The Hunger Games Trilogy
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy of books, a very popular Young Adult series. I'm obviously not in the target demographic, but I found it entertaining if a bit predictable. The story and premise are interesting, although I would have liked more background on how all of this came to be, but that may be addressed in the other books. I just started Catching Fire last night, and will probably add my thoughts on that one later, and if I'm still interested I'll read the concluding book, Mockingjay.
The strongest element of this first book is its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl living in District 12 of the nation of Panem, which is made up of the remnants of former North American countries. One of the details missing is whether Panem encompasses all of North America or just the former United States, plus there is no mention of what may have happened in South America, Europe, Asia or Africa. Again, some of this may be addressed in the following books, and if so I will edit these comments.
Katniss lives with her mother and younger sister Primrose. Her father had died some years before in a coal mining accident, and since her mother retreated into a depressed, almost catatonic state for a while, Katniss becomes the strength that holds the family together. She hunts in the nearby forests with her best friend Gale Hawthorne, an act that is technically illegal, but overlooked by the Peacekeepers since she provides food for them as well as for her family, with enough left over to trade for other goods with various merchants and at The Hob, an open market in her town.
As the story begins, the annual Day of Reaping is at hand. Approximately seventy-five years before this, the individual districts of Panem were unsuccessful in a revolt against the ruling Capitol, situated somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, likely in and around the Denver area and in the strongholds of the former Strategic Air Command deep in the mountains. As a result of this, District 13 was completely destroyed [EDIT: "or NOT"], and the other districts are now kept in line by Capitol's strong military might. Each year a boy and a girl, ages 12-18, are selected by lot in each of the districts. Twenty-four youths in all, chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death in the controlled environment of a wilderness arena. The event is televised and all citizens are required to watch. Each year's location is different, and also unknown to the contestants until they enter it. In this way, Capitol makes it clear who is in control. Any hint of rebellion, a refusal of any tribute to fight in the games, would be met with a fate similar to District 13's.
The winning contestant is essentially like a current lottery winner, with a new home and all expenses paid for the rest of their life, and their district benefits from their win too. But there can be only one. It would have made sense if the two tributes from each district could pool their fighting strengths and work together to defeat the others, but this is yet another way for Capitol to exert its control. What that is essentially saying is that each of the tributes can trust no one but themselves and Capitol to uphold its end of the bargain. I am sure it is also a way to discourage strong friendships and family bonds among the citizenry, for who would want to risk having to kill your best friend, or a relative, if you are unlucky enough to be chosen together?
When a child reaches the age of twelve their name enters the Reaping pool, then if not chosen, the following year their name is entered twice, and so on until they are eighteen. Some choose to have their name added even more times than that by purchasing a tessera, a stipend of grain and oil, if their family is in dire need of that sustenance. Katniss has done so each year, so when she is sixteen her name is in the pool twenty-four times I believe, and her friend Gale's total is almost twice that since he is also the primary provider for his family, and he has a couple of brothers and a sister. Kat's sister Prim has just turned twelve, so her name is in the pool once for that year. Katniss knows her chance of being chosen is high, but she is devastated when it is her sister who is selected instead. She immediately protests, offering herself up for tribute to protect her sister, and so she becomes one of the designated entrants from District 12.
I'm not going to say anything else about the plot, for to do so would spoil the excitement. While it should be evident that Katniss survives, the way in which she does so is the interesting part, as well as the way she is able to subvert a bit of Capitol's control. I am encouraged that this and many other books are bringing young readers into the genre fold, and hopefully they will be able to recognize the way genre works use their situations and characters as metaphors to illuminate what it means to be human and how many of them mirror current events. No, we don't have gladiator-like combat to the death, but we do have a ruling elite that doesn't seem to care much for the plight of the common man, and we do have poor communities in which many feel their only hope is to excell at some sport and make it onto a professional team. While death in team sports is tragic and not on the agenda, we do know that it happens, and in light of the recent New Orleans Saints scandal it is a wonder it doesn't happen more often. When I was a teenager the prospect of the draft hung over me and my friends, and while we now have a volunteer army, in a lot of instances people join out of what they feel is an economic necessity. Not exactly the same situation that confronts the citizens of Panem, but the parallels can be drawn.
