At the risk of mortally offending fans of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” I’m going to introduce “The Hunger Games” as the book that launched a thousand young adult (YA) dystopias. Yes, I’m aware that Lowry’s book came out much earlier and was both a commercial and literary success. However, it came out so much earlier (i.e. 15 years earlier), and without noteworthy copycats. “Hunger Games” was immediately followed by a dystopian YA book and movie blitzkrieg. This might be a trick of timing, but I don’t think one can dismiss the Collin’s story and characters as features that spawned copies meh, bad, and ugly. (Which is to say, those who started their dystopian YA projects after reading “Hunger Games” were probably too late, but similar projects in the pipeline probably benefited enormously.)
I’m not holding all the horrible works of copycats against Collins. I think she made a tight and engaging story of a love triangle meets “The Running Man.” That’s my best summation, but to elaborate: A girl in a burgeoning relationship with a young man from her district is forced into a kill-or-be-killed futuristic version of gladiatorial games, during which she becomes attached to her fellow district tribute under the crucible of combat.
The main characters are suitably likable and flawed. Each of the main characters is in some regards a font of virtue with a tragic weakness. The lead, Katniss Everdeen, sacrifices by volunteering take her little sister’s place in the games, but she also strings along the two love interests and isn’t above the cold calculation that survival requires. Her boyfriend from back home, Gale, turns out to be even more willing to do whatever it takes. The most virtuous of the leading characters, Peeta, may lack a dark side, but he’s also comparatively milquetoast–surviving only through charisma and the kindness of others.
If the leading characters feel true in their complexity, Collins takes a calculated risk by making a host of Capitol characters that are caricatures of humanity. They are over-the-top in their shallowness and narcissism. There are exceptions, but many of these characters seem like the worst of pre-teens trapped in the lives of adults. They are obsessed with meaningless things and are numb to consequences felt by others. I’m not sure why that would appeal to readers of YA fiction, but maybe kids who read look around at the kids that don’t and see people who look a lot like these Capitol caricatures. Mere speculation.
I held off reading this series for a while, but I must admit that I enjoyed all three of the books in the series (to varying degrees.) I’d recommend “The Hunger Games” for anyone who doesn’t get too bummed out by reading dystopian fiction. It’s fast-paced and highly readable.