Fierce Nerditude: Why I Don't Like The Hunger Games

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why I Don't Like The Hunger Games

Today, you're getting a Fierce Nerditude first, folks. Vijaya's doing a book critique.

Why? Well, the other day I posted on twitter about not liking the Hunger Games and I was asked by a reader named Cheree whether I might elaborate on the reasons why in blog post form. My answer? "Sure, why not."

Hope you like the post, Cheree. It's nice and long, just like you asked!

So let's start from the beginning; I tend to be very hype averse. I just feel that there is a very strong correlation between a book being popular YA literature and a book being really, really bad. I didn't think that the Hunger Games was going to be bad, though. A friend of mine convinced me that it was well-written, well-thought out and feminist. It's really not any of those things, in my own opinion.

Without further ado, I present to you a list of problems that I have with the Hunger Games.

These issues are arranged in ascending order from the smallest problems to the largest. This isn't a book review, it's a critique. It assumes that you've read it, but I've marked a spoiler for the benefit of the people who have not. It's also written from the perspective of someone who's read the first book but not the second.

1. The world building is slapdash and sloppy.

It really takes a lot of willing suspension of disbelief to figure out how a world can function as it does in the Hunger Games. There are one Capitol and twelve Districts, each District only fulfilling one specific purpose. Perhaps in a more fantastic world, this would be feasible but the things they do all have basis in our reality, like agriculture and coal. Yes, there is only one agricultural district, and apparently they grow everything there... even though not all things can grow all places?

For some reason the people in the Districts are allowed to go to public school. Wow! Free public education for the laborers? That's one heck of an oppressive... wait, what? If you're an avid reader of dystopian fantasy, I know what you're thinking, but no, there's no hint of this education being a farce for brainwashing or indoctrination (in fact, if it were, the book would be more clever--but I'll get to that in number 2). At one point, Katniss even manages to come off as more educated than Effie, a woman educated in the Capitol.

I could go on for pages, folks.

2. The Games make no sense.

Some quick info on the Games: 74 years ago, the Districts tried to break away from the Capitol, and they were defeated. The Hunger Games, to which each District must send two competitors, are 'punishment' for this.

How is this a sensible punishment? You got me.

If anything, murdering two children per year ought to galvanize at least some of the people--survivors of the Games, relatives and friends of children lost in the Games, etc, etc. Suzanne Collins apparently knows very little of human nature, because there is no real force of resistance ever mentioned in the book. Petty rule breaking, sure, but only by the main character and her friend, and even that is only so the author can prove she's a superspeshulawesome hunter.

The Games themselves involve a 24-way death match (two kids from each district go into an established arena to duke it out) and apparently for 74 years, no one has ever tried to stop it. There is some very small compensation; the winning District gets more food for a year, but only that year. It isn't like a District can just win without sacrificing anyone; if that were true, I could see how maybe some people think they can just win and everything will be okay. The Hunger Games are specifically set up so that even when a District wins, at least one of their kids will die.

And people just go with it.

I'm not saying resistances would necessarily be effective, but what the heck would these people have to lose from trying, other than their lives? Surely they've figured out that since the Capitol doesn't produce anything that they can't just squash them all? They may not have weapons, but there are other ways to stick it to the man: C'mon District 11 Agriculture folks, evil oppressors have to eat, too--just stop working and eat what you've grown! They surely can't whip you forever.

I don't even live in this world and it took me all of two minutes of finding out what District 11 does to think of that single simple way of nonviolent resistance. Nevertheless, no small failed attempts at overthrow are mentioned by the character who is supposed to be the exposition for other Districts, Rue. (By the way, I feel like pointing out that the Capitol apparently did destroy all of District 13, the one that produced graphite 74 years ago, but this makes no sense because with no graphite miners where are they getting the graphite that the text says they are turning into diamonds now? It can't be the coal District, as Katniss specifically says that they don't mine graphite in District 12. I'm telling you, Suzanne Collins did not think through her world building.)

In any case, the non-revolting, well-behaved citizenry would make much more sense if they had some reason not to rebel--for example, if most people thought they were living great lives, or if people thought that if they stayed there as quiet, good little citizens under the toe of the boot of ULTIMATE EVIL they might get to live in the Capitol instead. No one thinks this. They're just there, doing as they're told for no reason. The Capitol has a zero percent approval rating in the Districts (even the few who are rich hate them), and I don't know how absolutely no one has tried to overthrow it in 74 years.

