If you read my post from last week, you’d know that I’ve been struggling to read Hunger Games. I was a bit vague on details because I was vague on why I felt such malaise from it. Well, this weekend, I sat down with the mission to complete it, and I did. The good news is that once the story gets moving, it’s a decent book. The bad news is that I have figured out the malaise, and it permeates the entire novel.
The problem surrounds our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Thanks to a series of tragedies in her life, Katniss is an emotionally withdrawn young woman, who views the world around her with a certain disconnect. The only person she has any strong feelings for is her younger sister, Prim, whom she loves unconditionally (which is why she doesn’t hesitate to volunteer to take Prim’s place in the Hunger Games). Otherwise, she has a cold detachment to everything and everybody.
On the surface, it is an interesting decision. Take a cold person, and put her in a situation where detachment helps rather than hinders, and lets watch her grow emotionally as the stakes increase. It’s a good idea for a story, and it plays out pretty well here (if predictably). Everything that Katniss does is pretty believable and stays true to her character. Though I struggled with her initially, I ultimately came to really like her as a character and protagonist. She is a very strong choice.
The problems I have, though, stems from the fact that this story is told entirely from Katniss’s point-of-view. A first-person narrative, everything that happens in this story is colored by the lack-of-emotion that governs everything that Katniss does, and it ruins every effect that Suzanne Collins was trying to find. If I were to use an art metaphor, a good story should be multicolored filled with every brilliant hue of the spectrum; Katniss’s personality makes Hunger Games a shade of grey.
It isn’t that the story becomes boring (far from it), but more that it sucks any of the feeling from the story. We are supposed to feel outrage and fear over the Hunger Games: outrage because how can any society force young people (some barely more than children) to fight to the death purely for amusement? And fear because we are supposed to connect with Katniss and want her (and, to a lesser extent, Peeta—the other entrant from District 12) to survive and come out the other side a better person than she went in, possibly changing the system along the way. But while Katniss hates the system, the stoic way in which she accepts her destiny and probable oncoming death robs us, the readers, from any emotional connection we might want to make with her.
The same impassivity hangs over everything else too. An “us-vs-them” dynamic is setup between the “Careers” (children raised in the rich districts and trained specifically to fight in the Hunger Games) and everybody else, but because Katniss is a loner, we never get to actually spend any time with them and learn to hate them. We’re supposed to just accept that Cato is a jerk who’s had it out for her from the moment they met because she says so and not for any specific reason we’ve seen. Sure, he has his moments of brutality, but there aren’t many of them, and they aren’t directed at her specifically, so why are we supposed to just accept her intuition?
I could harp on some other things, such as the obvious Deus Ex Machina ploy of sponsors being able to get Katniss exactly what she needs exactly when she needs it, or her constant awareness that everything she does is being broadcast on TV and her constant playing along to it. But frankly, those are things I could have lived with if there was any emotion in the story.
For me, Hunger Games would work much better as a third-person narrative. It could be kept close to Katniss, but then there’d be more opportunity to divulge details that Katniss might not be able to notice (people talking behind her back, directed anger, etc.). First-person is a terrific perspective for really connecting with the protagonist on an emotional level, but Katniss is so anti-emotion that those benefits are lost. Even the few times she does show emotion don’t resonate because of how disconnected she is from everybody else.
But pull away from her a little bit, and the opportunity opens up to relate to us the horror of the Hunger Games, the outright oppression from those in charge in the Capitol to those in the Districts, and the unbelievable danger Katniss is in both during and after the Games. It would give us more of an opportunity to connect to this person who is otherwise unconnectable.
Long story short—Katniss Everdeen is a fascinating protagonist, but she is not the person I’d choose to tell her story.