I recently read The Hunger Games and liked it a lot. I finished it in a few hours — couldn’t stop reading. In contrast, I read a few pages of the first Harry Potter and stopped. When I was ten years old, I read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and stopped halfway through the second book. I never went back and have not seen the movies. I have never read a book by Stephen King, John Grisham, Robert Patterson, Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, and so on. None of them appealed to me. The Hunger Games is different than other books that have sold huge numbers of copies. When it came out, Stephen King reviewed it in Entertainment Weekly and gave it it a B. The second book in the trilogy, reviewed by someone else, got a C.
Sentence by sentence, even scene by scene, The Hunger Games is mediocre. It is not quotable. There is no vivid writing. The characters are barely interesting. It is not Jonathan Franzen, much less Vladimir Nabokov. But it does a wonderful job of supplying the four basic elements of a good story: a hero, a villain, making you care about the hero, and putting the hero in jeopardy.
Beneath the surface, also, is something I rarely find in novels: the author feels strongly about her subject matter. Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, has said she is writing for teenagers about war. Her father, who was in the Army, cared deeply about this and taught his children about it. “A family trip to a castle, which [the 13-year-old Collins] imagined would be “fairy-tale magical,” turned into a lesson on fortresses [given by her father],” says an article about Collins. Did Vladimir Nabokov know this much about child molesters (Lolita)? No, it was a literary device. Did Tolstoy or Flaubert have the events of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary drilled into them in childhood? Unlikely. Both novels are built on basic novelistic subjects (actually, the same subject — infidelity). Somehow Collins’s deep connection comes through. I have no idea if you can write a good book simply because you love something. But you can definitely write a good book if you hate something: The Devil Wears Prada.