Series: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a dystopian series set in the distant future Appalachia. The world – as much as we know of it – has destroyed itself and been reborn as Panem. In the centre is the Capital, where people live in luxury and entertain themselves with fashion and the drama of the Hunger Games. Around it are twelve districts, each focusing on a single industry so that all dependent on each other for the basic necessities of life. Once, 75 years before the series begins, the districts rebelled in what has come to be known as the Dark Days. There were thirteen districts then, but the Capital destroyed one in the battle. To ensure that the districts would never again seek to rebel, the Capital instituted the Hunger Games – a gladiatorial event in which two children, a boy and a girl, from each district is selected by lottery and entered into the arena, there to fight to the death until only one child is left.

The odds were in Katniss Everdeen’s favour and she was not called to be a tribute for the Capital’s Hunger Games, but her little sister was not so lucky. When Katniss volunteers herself to take her sister’s place, her personal refusal to accept the Capital’s rules lay the groundwork for a return of the Dark Days and the possible extinction of what’s left of human society.

Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale?

The Hunger Games series followed many conventions that could have reduced it to a superficial, silly novel – the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale perfectly illustrates my point. It would have been all too easy for the Hunger Games to become about Katniss’s “boy troubles,” to make her struggle be about the men in her life. The narrative does flirt with this at a few points, but it does so in a psychologically real way that preserves Katniss’s identity as an individual in her own right, rather than as an object for the competition between two males. As Shoshana Kessock points out, the only real team in the Hunger Games is Team Katniss.

Living vs Surviving

Katniss’s reaction to her dystopian government grows and changes in interesting ways. In the beginning, she is resigned to her fate, content merely with survival. She dismisses the interests of both boys in her love triangle because she cannot envision a future with either, a future which may include having children, in a society that would allow have something like the Hunger Games. It’s Peeta who offers her an alternative to simple survival – living – which, paradoxically, may mean martyrdom. His refusal to sacrifice who he is as a person to play by the Capital’s rules is a lesson to Katniss that simply surviving isn’t enough. She comes back to this lesson again and again through the series, each time understanding a little more about what Peeta meant.

Coming back to the romance tropes, it was so refreshing to see Katniss and Peeta help each other grow as individuals rather than simply learning to don a new identity at the expense of the self. Bella Swan, of Twilight fame is a perfect example of the latter. She sheds her self to take up the identity of her paramour (in this case, his identity as a vampire). In the Hunger Games, on the other hand, Peeta serves as a lesson, but it changes Katniss in a way that is unique to herself. She doesn’t become a copy of Peeta, but rather a person who has been shaped by her relationship with him.

Moral Complexity

In the first book of the series, the sides are fairly clear: the Capital is bad, the Districts are victims. But by the second book, Katniss is unable to reconcile her hatred for the Capital with her love for the Capital people in her life, such as her design team, Cinna, or even Effie. By the third book, the moral line that divides the sides becomes even more complicated as we meet the people of District 13 and fine them to be something less than the rescuers they have presented themselves to be. As with so many of our real world revolutions, when the rebels win the war, they adopt all the habits they had so recently fought against. There’s a lesson there for readers about trying to fit groups into a “good guy vs bad guy” narrative, and about thinking too uncritically about one’s in-group.

Image

Much of the series revolves around Katniss’s image. Throughout the series, characters are always dressing Katniss, using her appearance to tell a narrative that promotes their own agenda. I kept thinking of our fashions and the way that clothes often display the maker’s branding in a highly visible spot, using their customers as walking billboards. Through it all, Katniss struggles to keep hold of who she is as a person, an individual separate from the image is made to project.

There’s also a lesson here about the importance of image, and how powerful our appearances can be.

Conclusion

This series is absolutely fantastic. At only three books, there’s really no reason not to go out and read it. It’s very well written and excellently plotted. If you haven’t already, give it a try!

Edit: And hey, if you think that the Hunger Games (the actual games, not the books) were awesome, you can now experience them first hand (sort of)! Presenting “literary tourism.”

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The Hunger Games #3: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Read: 11 March, 2012

The Hunger Games ended when Katniss destroyed the barrier keeping the tributes in the arena, but the battle against the Capital is far from over. After an all-too-short glimpse of freedom, she finds herself yet again a pawn in someone else’s game – this time she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of the revolution used by the rebels and District 13 in their PR campaign.