Suzanne Collins is not an inexperienced writer. She worked on several children's television shows in the '90s (Clarissa Explains It All is one I remember my son liking, and I thought it was very clever too). She also had completed(?) a five book fantasy series before beginning The Hunger Games sequence. However, I do think she revealed a weakness in the style she chose to write this story. While I like a good first-person narrative, I am also aware it is more difficult to master, and many readers don't like it because the information is limited to what the narrator knows, or perhaps only to what the narrator chooses to give us. Another thing about first-person is the reader needs to understand exactly how the story is being told. Is it being written after the fact, or as in a journal during the course of the action? In this case, it seems to be a bit of both, and yet there would not have been an opportunity for Katniss to write a journal of these events, but she still is telling the story in present verb tense. It is almost as if Collins is writing it as what Katniss is thinking at the time, or maybe dictating the story to some mechanical recorder, but there is no mention of that possibility. It is not a crippling weakness, but it might have been if the story itself was not as intriguing. It is an element that bugged me while reading. Aside from that, plus a slow build up to the start of the Games, and wanting more background information on the premise, it is an enjoyable read overall. I'm looking forward to the upcoming movie adaptation, which based on the cast and production personnel, might actually reverse the typical case and be better than the book.
The movie is out now, and probably still in theaters in most markets, and I have reviewed it HERE.
The previous paragraphs were uploaded on February 11. Here it is three months later and I've finally finished the other books. It's not that they were difficult reads, quite the opposite actually, but both a hectic work schedule coupled with the fact that it was hard for me to generate the motivation to finish them caused the delay. They are not bad books by any means, but the faults of the first one are continued in the sequels. I suppose it is the first person narration that is the major culprit, but all three novels are much shorter than they should have been. If it had been told in second or third person we would have likely gotten more background information on all the characters and more of the history of Panem. That is, if Collins was writer enough to flesh out her creation with more exposition. One has to wonder why it took seventy-five years of subjugation for a second rebellion to form, and why it took a sixteen year old girl from a poor mining community to give it its spark.
As I noted with the first book, we don't really know how expansive Panem is. Is it comprised of the former United States, all of North America, or is it a smaller nation? If smaller, exactly how small, and what happened to the rest of the US? If it is all of the US, and there are only thirteen districts plus the Capitol, why are most references to the districts confined to one specific city? Katniss speaks of District 12 as if it is only the town where she lives and the Seam, which I inferred was the description of where the coal mines were? If our current 48 contiguous states were divided into just 13 areas, you would think that most of them would be very large districts. Are the outlying areas uninhabitable due to conditions following the original rebellion which prompted the Hunger Games in the first place? Those and many other elements kept me puzzled throughout. I don't feel inclined to seek out that information on various websites or to buy a Hunger Games companion book. All of that should have been addressed in the trilogy. I've still only read the first Harry Potter book, but I have heard it said that Rowling sometimes used excessive prose to tell parts of the story which could have easily been condensed. Collins went too far in the other direction.
It has now been close to two months since I finished Catching Fire, and while I usually have a fairly good memory for such things, I didn't make many notes so a lot of the details of what I might like to discuss are a little vague right now. As with the first book, the pacing is very slow until we get to the Games again. Being the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Games, the rules are changed for what is known as a Quarter Quell. The character of Haymitch Abernathy, who was Katniss' mentor for her first Games, was the winner of the previous Quarter Quell held twenty-five years prior to this. In this latest QQ, it is decided by the Capitol that the tributes will be comprised of former winners. Since District 12 had only three previous winners, Haymitch, Katniss and her co-winner Peeta Mellark, Katniss will have to go into the arena again with one of those two. As I said previously, my memory of some of the details are spotty, but I believe Haymitch is chosen but Peeta volunteers to replace him, mainly because he doesn't trust the alcholic Haymitch to be able to protect Katniss in the arena.
