It's extremely difficult for me to read something these days and not pick it apart. So I'm going to write this review in reverse -- offer up my final assessment, then get into the gritty details. That way, if you just want to know whether or not to read this book, you can have your answer right away.
Also, please be advised this is a review of the book, not the movie.
So, should you read The Hunger Games? Yeah. It's not terribly long (my edition has 374 pages with fairly wide line spacing), and it's actually fairly engrossing. I spent 2 or 3 hours finishing it without realizing how much time had gone by. I had a good guess about one character's outcome (seeing as there are sequels) but as to the rest, I didn't know how it would end, and I wanted to find out. I found Katniss to be a compelling character, and I cared about what happened to her.
Should you let your kids read this? I'm not the best judge of that. Despite the premise (that 24 kids have to fight each other to the death, with only one surviving), there's not much in the way of violence. When there is death, you know that it has happened, but the detail isn't too graphic. Perhaps there's more death than in, say, the Harry Potter books, but those -- especially the later ones -- were equally grim in outlook and lots of parents found those appropriate reading material for their children.
Do adults want to read this? I mean, it is considered YA fiction (The Hunger Games is put out by Scholastic Press). I, personally, read YA fantasy periodically, so it's not too much of a stretch for me to pick these books up (there are two sequels if you are one of those people living a rock who didn't already know that). If you hate YA fiction, this may not be for you. But the narrative is interesting enough to keep adult interest, if you're willing to use me as a guide. (Check out some of my other reviews to get a sense of my preferences.)
To preview the rest of this review, I'm going to touch on language and style, then get right into the science.
First, language and style. This book is written in the present tense, with flashbacks in past tense. I am expressing a personal bias when I say this, but I HATE reading fiction that's written in the present tense. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I can't really explain why, other than to say that it's unusual enough that whenever I see someone trying to write in present tense, I feel like they're trying to be edgy or something, and it's just not working. Most fiction is in past tense and that is how I'm used to reading it. Also, the transitions between present and past tense are kind of jarring, to me. I kept looking for Suzanne Collins (the author...I don't think I've mentioned her name yet) to slip up and use past tense when she meant to use present tense, etc. To her credit, I didn't notice any. That's not to say that there weren't any there, but if there were, I read right through them.
Not much stood out to me when it came to the language, other than a misused "who" when "whom" was meant. (As my boyfriend pointed out to me, most people are entirely consistent on their use of "who" and "whom" -- they never use "whom" at all. And they're wrong. But I digress.)
Sometimes the detail was a little excessive. I mention this because since this book is written from a first-person perspective, it should really be the character who is telling the story, and occasionally it didn't feel that way. Early on, Katniss says something about her "long, dark braid." People just don't describe themselves this way. (Authors who have developed pictures of characters in their minds, might.) Let me give you an example. I work in a chemistry lab, because I'm a graduate student in chemistry. Sometimes my hair gets in the way. Did I say "sometimes my waist-length black hair gets in the way?" No, I didn't. (And yes, I do have waist-length black hair.) Because it's my hair, I deal with it every day, and once I got used to the color after dyeing it some 18 years ago, I stopped obsessing over it. But I don't really need to go on here, I think you get the point.
And now, the part I've been waiting for -- the science. Which is not at all strong in this book. In fact, the science is probably the biggest weakness. (I'm going to include social science here in addition to biology.) The fact that the science is bad may not mean a whole lot to the non-specialist, but I have degrees in government, biology, and chemistry, and so I have a lot to say.
First of all, the social science. This is sort of a catch-all term I'll use for politics, sociology, economics, etc. The society that's been set up is profoundly unrealistic. A central district called "Capitol" serves as the center of government for twelve other districts known only by numbers. Each district is known for something. District 12, where Katniss is from, does coal mining. This is not much of a stretch, as we're told the region used to be known as Appalachia. Different districts are known for different things. This could be a classic case of comparative advantage. Except that Suzanne Collins has absolutely no academic background in economics or political science, if you look at the information on her Wikipedia page. (She's studied things like theater, communications, and writing.) It's not so bad for District 12, but one of the other districts (11 maybe?) specializes in agriculture. While it's never explicitly stated, it sounds as if this district is supposed to supply food to the entire country. Which doesn't seem realistic to me. (In the next book we learn that seafood comes from another district, so maybe it's more spread around than it seems, but that is absolutely not expressed in volume 1.) Especially since, while Katniss poaches regularly, other districts have much stricter rules, and people don't poach to supplement their meager food rations.
