(This post talks about the books that make up THG which means that there will be significant spoilers for all three of them. I couldn’t come up with a coherent review for individual books without having to refer to the others, so we have this.)
By this time, writing about The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins means contending not only with the three books that make up the trilogy, but also the multi-tentacled industry that has emerged from it. It is also no hyperbole to say that the books have had a transformative effect within its genre. Since the publication of the first book in 2008 “young women in dystopias” became a dominant form, with a phalanx of similarly pitched YA series coming at its heels.
The Hunger Games is part of a rarefied group of fictional works that have achieved peak cultural penetration, complete with Hollywood movies, fashion lines, and theme parks. People who don’t care about books have heard of it. Even my mom has read the books.
(Though she has also read all The Lord of the Rings novels plus The Hobbit, and is in the middle of the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire, so it might just mean that I have a lot less geek cred than my mother.)
Every year, all twelve districts send two adolescents to the Capitol where they are locked inside a combat zone and forced to fight to the death. The Games is partly a tool that the oppressive government uses to terrorize the districts and partly a televised Olympics-style event that they use to entertain the populace. What for Katniss Everdeen is a simple battle for survival ends up becoming a perilous political struggle that she must navigate together with her District Twelve ally, a baker’s son named Peeta.
I decided to write my thoughts on the trilogy as one blog post because I read the entire series in a single three-day tear. Because of this I’ve never viewed the individual books as autonomous units, which I think colors my assessment of them. For one, I seem to be much more satisfied with the way Mockingjay ended than the people I know who had to wait a year after reading Catching Fire. I also saw the second book (for better or for worse) as merely a bridge that ties The Hunger Games with the monumental events in Mockingjay.
I can’t imagine having to wait for a year for a book. The last time I experience that was for Harry Potter and I haven’t even read the last book yet.
Estimates put the word count for all three books at a little over than 100,000 words each. One of Suzanne Collins’ greatest achievements is how she successfully managed to convey a complex and high-concept fictional world and create an iconic main character using the sparest language possible. In the episode where they discussed the movie adaptation, the panelists in the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour praised Collins for having a brutally efficient writing style. “Every chapter is built toward the final sentence… that is genetically engineered to make you turn the page,” says panelist Glen Weldon.
People may evaluate her prose and consider it too spare and unliterary, but I disagree. I was often amazed at the amount of backstory and worldbuilding the narrative manages to convey without relying on paragraphs of exposition. Collins also resists the temptation to break away from Katniss’s POV in order to give use the big picture information that she has no way of knowing, something to which even its movie version has succumbed.
Suzanne Collins has the narrative discipline of a hardboiled mystery writer, with a laser-focused obsession in creating a singular set of eyes with which to see this alien world.
My praise for the trilogy is turning out to be a litany of temptations that Collins successfully resists. It would’ve been so easy, for example, to stack the reader’s sympathy in her favor from the beginning. Katniss is emotionally forbidding even within her inner monologue, making harsh emotional judgments of her mother in very first chapter. There are people such as Haymitch and Peeta for whom she cares, but she never fully trusts them.
By the end of the book she doesn’t manages to cultivate a maternal instinct, nor does she learn to “love herself”. She ends up like the young soldiers who come back from wars, profoundly changed and somewhat broken by her traumas.
The idea of dystopia that exists in books such as 1984 had to undergo multiple philosophical and socio-political transformations in order to accommodate The Hunger Games. Dystopian novels* in the age of totalitarianism through the Cold War were preoccupied with the complete subsummation of individual thought. On the other hand, the Capitol in The Hunger Games has a more pragmatic view of mass control. Through their methods, individuals with seditious thoughts are defanged by their lack of agency, and that the full brunt of their brutality must be selectively doled out in order to be effective.
Collins’ novels also have a more complicated relationship with broadcast media than the top-down propaganda dump of 1984. While the beginning of the narrative shows the Capitol in full control of its messaging through their handling of the games, they also end up creating the seeds of their own destruction. By putting Katniss and the other Tributes on television, they unwittingly give them a platform from which to enact their rebellion.
*These are different from Apocalyptic novels, by the way. Apocalypses like World War Z are about the breakdown humanity’s structures and people’s struggle to survive. Dystopias are about oppressive ruling systems that purport to have eliminated dissatisfaction by quashing dissent. While apocalyptic events may give rise to oppressive regimes, such as in The Hunger Games, social organization comes much later.
My favorite thing about Catching Fire is how well it illustrates the different texture of complicity among the people oppressed by the Capitol. Some districts, despite having their Tributes die once a year, are completely beholden to the system that they have created elaborate fictions to continue buying into them. The Heathers—I mean, the elites—have invested a gladiatorial magnificence to the Games that differs harshly with the way the other districts viewed it. These districts have as much hand in propping up the oppressive system as the Capitol.
The horrific display of game-ified carnage is the logical extreme of the reality show. For the television audience at home, it gives the illusion of emotional investment while overlooking the idea that these people are individuals who are being killed for their own pleasure. The wide chasm between the haves and the have-nots are not merely monetary in nature, it is the inability of the privileged to see the impoverished as human and therefore worthy of life.
The Tributes, like the gladiators of another all-encompassing empire, end up becoming singular individuals bestowed with superhuman glory, loved by the people they can only see as their oppressors.
A revolution novel, when it is honest about itself, would often read as much as a realpolitik manifesto as a heroic story of triumph against the bonds of oppression. This is because while our conception of the quintessential rebellion novel always comes with a gloss of tragic earnestness, real political struggles involve battling imaging strategies in tandem with armed struggles. Narratives such as Les Miserables, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and–dare I say it–Spartacus are about individuals or small collectives casting aside their yokes of oppression in order to selflessly carry entire societies into a better tomorrow.
Mockingjay sheds a harsh light into this imagery by having Katniss inhabit this idea of becoming the beacon of a revolution in the most pragmatic way possible. She may no longer be killing opponents in an arena for the enjoyment of television viewers, but Mockingjay still has her playing out a reality TV persona for an audience. Only this time her role is Freedom Fighter.
Mockingjay is not the kind of book that makes you feel good that the protagonists win the war. Despite all the deaths it took to defeat Voldemort in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the end still came with the reestablishment of the status quo. It cost them seven books and a lot of bloodshed, but their long supernatural nightmare for Harry and the gang had effectively come to pass.
What is the prize for people like Katniss, Gale, and Peeta after the war? They can’t even go home again, either literally or metaphorically. A new order emerges in the place of the old one, but these three people are such creatures of the previous regime that living a world they helped into existence is a struggle.
One day, we as a culture need to create a framework to address the current crop of Young Adult dystopias that are beyond the most simplistic and condescending talking points. Is it fair, for example, to characterize a book such as The Hunger Games as having “romantic” traits when 1984 has as much of a love story as it does?
This appeal comes not only from a desire to elevate the discourse but also from a desire to differentiate a good dystopian YA from a crappy one. While not perfect, I maintain that The Hunger Games succeeds in many literary fronts at once. It is a success when it comes to narrative storytelling, a nuanced thought experiment in political worldbuilding, and a compelling rebellion narrative. Not bad for a couple of books about teenagers.