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The Review Man

Formerly of Goodreads, now of both words, in the coming times only here?

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Margaret Atwood
Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals
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The Salterton Trilogy
Robertson Davies
Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)
Theodor Fontane
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Cases And Materials On The Law Of Torts
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The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset - Suzanne  Collins HERE BE SPOILERS

The Hunger Games is not a great trilogy. The weak ending that everyone pounced on was set up from the beginning. Characterization woes run rampant. The love triangle is a bit cheesy. The plot requires too much suspension of disbelief and many interesting developments are either glossed over or left out of the story completely. But despite these problems, it's a very readable series and it's certainly a lot of fun to follow Katniss on her adventures. I've reviewed each of the books separately, so here I'll focus on the series as a whole.

The first book is the best in the trilogy. (I still have major issues with the Hunger Games' reason for existence, which in turn affects my opinion of the series, but I'll let that slide.) The romance doesn't feel forced, although, ironically enough, it's mostly just a power play by Haymitch. What strikes me most about the first book is its conclusion—it's clearly setting up a sequel. Collins herself has said that she always intended to write a trilogy, so this makes sense. But the first book is too short: just when Collins reaches the climactic Katniss-Peeta confrontation on the train, the novel's already over. Collins uses part of Catching Fire to address this issue, but it makes the first novel seem a bit thin. I would have much preferred an extended conclusion in the first novel, some sort of post-Games contemplative sequence where Katniss slowly realizes what the Games have made her and what Haymitch has experienced. That would encourage a much-needed sense of solidarity between Katniss and Haymitch. As it is, their tenuous relationship doesn't mean much when it's tested in later books. I would have also appreciated a more thoroughly treated Katniss-Peeta conflict—the cliffhanger ending makes for good book sales but provides only surface-level character detail.

Since Catching Fire plays catch-up with The Hunger Games' plot, it takes a while to get going. Some parts of the Victory Tour are worrisome too—Peeta's and Katniss's character motivations are questionable, and it's frustrating to watch Katniss dither over whether she loves or hates Peeta, since the trilogy's endgame is so clearly telegraphed that the reader already knows who Katniss will 'end up with', as it were. President Snow's motivations are easier to understand, on the other hand. He seems to make the best of his situation by ordering the Quell. (Then again, why is Snow is so worried about Katniss as a threat to the Capitol? Surely she isn't the first Games winner to display anti-Capitol tendencies.) Throughout this, it's easy to sympathize with Katniss; after all, the Hunger Games have proven to be a disturbing experience for most of the victors. But from a plot perspective, it's a rehash of the first novel's highlights—Catching Fire falls prey to the 'bigger and better' mantra that plagues so many sequels today. It's also fairly obvious that most of the tributes are somehow working together to save Peeta, even though a few actively try to kill him. At least the design of the Arena is clever and maintains some suspense, one way that Catching Fire trumps The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, Catching Fire's conclusion is no better. There are shades of The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers here (the Han-Leia and Frodo-Sam separations, respectively), and while it's an easy plot device to have Peeta captured by the Capitol, it brings up a problem I'll address later. The Chekov's gun doesn't help things; it's so blatantly obvious that the conclusion can't have surprised many readers.

Mockingjay is a disappointment, as many on Goodreads have rightly pointed out. It's not the love triangle's resolution that bothers me (although I'll get to that); it's that the novel's scope expands considerably but the characters don't grow accordingly. I can believe that Katniss wins the first Hunger Games against a bunch of teenagers, and I can even suspend my disbelief and accept that she survives the Quell against older, more experienced opponents. But when Katniss becomes some sort of rebellion hero, fighting gunmen and taking down fighter jets, I start to wonder whether the book has jumped the proverbial shark. After all, she's only a 17-year-old, and she's been shot and stabbed and beaten up and hit in the head more times than Tintin. And somehow she's part of a crack team with two other 17-year-olds who successfully penetrate the Capitol's defenses and nearly take out Snow singlehandedly? I understand that this is intended to be the climax of Katniss' character arc, but her Mockingjay transition seems meaningless because she has not fundamentally changed. Yes, she has killed human beings and survived two Games. Yes, she has begun to question her motives and her allegiances and her romantic feelings, but she has not yet allowed those doubts to transform her character. In fact, it seems that Katniss has experienced some sort of unconscious character regression—unconscious because Collins' weak writing is more to blame than Katniss herself. Katniss spends most of the book classified as a mentally disoriented patient, and when she's not in such a state, she's fighting her urges to kill Peeta. This is a ridiculous development given both the telegraphed ending and the events of the past two Hunger Games. In short, Katniss' decisions make little sense, and it's not because she's torn between two options; it's because Collins can't finish her character arc satisfactorily.