Why isn't this realistic? First, different geographical regions are going to have different growing seasons. And different capabilities in the first place. The desert Southwest isn't going to be good at agriculture, period. Minnesota is going to have too short of a growing season for a lot of crops. Other places are going to have difficulties with specific crops (wheat, citrus, etc.). You can't (or shouldn't, anyway) concentrate all your agriculture in one area, anyway. What if there's a natural disaster that wipes out all the crops? The people of Panem (the country in which the story takes place) seem to be no strangers to natural disasters. If you grow all your food in one place, and it's wiped out, everyone starves. If you grow your food in a lot of places, you get more variety, and if one area is devastated, the other areas can fill in the gaps. Second, I just don't think it's enough. One district supplying all the grain for the whole country? When all another one makes is electronics? I'm not saying all electronics production has to be spread out; that actually can be concentrated. In a way that food production can't be. (There are no spoilage issues with electronics. You can transport them halfway across the globe if you want. This doesn't work as well with fruits and vegetables, for example.)
Another issue I have is with the sizes of the districts. This could be geographical size, or population size, or both. I'm never clear on how big the populations of these places are. Let's assume, for a moment, that war and natural disasters and diseases have claimed a large portion of the population, and even that some land has been swallowed up by the sea due to global warming. This shrinks the size of the country, but not by nearly enough. It's patently unclear how big the districts are, though we get some sense that they have different populations. Katniss's district seems small enough to be a small town. It feels as if she knows everyone in it, even if that wasn't Collins's intent. It's small enough that on Reaping Day (when tributes for the Hunger Games are chosen), every single inhabitant can show up in the same town square. So I'm guessing this is not 1/12 of the population of all of the districts, that District 12 is smaller than the rest. But it's really hard to say, based on the information we're actually given. I'm not sure that Collins thought this out, and if she did, it just didn't make it into the final draft...
Perhaps more realistic is the decadence of the residents of Capitol in comparison to the difficult lives of those in the districts. We've seen plenty of dictatorships fall and/or experience rebellions in the past year (in real life), and after the fact, we hear about all kinds of excesses from those close to the top, contrasted with the poverty and deprivation of all the rest. Even so, I'm not sure I buy the details. Showers with dozens of buttons that circulate all sorts of oils and soaps and water temperatures in Capitol, and taking baths with water heated on a stove in District 12. Food at the press of a button, Star Trek-style, in Capitol, and people starving to death in District 12. Medical procedures that can remove every scar from your body in Capitol, and people relying on herbalists in District 12. Usually when people heat water on stoves, starve to death, and go to herbalists, they don't also have electricity. But everyone, in all the districts, has television. (Few, by contrast, have telephones. Never mind that the telephone was invented long before television. And rotary phones don't even require electricity to run, whereas TVs certainly do.) Electricity is not always reliable in the districts (it is in Capitol) except during the Hunger Games, which everyone is REQUIRED to watch. Contrast this with real-life countries that have state television and not much else. If you want to watch television, state TV may be the only choice, but you don't have to watch television. You can do something else.
Long story short: in an attempt to set the stage for rebellion in future books, Collins may have gone overboard with the dichotomy between the lifestyle of Capitol's residents and that of everyone else.
By the way, it sounds as if only white people survived the apocalypse/downfall of civilization/war/famine/etc. While Katniss has dark hair and skin of a certain color, I don't believe any of the characters were African-American, Latino, Asian-American, or members of any other ethnic group. I'm not saying there would be a large minority population, but surely SOME ethnic minorities would have survived the wreckage of the USA. (In a fictional land, this wouldn't be an issue. You can make the racial makeup whatever you want. But remember the far future of Who Fears Death? The setting was Sudan and there were people who were clearly black Africans, Arab Africans, and a few who had one parent from each of those groups.)
And now, the life sciences.
