The Hunger Games Trilogy
If you’ve entered a bookstore in the past three years, you’ll probably know about the Hunger Games; it is quite possibly the biggest young adult publishing phenom since Harry Potter. After finally reading the dystopian trilogy, I had a hard time making a judgment: Certainly, they are good. But are they great?
Part of my dilemma lies in the nature of the sub genre, young adult dystopia. One might almost be inclined to call the terms innately contradictory; after all, the point of dystopia is to scare the bejeezus out of you, which usually means an unhappy ending for the protagonist. (One of the best young adult novels ever, The Giver by Lois Lowry, provides hours of debate through its ambiguous ending.)
Ms. Collins’ dystopian future is intriguing and appropriately depressing. North America is a semi-barren wasteland after natural disasters and global wars; about a century before the events in the first book, Panem’s population has been reduced to the totalitarian Capitol (around present-day Colorado) and thirteen Districts scattered in isolation around the continent. Eventually, the Districts rebelled, inciting a war that resulted in the complete annihilation of District 13. To ensure the population’s obedience, the Capitol began the annual Hunger Games.
Part Survivor, part beauty pageant, part Lord of the Flies, and one hundred percent depressing, the Hunger Games consist of the live elimination of 23 of Panem’s children. Each year, one boy and one girl between 12 and 18 years old is reaped from each District; the 24 contestants are sent to the Capitol where they are trained, scored on their abilities, made over, and interviewed on live television. Then they are sent into an arena, where they fight to the death amidst carnivorous insects, floods, poisonous plants, and whatever natural disasters the Capitol can contrive to make it more exciting for viewers at home. The winner’s family receives food and shelter for their lifetime.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard about this system is that it would not be sustainable or realistic over such a long time (75 years); I disagree. More than mere schadenfreude drives the Hunger Games – not just the Capitol, but the entire continent remains glued to their seats during the Games’ two weeks, despite the systematic, brutal slaughter of children. Part of it is fear (the memory of District 13 hangs overhead), but Ms. Collins shows there is also a certain level of masochism and attraction at work.
This is most evident with our 16-year-old heroine, Katniss Everdeen. In the first book, The Hunger Games, her younger sister Prim is reaped, and Kat volunteers to take her place. When she journeys to the Capitol, she views their decadence and indulgences with scorn and derision; but she also describes her makeover with loving detail. Yes, she hates the Capitol, but she’s also attracted.
Katniss faces this dilemma head-on, and her attitude towards the Capitol, its denizens, the frightening President Snow, and the Games themselves fluctuate over the trilogy. This is not a situation with clear answers, where Snow and the Capitol are bad, and the Districts are poor, repressed citizens with right on their side. The moral ambiguity is one of the trilogy’s greatest strengths. I must be clear, however: There are graphic scenes of violence and death, some of which are related almost clinically. This is appropriate, for the citizens of Panem have been numbed against violence and death. But that did not make the reading any easier for me, especially when twelve-year-olds die with the flick of a knife at the hand of another teen.
Less powerful is the depiction of Kat’s relationships with the two guys in her life. One is Gale, her handsome, 18-year-old childhood friend and political firebrand. They hunt together every Sunday, and his feelings for her are clearly not platonic, even to the reader viewing him through Kat’s distinctly platonic and confused eyes.
The other candidate for Kat’s affections is Peeta, who is reaped the same year as Kat and whom Kat doesn’t know whether to trust. I found Peeta’s character quite interesting in the first book, where Kat remains unsure of his motives, but in Catching Fire (the second book) his character is distinctly one-note, and he receives disappointingly short shrift in Mockingjay, where his character becomes pivotal to the Districts’ uprising.
Both Peeta and Gale could have used more detail, and I’m afraid a certain amount of tiresome angst ruled, particularly in the second book, Catching Fire. This is where I found the young adult portion of the book warred with the needs of plot and setting, and the latter was by far the more interesting of the two.
Nevertheless, there are other interesting characters in the series – Kat’s mentor Haymitch and her dresser Cinna come to mind – and overall Kat herself is a strong protagonist to follow. The first book is easily the strongest, and, as a whole, the trilogy stands out from the sea of young adult series with its exceptionally strong conceptualization and simple, straightforward prose. A weaker second book pulls down the trilogy, and so the Hunger Games series stops just short of great. But it is still very, very good.