed to release the book? Well, nothing that dramatic. A friend pointed out that Collins had worked for Scholastic previously. She had friends there by this point, which I’m sure smoothed out the editing process. Well, maybe, anyway.
It also makes me look at my novels that I’m shopping around. In the submissions process, as I said, you usually only send in your first chapter, maybe two. You don’t have time to delve into massive set-up. Of course, one easy out is starting in media res, but that doesn’t always work. Collins could have done that in Hunger Games, but I feel that would have lost a lot of the personal connection. Maybe Collins didn’t make the sale on the quality of her first chapters, but the weight of the story outline, another common part of the submission process? Or was her pitch just that strong?
I’m not entirely sure. I do know I enjoyed the book. Perhaps I’m just more nitpicky since I’m paying so much attention to the craft of my own novels.
We’ll see if book two suffers from the same problems of exposition and slow beginning.