Book Review: Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy

“To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Not even the ones holding betting slips, the ones who are usually beyond caring. Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, who no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.

Then something unexpected happens. At least, don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” (Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games)[1]

About a year ago, I finished reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, one of the popular young adult dystopian series of recent years. Though it was originally published from 2008 to 2010, I read it after all the books had been released. I decided I should finally write a review and have decided to review the entire trilogy in one essay.

Our main character and narrator is Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old teenager living in District 12 of Panem. The Capitol rules Panem and suppresses most of the population, with the exception of a select few who live in luxury. Most of the people in the Capitol and each district never meet anyone from a different area of Panem, and all they have is partial (and sometimes inaccurate) information about what happens outside of their own homes. Twelve is a coal mining district and many of the people who live there are very poor, especially those who live in the area called the Seam, including Katniss’s family. Katniss lives with her mother and her twelve-year-old sister Primrose; her father died when she was eleven years old, before the beginning of the story, in a coal mining accident. Katniss is friends with eighteen-year-old Gale Hawthorne, who lives with his mother and three siblings, and who also lost his father in the same mining accident. Katniss and Gale help to support their families after the deaths of their fathers. They go hunting together to provide food for their families and sell some of the meat on the local illegal market at the Hob. Generally, they are trying to survive in desperate circumstances and are incredibly loyal to their loved ones.

At the beginning of the first novel The Hunger Games, it is reaping day. As part of its authoritarian rule over the districts, the Capitol forces its citizens to participate in a brutal yearly event called The Hunger Games. Each of the twelve districts must send two child tributes (one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 and 18) to participate in The Hunger Games, which is a fight to the death in which only one person can survive. Tributes are selected at the reaping ceremony, by pulling out a name each from two glass balls. Older children have their names on more slips of paper than younger kids, because one slip is added for each year they are within the age range. Since a person can get tesserae (rations of grain and oil) for their family members by adding their name more times, children from poorer families often have their name entered many more times (and are therefore more likely to be chosen) than those from wealthier families. Both Katniss and Gale have entered their names more times in order to get tesserae for their families; at the beginning of the first novel, Katniss’s name is entered twenty times and Gale’s is entered forty-two times. On reaping day, against the odds, Katniss’s younger sister Prim (whose name was entered once, as required, with no extra entries) is chosen as the female tribute. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark. Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place, because she knows that Prim will almost certainly die if she goes into the arena. Katniss and Peeta, along with the twenty-two tributes from the other eleven districts, are taken away from their homes to participate in the 74th Hunger Games.

When I started reading the series, I was absolutely amazed and pulled into the story. Have you ever read a book that made you want to cry, that made you feel ill because you could recognize the horrors described in the story in your own world? And have ever felt that, perhaps, you (or your demographic) are in some way more like those who are more privileged in the story, that others are treated badly while you are encouraged by Capitol-like governments to look down on others? There are certain standout books which meet this description, and the novels in The Hunger Games trilogy are among them. Right from the beginning, I think Collins does a good job of describing how growing up in the poorest section of one of the poorest districts, under the rule of an authoritarian government, has affected Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones. Readers feel empathy for the characters, recognizing that sometimes they have to break the rules in order to just get by.

During the Games, the tributes are in a horrific situation in which they must kill or be killed. The horrors are described quite clearly, but we unfortunately do not get to know many of the tributes very well. The Games are designed in a way that discourages attempts to disobey the rules by refusing to participate in the fighting; if a tribute tries to stay out of the fighting, the arena has certain technology to change the environment in a way that puts them in danger or forces them to move closer to each other.

