Monday 8 October 2012

Not a review of the Hunger Games by Julienne Durber

As the title suggests, this is not a review of the Hunger Games. There are plenty of those about for both the book and the film.  What I'm going to do is look at why I think that the Hunger Games is the first book I've read for Demention that appeals equally to both girls and boys.

But before I start – a warning. This post is packed with spoilers. The Hunger Games is a cracking adventure story full of twists and surprises (careful - that was very nearly a review!) If you haven't read the book or at least seen the film, don't read on. It will spoil it!

I had resisted reading the Hunger Games purely because it was so popular (yes, I am one of those people) but as an aspiring writer of dystopian fiction it was inevitable that I would eventually succumb. So, packing my cynicism away and screwing on my impartial reviewing head, I opened my copy and began.

As this isn't a review, I won't start analysing the plot structure or the initial character development, but I will focus on character. It is a much talked about and usually accurate view in the publishing industry that girls will happily read books where the hero is a boy, but boys are far less likely to read about the adventures of girls (uur! Girlz … bleh! etc.).

This puts writers in an odd position – writing from the heart you might want to tell the story of your heroine, but logically this will reduce your potential audience. So what to do?

What Suzanne Collins does so well in the Hunger Games is to keep Katniss, her heroine, almost entirely neutral. Though there is a romantic thread running throughout the book it only surfaces occasionally, just sticking its head up to remind you that it's there.  Katniss is uncomfortable with her feelings towards both Peeta and Gale, and there is the brilliant device of Hamich's plan to set the couple up as being in love as an excuse for her not to believe that Peeta's feelings are real.

Now from one point of view, Katniss' reluctance to deal with romantic feelings is a sign of vulnerability that readers can identify with, seeing their own timidity in the face of love reflected.  But equally (and the equality is the key) her reluctance can be read as an extremely practical suppressing of feelings in the face of, at the beginning of the book a need to feed her family, and later a need to stay alive!  This interpretation is left entirely up to the reader.
Controversial Opinion destined to offend anyone who is a big fans of the Hunger Games – if Katniss were a boy and Peeta a girl, the fundamental story would remain unchanged!

Don't get me wrong, I think it would diminish the characters immensely. Both Katniss and Peeta would become far more standard, almost stereotypical characters - the emotionally closed off boy, good at hunting, and the girl who is secretly in love with him.

This shows the strength of the gender neutrality of the characters.  The 14 year old boy in me enjoyed the actual games the best, and it didn't matter that Katniss was a girl because she was cool.  Despite her internal doubts, she showed resilience and hero-skills in every set piece encounter most of which wouldn't have seemed out of place in any number of action films.

With every trap, stratagem and reflex decision Katniss made, I found myself reminded of Predator, Rambo (the first one), the Bourne films, James Bond, Mission Impossible, Die Hard – the list goes on.  I'm not holding these up as great films, but from a heart-thumping, popcorn-munching point of view, they are hard to beat.  A central character faced by overwhelming odds having to rely on limited resources and his (her?) initiative and resourcefulness.

And from a more literary side, try Aragorn and Legolas in the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo in the Hobbit, Harry Potter, Charlie Higson's young incarnation of Bond, even a random adventure book I bought in a charity shop (purely for the absurd title) Bloody Passage by Jack Higgins – packed with cliches, two-dimensional characters and predictability, but a thoroughly enjoyable intellect-free indulgence.

But even these set pieces were handled in a neutral way.  Katniss never rejoiced in her kills, never showed satisfaction or even relief in the deaths of others.  I think it would have been as easy for me to empathise with her as a character struggling to retain her own identity and integrity whilst using her hunting skills to stay alive, if it weren't for the excitement of my inner child.

So, is Katniss an action heroine, her decisions uncluttered by emotion, doing what she has to in order to survive and help her those around her despite her inner feelings – understanding that the world is a harsh place and a girl has to do what a girl has to do?


Is she a girl who has had to come to terms with great emotional loss and responsibility far beyond her years, has picked up some useful skills, and is on the cusp of adulthood – a scary swirl of emotions at the best of times?

In my opinion, Collins has walked the fine line between the two superbly, committing to neither one nor the other.  But given how the first book finished (I didn't want to start the second until I'd written this post) I suspect she will be stepping off the line in the second.