Hell, even Katniss is one of the sheeple--I kept waiting for her to do something heroic and subversive, but it never happened. More on this in 7.

The Games are, in short, like a hybrid between Shirley Jackson's The Lottery plus Battle Royale, but the Hunger Games version is a lot less clever (both of the former are worth reading by the way--and please remember that Battle Royale isn't for the faint of heart).

3. Suzanne Collins clearly thinks that research is optional.

Where do I even begin with this one? Firstly, the economy of this fictional world is unsustainable. There's a candy store that no one can afford to buy from in District 12. And a bakery that makes cakes (run by the parents of one of the lead characters, no less).

How? Why? Who is buying from these places? It's stated that the people who own these stores have more money than most folks, but they cannot possibly just be buying from one another--their little businesses would bleed.

I'll rattle off a few problems from the top of my head to make this quick, because (like the first) I could go on for pages.

If you don't eat well during your body tends to use fewer calories to try and save you--this includes having a low metabolism and growth being stunted if you're in your formative years. THAT IS A REAL LIFE FACT. In the Hunger Games verse? An allegedly starving/emaciated twelve year old is said to have been "70 pounds soaking wet." Emaciation and spending her whole childhood starving would've made her much lighter than just under 70 pounds. There is another kid from District 11 who spent childhood starving and is apparently enormous. How on earth would that work, Suzanne Collins? Katniss loses several pounds in the Hunger Games after only a few days (even becoming lighter than she was before the Games started), despite eating a ridiculously large amount of food for someone who is supposed to be a small, thin girl used to starvation. Makes no sense. Katniss also repeatedly kills animals for food without eating every edible part of it. If you're literally starving and don't object to eating animals, why on earth would you be picky about eating a rabbit's eyes or heart or other organs? They're pretty much all edible.

The biggest one for me, though? After winning the Games Katniss complains about having lost so much weight her curves are diminished (context reveals that she means her breasts have gotten smaller). What. The heck. Firstly, starving people don't tend to be stacked--Katniss shouldn't have been "curvy" in any sense of the word. Breasts are mostly made of fat, which, if you're starving, you have none to spare. And it takes one hell of a privileged idiot to be complaining about a lack of boobage when you're supposed to be starved to emaciation. Apparently, to the author, saying that someone has been starved is the same thing as when you or I go "Hey, what's for dinner? I'm starving!"

More random idiocy: Katniss uses a serrated throwing knife... Uh, no.  Katniss is also apparently capable of shooting a squirrel through the eye (and with one-hundred percent accuracy, no less). NONONO. Slingshots are repeatedly mentioned to be useless against big men--for someone so fond of shooting animals through the eye, does she not realize that slingshots can literally put eyes out? Blinding someone is a big advantage.

4. Katniss is not a "survivor," she's a spoiled brat.

Remember the first Harry Potter book? When Hagrid gave Harry that squashed birthday cake, he was so excited just to get something decent to eat?

Katniss? She literally throws cookies out of a train window for no good reason. See, the baker (Peeta's father) gives her a package of cookies just to be supportive. Katniss, being a douche (more on that in 5) tosses them out the window because she thinks that Peeta also being nice to her is just to get in her head.

A person who has nothing does not throw food away. Peeta did not know she did this, the baker didn't know she did this. She did this as a symbolic gesture that no one saw or knew about but her. It was wasteful and made Katniss implausible as a character.

Moreover, in her head she is incredibly snobby toward the residents in the Capitol, which I know is a lofty claim, but please bear with me: Effie is a designated awful person from the beginning--she may have drawn the names and she might happen to be from the Capitol, but she never actually does anything bad. In fact, she's trying to help Peeta or Katniss win the Games from the beginning. When Katniss meets her prep team she's busy thinking condescending things at them, criticizing their looks while they are trying to help her in their way.

On the last count, I will grant that they are all complicit in the Games and possibly worthy of hatred, which is fine. Except then there's Cinna. He's just as complicit except he doesn't have the Capitol accent and doesn't wear a lot of makeup and isn't he just so different and a little mysterious and so she just likes him. So yeah.

