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The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins Legolas Send a noteboard - 08/08/2012 09:51:03 PM
After having seen the Hunger Games movie, earlier this year (which, it must be said, is a pretty good movie by any standards, and a resounding success by YA book adaptation standards, imho), I finally got around to reading the big hyped trilogy itself (the books are called The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay). And I must say, it wasn't quite what I expected.

Like so many trilogies, The Hunger Games is split into two parts plot-wise, with the first book standing mostly alone, then the second book starting a new plot which comes to a cliffhanger at the end, and is further expanded and built to a climax in the third. If you ask me, though, the more meaningful split is between the first two books on the one hand, and the third one on the other. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are fairly traditional YA fare, just perhaps a bit bloodier and on the dystopian side. Mockingjay is a different story altogether.

Collins' dystopia, a post-apocalyptic United States, is called Panem, which is a pretty neat pun: Panem is a society in which the elite all bear Latin names, and in which the summum of entertainment is the yearly Hunger Games, a fight to the death between 24 teenagers in a huge arena, last man (or child, rather) standing. Panem* et circenses** ("Bread and Games", the old Roman maxim on what it takes to keep a population happy), indeed. The 24 gladiators are picked from the twelve Districts - a boy and a girl for each district, by drawing of lots - which jointly rebelled against the Capitol seventy-five years earlier, and lost. And that's not such a high price to pay compared to the thirteenth district, that was wiped out entirely.

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, volunteers to represent her Twelfth District in order to save her little sister from having to do so, and so ends up in the arena along with Peeta Mellark, a boy whom she has rather ambivalent feelings about. It all seems very predictable from there, and as far as book one goes, it is. We had a discussion at the time the movie came out (see here, and never mind the "female" discussion) about Katniss' actions within the arena, and about how she somehow ends up winning while not having killed anyone except in highly extenuating circumstances. Many people also pointed out the parallels with Japanese author Koushun Takami's novel "Battle Royale", and how The Hunger Games seems to copy the premise of that novel while weakening it considerably. Those criticisms are both valid, I would say - for the first novel.

In books two and three, to exactly nobody's surprise, Katniss finds herself involved in the growing resistance against the Capitol's reign of terror, while finding herself in the middle of a love triangle, which evidently is the cool thing to write about these days in YA. But somewhere along the way, starting in the middle parts of Mockingjay, Collins does something that I can only describe as going off the deep end. The readers who were expecting a Twilight-like ending (or perhaps something a tad less anticlimactic), or even a more balanced conclusion like Harry Potter's, are in for a very, very rude awakening. And then I'm not just talking about extreme violence, though there is plenty of that. I would be inclined to call it a YA version of 1984, except that it's not even YA anymore as far as the plot and (Katniss' ) character development go, except in terms of sexuality. The ending is not quite "a boot stomping on a human face, forever", but it's not far off. The Hunger Games movie got a PG-13 rating; I'm thinking for Mockingjay nothing short of NC-17 will do, if they want to do the novel any justice at all.

As far as the writing and definitely the worldbuilding goes, that remains solidly YA throughout, one reason why I'm not convinced by Mockingjay's delusions of 1984. The flimsiness of the political structure as described by Collins is particularly hard to reconcile with any serious attempt at a dystopian novel - at the end of the day the Capitol's evil regime seems to consist of little other than its caricature of a President. The character development is on the whole very good in Katniss, tolerable in Peeta and a few other characters, but rather lacking in most others.

Obviously, Collins deserves credit for going off the beaten path, daring to show how sometimes even heroes can do horrible things, and steering clear from a happy ever after ending that would've taken the punch out of her dystopia. Katniss' character is a major asset even of the first two books, and certainly very welcome to the feminists among us, though it's a shame that so few other characters have real depth. And the critical look at reality shows and, more importantly, at the way war propaganda is created, is quite interesting, for a YA series. The way Katniss ends up unsure of whether to believe the propaganda of either side is still more so. But at the end of the day I'm going to have to say that the discrepancy is too big for my taste. It feels too much like Collins hijacking her own series and going into very dark places in the final book in an effort to compensate for the levity of the earlier books. Sorry, that's not how it works.

For better or for worse, Mockingjay is a book that I will remember, one of the most notable YA books out there with one of the genre's most notable characters, and certainly thought-provoking. I don't know that I'd necessarily call it particularly good though, or even particularly better than the preceding books, merely different. As a whole, the trilogy is above average in YA terms, but not on a level with the likes of Harry Potter. So, recommended with caveats, I guess, but you may want to think twice before giving this series to some precocious 10-year old as you might be tempted to do.

* This is an accusative singular. Just in case you wanted to know.
** This is an accusative plural. Aren't you suddenly much more interested in this book knowing that? :P
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The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins - 08/08/2012 09:51:03 PM 5224 Views
NB: I would recommend editing the review to note that panem is an accusative singular. - 09/08/2012 01:05:59 AM 779 Views
This is true. - 09/08/2012 06:56:38 PM 672 Views
That actually makes me much more interested in the trilogy - 10/08/2012 03:41:48 AM 724 Views
Well, I'm glad to hear that! - 10/08/2012 07:40:18 PM 774 Views
Hmm. *spoilers* - 14/08/2012 11:42:37 PM 912 Views
*massive spoilers for Mockingjay* - 15/08/2012 12:12:01 AM 713 Views
Ok, I'll be the one to ask. - 26/08/2012 06:29:06 PM 719 Views
That was Tom's idea. - 26/08/2012 07:34:33 PM 694 Views

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