Ecology-wise, the animals and plants in District 12 are not so out of the ordinary. I even looked it up, and it's possible for blackberries and strawberries to be in season at the same time (though usually blackberries peak a little later). I had to check because Katniss and Gale eat blackberries on a day they pick strawberries. (Katniss plants are real, by the way. Nightlock berries are not. Check out this list of fictional toxins.) There are turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and deer, all of which are ubiquitous in large swaths of the country. One issue I might raise is with a lynx that Katniss describes as having killed; she's probably located too far south for the Canada lynx, especially if there was any type of global warming that had occurred (assuming somewhere West Virginia-like for her part of Appalachia). Calling it a bobcat (which is a related species with a more appropriate geographical range) would probably have been a better choice. (Other lynx species only exist in Europe.)
DNA and genetic engineering are the biggest problems, here. There are three different "muttations" described. These are genetically-engineered species and none of them could ever exist without magic. This is coming from a biochemist (me), mind you. The tracker jackers are wasplike organisms and they would be the most realistic of the muttations except that their venom causes hallucinations. Well, that and the actual behaviors associated with them (e.g. following people like a swarm of cartoon-style bees).
Then there are the jabberjays. They are some species of bird that can remember and repeat back entire human conversations. Which is silly, in itself. Why not just plant bugs? If you've got all the technology to genetically engineer entirely new species with all these wacky traits, surely you can conceal a recording device. (Don't forget that President Snow knows about Katniss having kissed Gale, even though no one was around. Or the lack of obvious cameras in the Hunger Games arena -- yet somehow, every moment is caught on tape for posterity.) The real problem I have here is the cross breeding of jabberjays (presumably actual jays, from family Corvidae) with mockingbirds (from family Mimidae) to create the mockingjays. These species are too biologically distant to cross breed. Suzanne Collins, do not pass go. Please proceed directly to Wikipedia and review the biological species concept.
Note: this paragraph was added several days after I wrote the initial review, but prior to posting. I finished Catching Fire last night and Peeta says something near the end that suggests the topic of the rant that follows may not be precisely what it seemed in the first book -- he says that the muttations didn't actually have the eyes of the other contestants. You could interpret this in two ways: (1) Collins never intended the mutts to be genetically engineered hybrids of the children and dogs (or whatever); in this case, the point did NOT get across in The Hunger Games or (2) someone told Collins after the fact that the muttations were stupid and/or impossible and she put this qualifier in the next book to cover her butt.
Moving on to the muttations that come after Katniss, Peeta, and the last kid who dies (forget his name). They are cross-breeds of some type of dog with each of the fallen contestants. Oh, where to begin. Let's assume the people running the games didn't know who the last three contestants were going to be. Let's assume they took DNA from all the contestants, and only released the muttations they made from the dead children and teenagers. If it was even possible to mix two species with completely different numbers of chromosomes (dog species have 78, humans 46), there just wasn't a lot of time between the reaping and the end of the games. Humans have a 9 month gestation period, dogs a little over 2 months. So let's assume DNA was collected from every tribute immediately, and immediately sent to a lab in Capitol. Let's assume it was manipulated to cross it with some breed of dog or something along those lines, and that all the embryos lived (which is absolutely not a guarantee -- even cloning, without genetic manipulation, has a low success rate). Let's assume there was some host mother these could be implanted in, where there wouldn't be rejection of the embryo and miscarriage from strange antigens coming from a hybrid embryo/fetus. Let's assume we're closer to a dog's gestation period, than a human's.
So that's at least six assumptions and a minimum of 10 weeks from DNA collection to full-term pregnancies in the host organism. Now, have you ever SEEN a newborn puppy? Cute, but not the least bit threatening. A large-breed puppy at two months is cuddly and utterly dependent. I've had my Rottweiler since she was that age, and she didn't hit her full size until a year and a half after birth. Humans take much, much longer. So even allowing for all six assumptions outlined in the previous paragraph, and they are pretty much all stretches except for perhaps the collection of DNA, we're at like one and a half to two years from the collection of DNA to organisms large enough and with enough training to do what these doglike muttations did.
You may be wondering why I've included so many links to Wikipedia here. It's because the research was simply not done by Collins. And it doesn't even require effort, really. I found all those links in the 90 minutes I've taken to write this review. Granted, I knew what to look for, with my educational background and all, but the information is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. (A solution, by the way, would simply have been to call this a fantasy and invoke magic. From my perspective, it makes a lot more sense than explaining away something scientifically when the science just isn't there.)
Well, I already offered my recommendation up above. (Consider, if you will, the fact that I thought this was worth reading even in light of all the scientific flaws.)