Meanwhile, there are cameras everywhere, recording the event in the arena and broadcasting it to all of Panem. Though we read the story from Katniss’s point of view, her narration gives us information about what is probably going on, based on her experience watching the Games in past years and her experience talking wither others while preparing for the Games. People are forced to watch, and family members of the tributes obviously worry about them. Some of the people in the Capitol, who don’t know anyone who’s in the arena, see it as an enjoyable show, and it’s strongly implied that the government uses these kinds of events (as well as the various luxuries available to the people in the Capitol) to keep the population complacent. They are encouraged to enjoy the show. (Readers find out later, in the third book, that the name Panem is taken from the Latin phrase “panem et circenses”[2] from Juvenal’s Satire X.[3] Plutarch Heavensbee uses this phrase when describing the people of the Capitol, telling Katniss, “It’s a saying from thousands of years ago, written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome. […] Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”[4]) It’s an indictment of a culture which tells a select few to be unconcerned about the rest of the population, placing their own comfort and luxuries above the needs and rights of others. It is a critique of a society in which the pain inflicted on certain people, especially the poor, is seen as justified both as perpetual punishment for actions of their ancestors and as entertainment for the few privileged people. There are many times in the first book, as well as throughout the series, when readers are reminded of our own society and recognize, with a sickening dread, the familiarities between our world and Panem.

Amidst the horror, there are some great moments of friendship and comraderie. The friendship between Katniss and Gale is great; we see how they have grown close while hunting together over the years and how dedicated they are to their families. When Katniss is being sent to the Hunger Games, she feel reassured that her family will be fine, because she knows Gale will help take care of them. Katniss’s love for and concern for her sister is very touching right from the start, as Katniss volunteers to be a tribute in her sister’s place; that passage nearly brought me to tears. In the arena, Katniss works together with and befriends Rue, one of the tributes from District Eleven. Rue is the youngest tribute and reminds Katniss of her sister; she is intelligent and resourceful, managing to survive despite her age. Rue is surprised that Katniss wants to be allies with her, but they become friends and help each other. It’s one of the most touching parts of the book, and another one which made me tear up.

One element which I didn’t like in the series was the way Katniss and Peeta’s relationship was handled; I think it could have been done a little differently to show the oppressive nature of the society. There are sections of the book in which Katniss and Peeta are pretending to be together in order to gain fans and donors, but their romance eventually becomes a real one. I think that if their romance had been completely false, a show for the cameras (instead of turning into an actual romance), the point about the controlling nature of this society would have been made even more effectively. It also might have prevented the series from inadequately addressing some other important themes as the story continues.

The writing in the book is very effective in conveying the development of the main characters and the situations. I generally think that first-person narration is difficult to do well, but Collins manages to tell the story in a way which makes readers sympathize with the characters and feel the gravity of the danger they are in. This is less true for some of the secondary characters; a reader who tries to imagine the story from the point of view of secondary characters may gain some understanding of them, but there is not a lot of character development for them, especially as the story continues and more characters are introduced in the later books. The first two books were quick reads, though I did pause in my reading for a bit in the middle of the third book.

The second of the series is Catching Fire, and this is one of those rare trilogies in which I think that the second book is just as good as, and maybe even a little better than, the first one. The 75th Hunger Games are what’s called a Quarter Quell, and the Quarter Quell Games have some element that is different from the regular Games. In the 75th, the different element is that the rule which protects previous victors from being tributes again is changed, inverted; instead, all the tributes are chosen from previous victors of the Games.

The second book could very easily have felt like a repeat of the first, with tributes in the arena again, but Collins skillfully avoids that trap. Because the tributes are previous victors, they have a different perspective on the Hunger Games, having survived them before. They are traumatized by their previous experience in the Games. The arena design is an ingenious puzzle and also unspeakably cruel. The tributes try to work together and figure out a way to escape from the game instead of participating in it. What really stands out in this book is the feeling that a rebellion is about to begin, with hints that people are secretly working against the Capitol, even though our main character doesn’t have all the information at first. The book ends with a devastating revelation.