Don't get me started about the BS with the Career Tributes. They just come off as the popular kids picking on the geeks--except Katniss is not a sympathetic 'geek' because she's just like them. They're victims, just like her (Hell, they were worse off than her; she's here by bad luck, but them? They were raised as human sacrifices. The implications of this are never explored). They want to win, just like her. They dismiss other competitors as unworthy of notice, just like her. They don't have a huge problem with killing, just like her. More on this last one in 6.

Additionally, her survival skills make me shudder. There is an entire arc where she is searching for water and has an empty bottle with her. She keeps talking about how thirsty she is and it never occurs to her to PEE IN THE BOTTLE AND DRINK IT. It was genuinely painful to read--and it's not that the author is scared to mention urine for fear of offending someone, or something silly like that; Suzanne Collins specifies that Katniss's urine is brown during this section, leaving any reader who's watched a Discovery Channel special screaming at their books in frustration at the allegedly competent heroine's complete idiocy. DRINK YOUR PEE, MORON.

Plus, like I said, she complained about losing a little boob, of all things. Ugh.

5. Katniss is a douche and a horrible judge of character.

Katniss is cruel to Peeta for no reason. If I were put in the Hunger Games, my first thought might be "Hey, other person from my District! I know only one of us can win, but let's team up to try and win it for our families." In the end you might wind up having to kill the other person or you might have to die by their hand, but at least you got something out of it. Katniss thinks it's her against everyone the whole time through. There is no way that's normal. There are two possible outcomes that can benefit her. She doesn't even try to maximize her chances for some form of positive outcome, as we humans mostly tend to do.

Not only is her negative judgment too quick, but she also thinks of people who voluntarily entertain themselves watching the Games as decent people--the interviewer pops to mind. HE'S NOT A GOOD PERSON, KATNISS. Well, he is apparently a good guy in the narrative, but he's complicit in helping people murder kids. I think he's horrid. He even meets and gets to know these kids a little, which might make him one of the most morally horrible people in the story.

One last example of this before I move on: Katniss and Peeta literally have to get into a fight with Haymitch to get him to do his job. Effie was doing her job from the very beginning. Haymitch=sympathetic. Effie=never gets any props. Ever.

6. Goodness, Doctor, is that huge romantic plot tumor operable?

Like most YA, there is a shallow romance that we get beaten over the head with. We have a... we'll call her "strong" for the sake of argument... heroine except she doesn't understand wuv and so a gentler, kinder boy has to teach her to feel. It's like bad fanfic. I swear to you this is literally the romance plot:  she has to pretend to be in love with him and then she ambiguously falls for him, but doesn't understand her feeeeeeelings.

Why do they have to pretend to be a couple? For sponsorships, or something. The narrative insists that this makes sense. I assure you, it really does not.

6. Katniss has no problem with murder.

Self explanatory. Even when she's teamed up with the 12 year old girl, the thought of killing her is only worthy of a passing thought. Katniss never reflects on the nature of murder at length. She is emotionally unscathed by the idea of killing. She kills and that's just fine and dandy. Is this supposed to be someone we can relate to?

But then, nobody gets the privilege of  being more than just a token target for Katniss. They never become humanized to us the audience, or apparently to moral-center-of-the-universe, Katniss, and Katniss never has to deal with getting her hands dirty by killing someone she genuinely likes--the sympathetic characters get taken out by non-sympathetic characters.

Hell, the narrative is on her side with the 'murder's no big deal thing'. Even Peeta, who wants to die "as himself" says he's sure that he'll kill when it comes down to it, but never even thinks about just... not (When he does kill a person, it doesn't even affect him emotionally). Which brings me into 7.

