Hunger Games. That's all I ever hear about whenever the talk comes around to the new "it" in YA fiction. It's like the Twilight series, but good. It tackles all these great themes. It's got a kickass premise. Hollywood's banking on it being the next big thing, too, gearing up for the first film in a projected four-part series (never mind there are only three books - if Harry Potter and Twilight can do it...) adapted by Gary Ross (PLEASANTVILLE, SEABISCUIT) and starring Jennifer Lawrence (the awesome WINTER'S BONE and the out now X-MEN: FIRST CLASS). I'm admittedly not a huge reader of YA fiction, especially fiction that's specifically marketed as YA fiction - it seems like a silly label, often doing more harm than good by all too often equating "Young Adult" with "easy to read" and "franchise-able" (obviously this isn't always the case - I've read some excellent fiction geared toward younger readers - but next time you're at a bookstore take a look at the YA section and look at how much of it all seems the same, and not in a good way).
Point being, after being deluged with Hunger Games Mania, I picked up the trilogy and checked it out.
The books, comprised of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay and written by Suzanne Collins, take place in a future America where a war against the Capitol ends with the devastation of District 13 and the remaining 12 districts held at poverty level, their various industries feeding the rich Capitol who reminds them of their debt and defeat each year by holding the Hunger Games: a televised contest where two children from each district - one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 - are held captive in a massive outdoor arena, where they must fight to the death, with the winner receiving extra portions of food and goods for their district. Young, willful Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her young sister when her name is drawn for the next Hunger games, and the trilogy follows her adventures as she plays in the Hunger Games, becoming a symbol of rebellion in the process.
The concept of The Hunger Games is very reminiscent of Koushun Takami's novel Battle Royale (which if you've never read I highly recommend), which itself was made into a successful film and manga series in Japan. In the first book Collins sets up an interesting world, making sure the reality of the characters feels grounded. The books aren't afraid to shy away from the action, and the majority of the characters are vibrantly fleshed out, allowing them to live and breathe on their own without having to (too much) sacrifice for the story.
Unfortunately that doesn't go for Katniss herself, who all too often falls into her role just because - there's not a lot of thought in her actions, except to pine over solitary hunter Gale and simple baker Peeta, who is thrown into the Hunger Games with her. This isn't too apparent in the first book, but by books 2 and 3 I was left wondering what all the fuss over Katniss was about: she never had a real motive or desire to do anything, and often comes across as selfish and self absorbed, whereas the people around her - drunken mentor Haymich Abernathy, fellow contestant Finnick Odair, and my personal favorite person in the series, the brilliant fashion designer Cinna - all feel more fleshed out and genuine than Katniss ever does. With Katniss it's all broad strokes, surface level pining and anger, without any real substance for a reader to hold on to.
This lack of substance is evident in the issues the novels present as well. There's a lot that can be addressed in a story of revolution, of choosing to kill or save someone at the cost of your own life, or the life of those you love, of the chains that keep people in their place and what it means to rise up and break free. However, Collins never goes beyond the bare minimum to keep the story moving, which although makes for a brisk, fast-paced read, leaves little to ponder when all is said and done. This comes across the most in the final book Mockingjay, where who sections are glossed over with a quick sentence to keep things under a certain page length (I'm guessing here - no idea).
I understand a lot of people love these books, and I can see why: the story moves fast, there's a ton of action, and it has a real visual sense. I guess my disappointment comes from the fact that after a while it just feels like it's coasting on its good will, and gets lazy when it comes time to really question things that happen in the book.
Oh well...I have high hopes for Gary Ross and the movie adaptation. In the meantime, give me Battle Royale, or better yet: Lord of the Flies, which I had to read as a kid (making it a YA book in my mind), and to which The Hunger Games also owed a debt of gratitude in a way.