A few weeks ago, when I got really sick, I decided to give The Hunger Games a try. Sure, it’s young adult literature (so is Harry Potter, actually) and some of the comments I’d heard vilified its bad use of punctuation, but the general hype and mostly positive reviews convinced me to give it a try.
And if you haven’t yet, you should too.
If you haven’t heard about the books yet, here is a very short summary of what they are about (or you can always just watch the movie trailer).
In the country of Panem, every year there is a “reaping”, where one male and one female between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen in each of the 12 districts to participate in the Hunger games, a sadistic game of survival where the last person alive wins comfort for themselves and glory for their district.
Katniss Everdeen lives in the poorest district, #12, that relies on coal mining. In order to save her younger sister from the reaping, she volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games along with Peeta, the baker’s son. From this fateful decision begins an adventure that will bring Katniss to the heart of Panem politics, and involve her in a plot to overturn the dictatorship of the Capitol.
I have a soft spot for science-fiction. I may have studied Victorian literature, but I admire the ability of science fiction to imagine whole new social systems and technologies and turn them into believable worlds. I will break my review down in three parts for each book.
Book 1: The Hunger Games
It didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make this book in a page-turner.
We meet Katniss as she prepares for hunting in the woods, which is illegal but widely accepted by the authorities of the district, as they also gain from it. Katniss is responsible for her mother and her little sister, Prim, since her mother suffered a breakdown after the death of her father. She hunts with Gale, her best friend, and they share skills and resources to feed both their families.
The book begins a few days before the Reaping. We get Katniss’ point of view as she reflects on the consequences of the reaping and its injustice. At their core, the Hunger Games are a version of Roman gladiator shows: a way to control the outer provinces and provide entertainment to a blasé, luxurious capital population. In the book, the history of the Hunger Games begins with a war, after which the Hunger Games are implemented to “remind” the people, every year, of the Capitol’s power over them. Attendance to the reaping is mandatory, and so is watching the Games. Think “Gladiator” meets “Big Brother” in a dictatorship.
I felt instant sympathy for Katniss. In a world where living illegally is the only way to eat enough, where social injustice is rampant (and in fact institutionalized) and where children are held hostage against rebellion, her struggle to act morally despite the cruelty around her is heroic.
As soon as the Games start, the plot picks up its pace and keeps you turning the pages all the way to the end. Her true/fake love affair with Peeta, which keeps both of them alive, is particularly fraught with teenage anxiety around relationships and desire. But ultimately, this is about survival. Who do you live for? What are you willing to do to survive?
The writing, despite its slight faults, is gripping and evocative. Collins has a way to describe horrific scenes in a way that retains the violence, but maintains respect for the human victims. The book left me hungry for more.
Book 2: Catching Fire
Given the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bit more in depth, and still includes everyone’s favourite part, another round of Hunger Games.
The book begins as Katniss and Peeta get ready to go on the customary Panem-wide winner’s tour. They are paraded throughout the country to, mostly, twist the knife into the wound of all the losing districts. But she also realizes that her act of defiance against the Capitol has spurred a spirit of rebellion in Panem. Ambivalent as to her involvement and desire to be part of such a difficult entreprise, Katniss is ready to move on to a more peaceful and wealthy life in her District. But a forced wedding between herself and Peeta forces her to remain in the spotlight, until the new round of Hunger Games are announced, with all the rules changed. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in the Games, once again.
In Catching Fire, the main focus is Katniss’ growing anxiety at her feelings for both Peeta and Gale. Collins artfully captures the flightiness of teenage desire, which remains constant despite a world torn by trauma and pseudo-slavery. In this second round, the rules of the game also change drastically, increasing Katniss’ sense of loss of control over her life.
Although there is less attention given to the actual Games in this book, we are given ample time to see Katniss suffer from PTSD. I think that Collins’ depiction of the effect of PTSD on teenagers, which she deepens in Mockingjay, is the highlight of this book. Katniss’ heroic act from The Hunger Games takes its toll, and Collins has no problem depicting her heroine as capable of breaking down and being weak.
The writing also gets better in Catching Fire. Collins shows a stronger mastery of the craft and, while still addressing teenagers, is capable of drawing in adults on her own merits. The senselessness of violence and the consequences of repeated trauma are definitely major concerns of Catching Fire.
My only gripe with this book: I wish I had learned more about Panem society. Collins kind of opens up the topic by providing an interesting description of one district, and then drops it completely. We do learn from other districts through their competitors in the Games, but it really isn’t the same. Somehow I was expecting something a bit more complex, but Collins decided to keep the focus on Katniss herself rather than expand the world she so convincingly sketches, even if lightly.
Book 3: Mockingjay
This is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the heroine, spends most of the book disabled by PTSD and medication. Even though the final heroic act is hers again, it’s hard to see her as the strong character in this last installment. She spends most of her time in a medical haze, or crying, or hiding in a closet.
Katniss, now living in discreet, long-lost District 13, has to deal with the trauma of two Hunger Games and the weight of the liberation of Panem on her shoulders. Through her actions in the first book, she has become a symbol of rebellion used to rally the Districts against the Capitol. Much less happens in this third book than in the first two. There are a few battle scenes, and the final one, but otherwise, this book is much more introspective than the other two.
But at the same time, this book is among the strongest example of the mental and physical consequences of war and violence on people. It is introspective because Katniss has reached her breaking point. She is exhausted, emotionally and physically, and cannot sustain more trauma. So the book becomes not so much about the liberation of Panem, but about Katniss’ eventual, slow liberation from PTSD.
The end, although satisfying on a character level, left me wanting on the world-level. We don’t know what has happened to Panem, in the end. Is is better for Katniss’ intervention, or has it remained the same? I think we’re supposed to make a link between Katniss’ and Panem’s healing, but it’s not as obvious as it should be.
These books are rough. Brutal. They don’t pull punches and describe war and violence without euphemisms. It’s refreshing, in a sense, because it stands in stark contrast with the official-speak so condemned by George Orwell, back in the day. Collins, I’m sure, sees teenagers as able to handle the truth. She doesn’t sugar-coat the horrifying acts of violence in both Games and the war.
Although the books do live up to their hype, somehow, they don’t live up to their potential. The world of Panem deserved much more development than it did. Maybe it’s the fan of complex fictional social systems, à la Middlemarch, in me speaking, but I do think that the world of Panem could have been the site for a much deeper critique of the current state of power and capitalism. It’s dystopian–we get it. But how did it become that way? What happened between now and then that the site of American power moved to possibly Colorado (I suspect Denver) and its social structure turned back to medieval times? I’ve read a lot of anticipatory science-fiction that gave enough information to infer how the world might crumble. Not so with The Hunger Games.
All in all, it was a mostly satisfying read. It took me 3 days to read all of them, which makes them a quick and entertaining read. And I must admit I did cry at the end (or that might have been how tired and sick I felt. You’ll never know, hah :p). My desire for a more complex world aside, considering the audience, I thought they were excellent examples of what the best YA literature can do.