There is an inherent difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. Anyone that doubts Stephen King’s ability to craft a mesmerizing story and construct almost mythic universes has obviously never picked up The Dark Tower franchise; it is his accessible, every man’s prose that fuels the flames of his detractors (along with his absurdly prolific writing schedule which guarantees not every book will be a winner). At the other end of that spectrum, you have a man like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce who agonize over every word in every sentence of their novels for maximum poetic and intellectual value but whose ability to craft an engaging story is less apparent. I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for his masterful deconstruction of the structure of the novel and his ingenious prose, not for the nearly incomprehensible plot involving potentially non-existent German rocket. Some authors can do both, and they tend to be my favorites like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin (and of course there are those who can do neither like Stephenie Meyer). I just finished the young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (which is about to be adapted into a film starring Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence), and she is assuredly more storyteller than writer. Her prose is almost criminally deficient (though I feel guilty judging her for what is a young adult’s novel), but her pacing and plotting are spot on even if the book bears some remarkable resemblances to the Japanese manga Battle Royale.

Set an indeterminate number of years in America’s future, The Hunger Games is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel of one girl’s will to survive. After a vague cataclysmic event nearly destroyed the nation, an autocratic government formed the nation of Panem in the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the nation has been divided into 12 separate districts. As punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol’s overlords, each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to the Capitol to compete in a bloody battle to the death until there is only one “tribute” left standing. The story is told through the eyes of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a young hunter living in District 12 (Appalachia) who has been forced to take care of her young sister and helpless mother in the many years since her father’s death when she was five. When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the titular Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be the tribute in her place along side the boy that was chosen, a resourecful young man named Peeta Mallark who has always shared an unspoken connection with Katniss since childhood. Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the futuristic capitol (as opposed to the crushing poverty of their home town) to do live, televised battle against the other district’s tributes and see how far each is willing to go to live.

Let me be upfront. Suzanne Collins has an even less impressive mastery of the English language than Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I can think of a more unfortunate thing to say about someone. Something tells me that I’m judging this book far too harshly as it is primarily intended for middle-schoolers and high schoolers but as a grown up reading it and trying to figure out what all the fuss has been about this last year or so, it’s really unfortunate. The book is told through very bland first person perspective in an almost constant mono-syllabic drone of cut and dry descriptions. There’s no poetry to the way she arranges her sentences, and there isn’t even some of the wit or self-effacing humor that makes less prosaically impressive authors like Stephen King more acceptable. Had her storytelling not been so impressive (at least until the novel’s last 100 pages or so which are over-reliant on some questionable deus ex machina), her writing style would have been completely unacceptable and I would have simply been unable to explain the book’s success. However, I feel like being a young adult novel isn’t enough of an excuse to forgive the amateur writing as J. R. R. Tolkien considered The Hobbit a children’s story as did C. S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia and they are still engaging reads (though Narnia‘s overt religious undertones make me more uncomfortable now then they did as a child).

Fortunately, for Collins, she is an exciting and action-packed storyteller. The novel comes off as a cross between Battle Royale and the film adaptation of The Running Man but with a modern and youthful slant. The novel isn’t afraid to display occasionally shocking incidents of gruesome violence, and Collins’ decision to include such subject matter as the violent deaths of children makes her childish writing more of a problem. Supporting character Peeta Mellark is a fun and engaging hero, and the increasingly deep layers of his character consistently make him more interesting than the more conventional action girl that is Katniss. By no means is she boring (she runs circles around Bella Swan or Sookie Stackhouse) but she experiences very little in the way of growth over the course of the novel, even when the situation she’s been thrust into would cause anyone to undergo horrific transformations. Also, the novel isn’t afraid to deal with some morally ambiguous grey areas and forces its heroes to do some awful things in order to survive. It presents several different ethical conundrums and while they aren’t necessarily the deepest issues on the planet, their presence at least shows that Collins wishes her book to be a little bit more than a violent science fiction adventure story.

There are very few opportunities where I will say I am more excited for a movie than I am about the book, but the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games will be one of those moments. Free from Suzanne Collins stilted prose, her wonderfully evocative world should translate to a colorful and distinctly visual film experience. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is starring as Katniss and if that wasn’t an inspired casting decision, I don’t know what is. Ever since she completely stunned me with her break through performance in Winter’s Bone, I have pegged her as one of the most talented and promising young actresses today. If she continues to make smart career decisions, the sky is truly the limit for someone with as much talent as her. She seems like a perfect fit for a tough role like Katniss, and I’m very excited to see a version of this story that isn’t held back by weak writing in the technical sense of the word (Woody Harrelson should be a treat as the loutish Haymitch, the drunk mentor of Katniss and Peeta). All in all, if you enjoy young adult fiction, you may appreciate this tale. I know I’m going to end up reading the two other books in the trilogy. However, for everyone else, you should wait for the movie because I would willing to bet a not insignificant sum of money that it will be a more entertaining product and I almost never like the movie more than the book.

Final Score: B-

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