Speaking of character arcs, Peeta's is just as weak in Mockingjay. Destroying the 'real' Peeta and replacing him with the hijacked 'not-real' Peeta is an interesting play on Collins' part, but it comes at the expense of true character development. (Also, the 'real or not real' theme was cute in the epilogue but pretty cloying elsewhere.) Collins doesn't have to develop the love triangle any further once Peeta's a zombie (as it were), since loving a cold, heartless, cruel assassin is not in a normal person's character. It's an easy way out of completing Peeta's arc and setting up a satisfying conclusion, but since the ending is all but obvious from the start, Collins' move here seems incongruous. It's equally nonsensical to bring unstable, violence-prone Peeta on Katniss' mission—he's really only there because Collins can't dream of ending the trilogy without the three main characters completing their objective as a team. Then again, Peeta's inclusion shouldn't be terribly surprising; Collins seems to have had some trouble with the last chapters. For example, just before Katniss reaches her goal, she blacks out and when she comes to, the war's over. It's a jarring and anti-climactic transition, and I'm surprised Collins' editors didn't do anything about it. It's like watching a movie, missing the last twenty minutes, and then showing up for the credits. It's actually a mistake Collins makes elsewhere in Mockingjay. We're told that war is raging throughout the Districts, but we never really experience the action (besides skirmishes at a hospital and at the Nut, but those are exactly that—skirmishes). Every now and then, Haymitch pops his head in the door and says "by the way, x-many districts have just fallen." What? When? How? This is the sort of detail that a novel of this scope demands, but all we get instead is an implausible story of how Katniss and Co. run through the Capitol, chased by muttations. (And may I add that "muttation" is one of the stupidest words I have ever heard. What was wrong with 'mutations'?) It's a perfect example of the story's scale increasing but the characters failing to grow accordingly. Katniss can fill the Arena, but she's simply not well-developed enough as a character to have any impact in the whole of Panem.

Gale's character arc, however, is perhaps the most troubling of all. Collins has a terrible habit of leaving one boy out of the picture in every book. In the first two books, except for a few flashbacks, Gale is but a distant memory, while Peeta is a physical reality to Katniss. In Mockingjay, Peeta is either imprisoned in the Capitol or in his hospital room. In fact, only for a few moments in the second and third novels do Peeta and Gale ever share the stage with Katniss. This significantly weakens the love triangle, since we miss the romantic and sexual tension that would no doubt ensue. That Katniss and Peeta eventually marry is basically spoiled the minute they are both selected at the Reaping, since Gale drops off the map, and then Peeta and Katniss start (nonsexually) sleeping together. It would be strange for Katniss not to marry the boy who had professed his love for her on national television and had proven it by protecting her—twice—during the Games. Even Gale's part in Prim's death is foreshadowed by his hatred for the Capitol and desire to kill whoever he had to in order to destroy its reign. His insistence to play the wargame using Snow's dirty tactics is the tipping point for Katniss—he does not care for human life as does Peeta. It seems that Gale exists only in The Hunger Games to provide a cheap romantic foil for Peeta; even once the war is over, Gale takes a job in another District, abruptly dropping out of the story. Shouldn't the quality of Gale's character arc be a function of his importance as a character? This leads me to believe that Gale is a secondary figure at best, yet more proof that Katniss and Peeta were set up from the start.

There are other problems with the trilogy, problems besides characterization, weak plotting and inept conclusions to each of the three novels. Suzanne Collins is not a very good writer: the first-person narration tips off the reader that Katniss isn't going to die anytime soon, and Collins also has this weird obsession with characters stripping (count how many characters do it, and how often). Her word choice is basic and unstimulating—the most interesting word I remember? Wherewithal. Furthermore, the themes present in the trilogy work only on a surface level and do not provide much useful subtext or social commentary. Sure, Collins addresses the value of human life and the need for love, independence and interdependence, but since these issues are explicitly written down as Katniss' thoughts (another weakness of the first-person narration), there's not much left for the reader to discover on his/her own. Collins also veers awfully close to emotional manipulation at times, although this might come with the first-person-narrative territory.

There are bright spots, however. Collins manages to ratchet up the suspense throughout the course of each novel (despite faltering at the end) and encourages a good deal of emotional investment in the characters. Katniss and Peeta are a cute couple, something I'm sure will appeal to many young readers. The rising action, usually incited by a plot twist based on a clever, calculated lie, maintains the reader's interest—in fact, I think that the danger of manipulation might be one of the more interesting themes depicted in the trilogy. And despite Collins' difficulties with the pen (or keyboard, I suppose), the story is still entertaining and readable. I finished the entire The Hunger Games trilogy in just under a day and a half, so it's not overly drab stuff.

Many have complained that The Hunger Games is too violent a series for children and young teenagers. I don't share those concerns at all (nothing's really that violent after Goodfellas), but I probably wouldn't let a 9-year-old read the trilogy. Despite this, the series' theme is darker than its execution (no pun intended), and there are only five or six disturbing moments in total, most of them in Mockingjay's final chapters. It is, however, worth noting that throughout the trilogy, war begets war. It seems that Collins does not have much faith in society's attempts to draft peaceful solutions to conflict.

I'd also like to comment on the film version's casting choices. Jennifer Lawrence does not remind me of Katniss, although I can't seem to come up with a better actress. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson seem to be decent choices for Gale and Peeta (and isn't Katniss lucky that the two guys in love with her are both knock-outs?). Woody Harrelson is absolutely perfect for Haymitch. He's a versatile, underrated actor who I imagine is fantastic in the role. (I'll let you know if my suspicions are correct once I see the film.) When I began reading The Hunger Games, I was under the impression that Stanley Tucci plays Cinna, which would have been excellent (especially after his turn in The Devil Wears Prada as a fashionista extraordinaire). Then I discovered that Lenny Kravitz plays Cinna. Slightly disappointing, but Kravitz seems like a nice guy too. It'll be interesting to see who they choose for Coin. Judi Dench seems a bit old for that role now. I hear too that people are raising Cain over the possibility of Robert Pattinson playing Finnick. He wouldn't be horrible, but if Finnick is really one of Panem's hottest guys, perhaps it's time to give Ryan Gosling's agent a call...

2.5 stars.