To all of you screaming at your screen that I'm just bringing too much fighty-boy baggage and that Katniss is, deep down, a sweet, sensitive soul I have three things to say:

1 – The final berry-related 'screw you' to the Capitol was classic loose cannon, maverick action hero behaviour – and I loved it!

2 – If Katniss was so unsure of her own emotions towards Peeta and Gale, and so unsure about Peeta's real feelings, how could she have functioned so well and for so long selling her contraband at the Hob and to the officials of District 12 without getting constantly ripped off?

3 – Tell me what you think.  Argue.  Agree.  Insult.  Feed back.  This is my opinion and I'd love to hear yours.

And as I like to end on a giveaway, I'll send a Demention bookmark to the first person to draw a convincing parallel between the final showdown in the arena and an early scene in a well-known action film featuring Keanu Reeves and a bus.

All generic royalty free images provided by and manipulated by Julienne


  1. Stephanie Meyer? Suzanne Collins...

    I also loved the Hunger Games, btw, though I've only read Book 1.

    1. oops! - Thanks Nicola now updated. Glad you liked the book, hope you enjoyed the post.

  2. I read the first bit of the Hunger Games on googlebooks. I spent most of it thinking Katniss was a boy (unfortunately, the bit where they mention she's a she was not available!) Of course, had I bought the book with the picture of her on, I would have known she was a girl. BUT, there are covers with Peeta on, too, presumably to appeal to boys. Had I picked up one of those I'd've been incredibly confused to discover she was female!

    Like you said, Katniss is more or less un-gendered and this is both one of the strengths and one of the problems with the novel. On the plus (and it is a MASSIVE plus) Katniss is a perfect of example of how "feminine" qualities (you know, like getting all emotional) aren't intrinsic parts of being female. And the fact that Peeta has qualities we would label "feminine" helps bolster the fact that this was clearly a very deliberate intention of Suzanne Collins's. And an admiral one that I love her for.

    On the flip side, if Katniss could be male and it not change the story in any way, are we really just reading about another male hero?

    1. Thanks CB, that's a great comment. You've made some really interesting points.

      Perhaps Collins is trying to subvert expectations and explore the arbitrary nature of gender-specific qualities, and that's a thing that we need more of in YA fiction. It's clearly the way to get boys to engage with female characters and vice versa.

      And I love your last question! I'd be interested to know how other Demention readers would answer it ;)

  3. I don't see being strong, kick-ass and resilient as male characteristics: Katniss is a brilliant heroINE, and every inch a girl. I love that she sacrifices herself for her sister, and does everything she can to survive - without stopping to swoon at boys along the way. Also I don't see Peeta as passive at all. He plays a clever game to save her.

    Whether or not Suzanne Collins deliberately set out to create a strong main character in Katniss... of course she did. Was it a deliberate machination to widen her reading audience? I doubt it.

    For myself I love the strong teenage characters appearing in recent dystopian novels: I'll admit I also love that most of them are girls. Of course I can't speak for other authors, but there aren't any deliberate gender politics involved in the construction of my characters.

    There is no doubt that most boys will hesitate to be seen with books with covers that are overtly girly - but most boys I've spoken to recent years when I was working in libraries, plus readers of Slated, don't seem to care if the character is female, as long as it is a good story.

    Maybe 14 year olds today are less bothered by these things than they were a few decades ago?

    1. Some great points, Teri. Well done fuelling the debate so eloquently. Hopefully some of our male readers will let us know what they think. Over to you guys ...

  4. Firstly I have to admit I've only seen the film - where I don't think Katniss came over as a full-blown action hero, more as someone caught between a rock and a hard place and finding a way out. There's always been plenty of 'kick-ass' women in fiction from WW2's comic strip Jane - who always seemed to beat up the bad guy while losing most of her clothes! - through The Avengers' Mrs Peel to Lara Croft. I don't think boys would object to reading books with any of those women on the cover!

    1. Thanks Maryom, it's great to see this interpretation of Katniss from the point of view of the film.

      And I'd like to add to your list my favourite butt-kicking female on celluloid, Ellen Ripley - ithout whom the universe would be a much more Alien-y place.