The third of the series Mockingjay takes a turn that makes it different from the other two. The first two books centered on Katniss’s participation in The Hunger Games, with the inklings of rebellion in the background. In the third book, the rebellion is under way, and there are many people with their own motivations participating in it. Katniss, who had become a symbol of rebellion during the first two books, now becomes the official symbol used by the rebellion in media to convince people to join the fight. She knows she is being manipulated and is trying to figure out what to do.

There are certain moral dilemmas brought up as the rebellion is underway. One of these is the question of which military tactics are justified when fighting in a rebellion, and if there is a point at which the actions of the rebellion become just as inhumane and unjustified as the actions of the authoritarian government they are trying to overthrow. This causes a rift between Katniss and her long-time friend Gale, who believes that using certain military tactics and weaponry which will cause more collateral damage is justified. Related to this is the question of whether the people leading the rebellion will be just as ruthless as the current leaders when they take over the government. As Katniss realizes that she’s being manipulated by the people leading the rebellion, she doubts that the rebellion will actually cause things to improve in Panem or just replace one authoritarian government with another one.

The story also shows how the people who participated in the Hunger Games and the war are personally affected by it, especially Katniss and some fellow former tributes. We see how Katniss has been affected by her experiences as she struggles to deal with her memories and emotions throughout the books. In her conversations with fellow tributes, she hears about their experiences and how they are trying to come to terms with what they’ve been through. They are often reminded of being captured, manipulated, and tortured by the Capitol government. Everyone is haunted by their memories, and their stories are heartbreaking to read about.

The ending of the story reminded me of a lesson I learned from one of my teachers in high school about the classic dystopian books: sometimes, the unhappy ending is the point. There is no glorious victory of happily ever after; there is only the horror and the characters trying to deal with it. Although the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy superficially resembles a happy ending (the main character being together with her love interest and them having kids together) it’s intended to show the long-lasting effects of being through the kind of horrors that the characters have experienced.

My main criticism was the way that the last book, by focusing on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, didn’t further develop the other themes that were in the story. (Always having been frustrated at the way the romance element was handled in the stories, it frustrated me even more when it took center stage at moments when it seemed more relevant to focus on other events and themes.) Katniss, our heroine, seems to become a minor character in her own story. Part of this is intentional, in order to show how various people are trying to manipulate her and the rebellion. Part of it, however, is due to the overemphasis on romance and the attempts to tie up various plotlines too quickly (with Katniss finding out what happened after the fact). A factor which contributed to the story being rushed at the end is that the third book is about the same length as the first two but contains much more content. There are various characters (from the various districts and the Capitol) who I wanted to get to know better, not only because they were interesting but because their perspective would have added depth and nuance to the attempted critique of the society. The overall effect of the third book is that the themes that are introduced are not adequately addressed.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series, and I think it is an effective critique of some of the problems in human societies. It’s a story about kids and teenagers who are thrown into a vicious game, but the message is broader, addressing the cruelty of the society in which they live. The message of the series is very memorable and has emotional impact; however, due to the lack of development of the world and secondary characters and lack of follow-up on some of the themes, I don’t think some elements of the story could have been written better. For its willingness to depict the problems of a society, rather than just being a violent action story with no message, I think it’s worth a read.

#

References

[1] Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008, Ch 2, p. 23-4. Print.

[2] “Bread and circuses”. Entry at Wikipedia. Retrieved on 17 April 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses.

[3] “Satire X: Wrong Desire is the Source of Suffering”. Subheading under: “Satires of Juvenal”. Wikipedia Entry. Retrieved 17 April 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satires_of_Juvenal#Satire_X:_Wrong_Desire_is_the_Source_of_Suffering.

[4] Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic, 2010, Ch 16, p. 223. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy

  1. This is cool. I also love THG! Can I use some of the lines (excerpt) in your review? Because I was asked by my professor to present/have a speech about HG.

  2. @Meg Milagrosa: Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the late reply. Glad you enjoyed the review. I’m honored you’d want to quote me in your project. Yes, you may use a short excerpt from my review, as long as you include a reference indicating where you got it from. All the best!

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