It’s addictive, fun, but oh-so predictable. And it suffers from the fact that there’s potential for it to be more interesting than it actually is. The series picks up in the last novel, but you still have to get through about 600 pages of teenage love drama before then. That’s the bottom line of it all. Now if you don’t want to be spoiled for the series, please do not read any further.
“Still, I hate them. But, of course, I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone.”
–page 8 of Mockingjay, Book 3 of The Hunger Games.
….I suppose from this perspective, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this series has been such a hit with the teenage demographic.
We’re introduced to our main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl who is the breadwinner (well, more correctly, illegal poacher) of her family, since her father was killed in a mining accident five years previous. She lives with her mother and sister in District 12, one of the poorest areas in the imperfect, futureland of Panem. Every year, the Capitol of Panem has the hunger games, which demands a tribute, one boy and girl between the ages of 12 to 18, be selected by lottery from each district and put into an arena for a gladiator-style battle to the death. (It all reminds me of an episode of Doctor Who, where in another future dystopia, contestants were put into various reality TV shows, like Big Brother, where the winner’s ultimate prize was that they got to live.)
The first book is extremely predictable, starting off with Katniss’ sister, Prim, being picked for the games, and Katniss volunteering to take her place. But of course, what are the chances of someone else being picked for the games and the book being about Katniss sitting at home, watching it all on TV?
Super Predictable: How the bird-pin that Katniss brings in with her into the games as a “token” of her district, would somehow be a symbol of rebellion. I was hoping that the mayor’s daughter who gave it to Katniss would be more in the know about this. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to really bother to flesh out her character more. In fact, most of the female characters suffer from this fate. I suppose you could argue that it makes sense when our main protagonist doesn’t bond well with women, and is a bit of loner, but come on, give her mother more than a couple of throw away scenes! Don’t even get me started about Katniss’ sister…
Predictable to-the-max: That Katniss would somehow survive the games, along with the other tribute selected by her district, her “one true love,” Peeta. Of course, we can’t have our heroine and her love interest killed — there are two more books to read (in Katniss’ first person perspective, no less).
However, does Katniss really love Peeta? Or is it all an act for them to appeal to an audience that is watching them try and survive (and potentially kill each other) in the games? She doesn’t really love him like he passionately adores her… or does she? Or maybe she loves Gale, the hot, eighteen year old she has grown up with and is her hunting partner-in-crime? These are the important questions of the book. I know it’s what I would care about when I was 15.
And… guess what? It gets even more predictable: Katniss ends up in the hunger games AGAIN. Because we’ve established that our heroine is not a leader, and only knows how to react to all the sadistic trials that her government throws at her. So of course, we have to put her back into the arena yet again. But wait a second, didn’t I already read that book? Come to think about it, didn’t I already read a brilliant short story about a ritualistic lottery system being used to sanction barbaric behaviour and maintain community cohesion (Oh yes, I did. It was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.)
This is made more difficult by the fact that our heroine is kind of an idiot: Katniss has been injected with a tracking device when she went into the games. One that apparently allows her to be filmed by invisible cameras as she fights to survive for the Capitol’s amusement (a not-so-subtle comment on reality tv). If someone did that to me, I’d be paranoid that everything I say and do is being monitored outside of the games too – they clearly have the technology. But Katniss’ reaction is, “La la la, how do they know everything about me?” And all I can do is hit myself on the forehead and think, “IT’S BECAUSE YOU’VE BEEN TAGGED WITH A LISTENING/TRACKING DEVICE, YOU IDIOT!” And so, Katniss, she’s kind of an idiot. But in the way that 15 year old girls can relate to, I suppose, who are more concerned with their parents not understanding their pain and more interested in the two hot boys who adore her and which one should she choose, but she can’t love either of them since she’s so tortured!*
So, what (if anything) was there to like about this series? Why did I spend the last three days doing nothing but reading these silly books? Why did I get hooked into it all?
The endless cliff-hangers were fun. The character arc of Katniss’ mentor, Haymitch, from a stumbling drunk, to possibly wise and wounded from the games, into a rebel leader, is one of the best parts of the series. When Katniss is acting like an idiot, he is the one who’s pointing out how much of a tool she is. And I love him for it. Katniss, acting like a typical 16 year old, hates him, and (naturally) the rest of the world, and so sometimes it’s a bit frustrating to be forced into her perspective, especially since I am not a 16 year old girl anymore. However, I came out of the book not hating Katniss, which speaks to the draw of the storyline because I tried to…. I really, really tried to hate her, people.
My favourite part of the series was the third book. We’re now in the midst of a full-on rebellion, where Katniss is a symbol for freedom and actively fighting to free her people. This is where the storyline gets less predictable and is quite engaging. We’re spared minimal amounts of “which boy will she choose?!”, and now there’s an interesting narrative going on. There were some nice parallels made to the media coverage of the recent Iraq War. I also enjoyed the ending. I respect how Suzanne Collins isn’t afraid to kill off her characters. This is a war, after all.
The dark tone of the final chapters of the series are quite heavy, and not hidden by any sort of allegory or symbolism. Is that because the books are meant to be easy to read and geared towards young adults? I don’t think so. Suzanne Collins has been criticized that her novels are too violent; however, is this really any more violent than the images of war and rebellion have been broadcast on the news in recent memory? I find it funny that we’re now worried about violence in books, compared to what’s commonly broadcast on video games, movies, the internet, and TV.
The bottom, bottom line: If you want to read a hypothetical-future, post-apocalyptic, dystopia narrative that makes you think, read Nineteen Eighty-Four**. Or Brave New World**. Or Fahrenheit 451**. If you’re interested in anti-war narratives, try one of my favourite satires, Catch-22**. However, if you want to read something that will make you feel less guilty (and is better written) then reading Twilight, I recommend The Hunger Games. It’s what I call Book Candy, and I’d say check it out. And if you can manage to stick around to the end of the series, it gets a bit more interesting.
However, prepare yourself for the end of the month when The Hunger Games, hits movie theatres. I predict the teenage girls will be there in hordes. Yes, there will be comparisons to Twilight, and they will be justified. But thank god there are no sparkly vampires in sight this time, and maybe, just maybe, it will inspire teens to read some better novels, like the ones I’ve just mentioned. However, more likely it will inspire Team-Peeta and Team-Gale t-shirts I think.
*However, when it ends up your boyfriend lies to the entire world that you’re pregnant in order to try and keep you alive? That’s kind of amazing. In fact, my boyfriend has always said that if I ever threatened to break up with him, he’d tell me that I was pregnant. Well played, boyfriend. Very well played.
**I read all of these books when I was 16 (or some when I was even younger). However, now that I’m a “mature adult,” I’m reading classics like The Hunger Games trilogy. Not too sure what that says about my literary tastes.
EDIT (07Mar12): I just made a couple of grammar corrections (I’m sure I’ll find more). Also, I’ve been reading some of the reviews online of this series, and it’s interesting how there’s very few naysayers out there. The common complaint is that the final book is the weakest, which was the one I found to be the most engaging and less predictable. Huh. Oh the internet, you are a strange and wacky place.