The obstacles the tributes confront in the new arena are more challenging than anything any of them had to face before. It is going to be extremely difficult for the filmmakers to adequately service these stories if they insist on restricting them to PG-13. We know they will since that is the target demo for the books, and they don't want a film that teenagers won't be able to go see without their parents. The only thing I can hope for is that the MPAA expands its criteria for that rating in order for them to include several violent scenes, which they skirted around for the first movie, and it suffered for it in my opinion. If you're telling a story about children killing children, and you don't make it graphic and shocking, you aren't servicing the story properly.
I stalled on reading Mockingjay even longer than I did for the second book. I don't want to say too much so I can avoid spoilers, but I think that is going to be inevitable. I'll hide the major ones though. The third book's pacing is even more off than the other two. [Minor Spoiler]-At the end of Catching Fire, Katniss and a few others are rescued from the arena by members of a rebel conspiracy. They are taken to District 13, which was not totally destroyed in the previous rebellion, but rather moved underground. What makes the least sense about that revelation is that the Capitol knows of their existence but hasn't done anything about it, supposedly because 13 still retains a nuclear arsenal. Since they never use it, that might have been a bluff.
The first half of this book is even more sluggish than the previous two, and the action that occurs in the latter half isn't that believable. It takes Katniss a long time to realize (and I'm not sure she fully understands the extent of it) that almost everyone has been manipulating her to promote their own agenda. This includes not only the government, embodied by President Snow, but also Haymitch, several other of the former Games victors, and lastly the command structure of District 13. There are several things that surprised me about this book, most that actually happen, but also one or two things that didn't but that I was expecting. I feel the need to hide these next comments. Don't highlight the next paragraph unless you've read the books or don't care about spoilers.
As the rebel attack against the Capitol is nearing its end, Katniss witnesses a hovercraft delivering explosives by parachute into the midst of civilian children around the president's mansion. Rebel medics on the scene go in to help the wounded, then delayed explosions occur, killing several of them as well as more of the children. A person very close to Katniss is one of the victims. Katniss assumes this was a last ditch effort of Snow's to protect himself, but later when Katniss has the opportunity to talk to him he tries to convince her that tactic was actually carried out by the rebel commander Coin, who has now assumed the title of President of Panem. Katniss has an internal debate over which of those scenarios could be the truth, and the reader is not really sure of what she decides until later. Coin calls a meeting of the few remaining Games winners, and tells them it has been decided that Capitol's punishment will be another Hunger Games with Capitol citizens' children as the contestants, and it will take a majority of them to decide if this is to happen. I am surprised that both Katniss and Haymitch, along with two others, vote for those Games to take place. One thing that Katniss had previously requested of Coin is that she be the one who gets to execute Snow. When that day arrives and she comes face to face with her previous tormentor, Katniss alters her aim and kills Coin instead. What one would expect after that is some of Coin's followers to have killed Katniss on the spot, but instead she is placed on trial and deemed incompetent by reason of insanity, and is sentenced to house arrest back in District 12. One other thing I expected is that Katniss would have killed Haymitch as well, considering how often he lied to her, withheld information, and manipulated her as much as anyone else. And how about Gale Hawthorne, her friend and former hunting partner? She knows that he had proposed such a bombing tactic prior to the rebels' storming of the Capitol. And if he was at least partly responsible for those explosions that would mean he was also responsible for the death of [redacted]. Katniss killing either of them would have made sense, but it seems Collins wasn't too concerned about that.
For the average teenage reader these are fairly good books, but for the more sophisticated they will probably be lacking in quite a few points. I wouldn't try to dissuade anyone from reading them, but be prepared to be puzzled by most of the character's motivations. One thing that I would hope from all readers is that they take to heart a quote from the last book - "...something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences." This reminds me of a lyric from my favorite singer/songwriter, Phil Ochs, who in I Ain't Marching Anymore said, "It's always the old to lead us to the war, it's always the young who fall." For a pacifist like myself, I don't need Collins (or Phil Ochs) to teach me that lesson, but I realize my position is not the normal, nor the respected, one. But if it doesn't change for the public as a whole (all countries) we are doomed to keep sending our children off to war, and if we're not careful, maybe into something as horrendous as The Hunger Games. If nothing else, I hope that message makes it through to the books' readers and the movies' viewers.
SuzanneCollinsBooks.com, the author's homepage.
My review of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games.
Eliza DoLots' movie review.
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