7. It's a whole world of sheeple and Katniss is one of them.

Passive resistance is never considered by anyone. Granted, not everyone will want to do that, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

Various options:

Kill yourself instead of letting them make you fight like to the death--they prevent people from jumping off the roof, but there's all sorts of poison in the Hunger Games, and there are mines to blow yourself up right at the beginning. If you're going to die, do it on your terms, right? {SPOILER: Yes, I'm aware of the ending. It was contrived and stupid--what makes her suddenly so willing to die? Not wanting to kill Peeta? She barely knows him. It's not like she comes to the sudden revelation that she's done terrible things and wants it all to stop; she decides Peeta is so superspeshulawesome she can't kill him. Collins makes a vague reference to some kind of moral stand, but it doesn't come off as one--it comes off as a Deus ex Machina so that they can both live. Going back to her sister was more important than morals before, so why not now?}

Refuse to fight. Find as many of the 24 as you can convince, and just sit down and don't fight. And if you can't, simply choose to be killed rather than to kill your fellows for someone else's entertainment. Katniss says over and over she's probably going to die, but it never occurs to her to do it with some freaking dignity. Instead she does just what the Super Evil Empire wants, and tries, not only to win, but to put on a good show. There really is not a single courageous bone in her body.

Let the people of the Capitol know that this is an atrocity. Not a single person in the interviews burst out crying or told the interviewer that they hated it in the Capitol and just wanted their mother, or something like that. These are children. Cinna's apparently the best person ever, but he can't be the only decent person in the Capitol--decent people don't want to see kids suffer. Who knows, the Capitol might start building a resistance in your favor. Why does everyone (especially Katniss) pretend that the Games are just games? You may not want to subvert the government, but what could they do after the fact, kill you extra hard? (Even if the answer is yes, I would like to think that there are some causes worth dying painfully for, wouldn't you?)

When it comes down to it in the end, the Capitol hasn't proven that it can literally take the tributes' free will, only scare them into submission. Every single competitor is a sheep or a coward, including Peeta and Katniss.

I said earlier that this is like a cross between Battle Royale and The Lottery, but not as clever. See, Battle Royale has diverse characters who respond to the situation in different and interesting ways. The Lottery has people competing in a lottery they don't largely seem to believe is wrong.

It also has a dash of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas thrown in, except that that story is also a million times better. In this entire book, not a single person ever even considers 'walking away.'

8. The characterization is pretty sexist.

Really, it's painful. Katniss is super pretty because she wears very little makeup (she doesn't have to because she's just so darn pretty, gasp!) and Effie and the Capitol's women are horrible because they wear the Capitol's fashions, or whatever.

For some reason Katniss can't look at injuries. This is revealed after she pries a bow out of someone's horrifically disfigured hand, so it's an informed attribute at best and is most likely a way to relegate allegedly masculine traits to characters portrayed as masculine (like Katniss). Which is sexist.

Katniss is good at boy things, so she can't be good at "girl things," too. For contrast we have her feminine sister Prim who is good at healing, but when she's taken hunting insists on trying to heal the animals. Really. She's not a vegetarian who objects to killing animals for food, she's not unaware of where meat comes from, she's just a delicate, idiotic little flower who needs protecting from reality. But she's super tough when it comes to fixing injuries, because everyone must be good at something, right? And she just happens to be girly and do the girl thing meanwhile looking like a dummy with her pacifism (which apparently Collins doesn't like), because girly girls can't be competent. Tomboys are the competent women.

Oh, and everyone loves Prim because she's so sweet and kind.


Katniss is bratty, preoccupied with her appearance, seems to specifically dislike girls more attractive than her... ugh. The treatment of Glimmer by the narrative was outright disgusting--the stylists put her in a sexy, see-through outfit and this is treated like Glimmer using a strategy rather than what it actually is: Glimmer doesn't have a say in what she's wearing, therefore she is being objectified against her will. A feminist narrative should feel for her, not unfairly demonize her.

There are a few fail attempts at feminism that fall horrifically flat. I feel like people suggesting Katniss should get a boob job was one of them, but it's independent, out of left field, and the way the narrative treats women who look less than perfect, the 'message' comes off as weak and hypocritical.

There's more, but I'm scared I'm going to lose you guys with a post this long.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, but there was a lot to criticize. Better than Twilight overall, worse than Harry Potter by a mile. I feel like the story presented so many opportunities for serious moral reflection given Katniss's unique situation, but Katniss is self-centered, spoiled, and cares much less about right and wrong than the average person. She also experiences fewer emotions than the average person. This could have been a very good book, but it was okay. It took less than a day to read, and kept me occupied.

Oh, and there's a shallow romance tacked on. I'm guessing the "Team Peeta/Team Gale" stuff is from later books, because I'm not seeing anything worth being fussed over.

I've also posted about Catching Fire.
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