I was worried about the third instalment of the Hunger Games series because so much could have been poorly handled. The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale – which had been on hold while Katniss fought for the survival of herself and her loved ones – needed a resolution, and that might mean turning Katniss’s world towards ‘boy issues.’ The Capital had been set up as the baddies from the start, but Mockingjay is the first time we get to look at possible alternative rulers. It would have been so easy to maintain the perception of the Capital is the series’ baddies and reduce the conflict into a simplistic good vs evil conflict. And, lastly, the first two books in the series focused around a Hunger Game – what was left for the third? Surely we wouldn’t see another Hunger Game? But where else was there to go?

I was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. Collins navigated the standard whirlpools with much grace and ended the series powerfully. Even the “years later” epilogue fit the story and only increased the emotion, rather than feeling too removed from the events for the reader to process. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was in tears for much of the ending.

I really enjoyed the twist – yes, there’s a twist. It caught me by surprise, but only because it solved an issue that had been concerning me rather than because it was from “out on left field” or otherwise lacked sense. In retrospect, it fit Katniss perfectly.

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The Hunger Games #2: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Read: 5 March, 2012

After Katniss defied the Capitol in Hunger Games, forcing them to allow two winners of the Games for the first time in their history, she returns home and tries to patch together a life that has been irrevocably changed by recent events. Her budding feelings for Peeta become even more confused now that Gale is once more by her side. But for now, she’s tried to put the events of the Games aside as best she can while she carves out a new routine. Unfortunately, the Capitol is not so willing to forget her defiance.

Discussing Hunger Games with a friend on Facebook recently, someone chimed in to say that they truly enjoyed Catching Fire and actually considered it superior to the first book. I’m not sure I agree, but I can certainly understand where she was coming from. It starts out fairly slow, showing us a Katniss who is trying to make sense of her post-Games life, but then the story really catches fire (har har) and I found it impossible to put down. And with the fictional world and character exposition taking care of by the first book, Catching Fire was free to focus on development.

There were some weird authorial issues. I don’t want to give too much away, so… this next bit is a total spoiler. Sorry. So, in both books, Haymitch communicates with Katniss in the games through the gifts he either gives her or does not giver her. So when there are five people in Katniss’s alliance and they keep receiving bread rolls in multiples of 6, I assumed that Haymitch was trying to tell Katniss that her group should be looking to include Chaff (since Chaff was Haymitch’s friend, and because Peeta had so easily remembered that he was still unaccounted for). And yet while much page space was given to Katniss trying to interpret all of Haymitch’s other gifts, she barely gives the rolls a second thought. The only reason I could think of for this is because Suzanne Collins knows the answer, knows that it isn’t anything she wants Katniss to guess, so she’s just dropped it. It feels like a missed opportunity for some character development. Up until that point, Haymitch’s gifts were always communicating to Katniss, but this time the message was meant for her allies. Katniss could have tried to guess the meaning and come to the wrong conclusion, and then had to deal with her feelings later about Haymitch “cheating” on her (which, frankly, would have made her anger at Haymitch’s supposed betrayal at the start of Mockingjay – which I’ve only just started reading, so forgive me if this does get covered – far more palatable).

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The Hunger Games #1: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Read: 11 February, 2012

Every year in Panem, two children are chosen by lottery from each of the twelve districts to compete in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four kids enter the arena to fight to the death, and only one can survive.

The general story is a fairly common one, and I don’t do well with stories heavy on action, so Hunger Games could have gone quite badly. But the action was just present enough to keep the story interesting without ever making me feel “actioned out.” As for the plot, the interesting characters keep it fresh.

There is a love triangle, which seems to be a required theme in these sorts of books, but it never felt forced. Katniss naturally starts to develop feelings for Peeta when she finds herself in a life-or-death, high stress situation. Rather than coming off as a silly girl unable to decide what she wants, Katniss is instead confused by the stress of being so near death. I found this to be much more psychologically plausible and it avoided the demeaning perception of girls/women as too silly to know their own minds.

Even beyond the love story, the gender portrayals were refreshing. There are no helpless princesses in need of rescuing in The Hunger Games. Peeta is vulnerable, but even he shows enough strength to prevent the story from simply being a flat reversal of gender stereotypes. Katniss is strong, but realistically so, with failings and weak moments that don’t feel token or trivial. She is a genuinely strong person, and a complete character to boot.

It was a bit of a shock to read The Hunger Games right after reading Clash of Kings. For one thing, the simplicity of the plot made for a difficult switch in my reading. But once my brain caught up, I found that I truly enjoyed the book. The setting was a dangerous one, and the novel could have easily devolved into a bludgeoning “message,” but while the criticism of our present world are very much there, I never felt like it was overly forced.

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