Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: book review, books, catching fire, literature, mockingjay, suzanne collins, the hunger games, ya lit, young adult books, young adult literature
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was my post-GRE reward: after months of (kind of) breaking a sweat, reading wise, I could chill out and read some solid young adult lit, which if you if you read my blog you know is a genre I can’t shake my interest in.
Only The Hunger Games, despite being an engrossing, fast-paced, well-written series, wasn’t as light as I’d been imagining. Now that I look back on the basic plot, which is that every year the Capitol of Panem (the nation that has replaced the former United States) selects a male and female tribute from each of its twelve colonies to participate in the “Hunger Games,” a fight to the death, as a reminder of the total control the Capitol has over the colonies and their people, I am not sure why I thought this would be a light read. There is nothing light about that description.
Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is drawn as District Twelve’s female tribute in the trilogy’s first book, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. It’s hard…well, impossible…to describe the general arc of the plot without totally giving away the first book, to those of you who haven’t read it yet (and you should! You really really should!), so I’m going to skimp on plot summary this post. Although any of you who read my reviews on a semi-regular basis already know that I skimp on plot summary all the time.
The three books are tightly plotted, but what impresses me most about Collins’s plotting is how all-encompassing it is – how the shape of the three books as a whole becomes horrifyingly apparent in the third book, this idea that even outside of the Hunger Games’ rings, there is nothing but another version of the Games. I found the third book harder to get through than the first two, not because I thought it was a poorer book, but because the plot was so hopeless. I could guess, generally, where things were headed, and I didn’t want that to be where things were headed. Like Katniss in the first book of the series, I wanted to believe that once the Games were over, they were over; that she and her family, and her two friends or boyfriends, Peeta and Gale, could go back to District Twelve and “normal” life.
They can’t, of course, and I’m not giving too much away by saying that. Collins does a stunning job of showing the good and bad in everything she writes about. There are no characters or political groups in this book that are wholly good; everything is mixed. Katniss, by her own probing analysis, makes most of her decisions based on her own self-interest and on the theory that others (usually Peeta) will act in ways to her benefit, will continue to love her long after she has become both unlovable and unbearable. Haymitch, the only living victor of the Hunger Games in Disctrict Twelve before Peeta and Katniss, and their mentor in the Games, is an emotionally crippled alcoholic who manages to guide the pair through the Hunger Games, though often playing them off each other in order to suit his interests, or the interests of those he works for.
This trilogy answers in force the plea, examined in earlier posts here, to write “round” characters in young adult literature. There is not a single character in this book that struck me as false or lacking complexity. Like her mentor Haymitch, Katniss frequently is incapable of handling her emotions, her sadness and anger at being involved in the Games and used for others’ means. She tries to shut out the people she is closest to in an effort to strengthen her chances of winning and getting back to them, and the tragedy here is that while she can shut them out, she can’t ever reach the end she dreams of, the point at which she can allow them back in. Even these moments, though, are coupled with her desire to protect those around her, particularly her sometimes boyfriend Peeta and her sister, Prim:
Too heartsick to cry, all I want is to curl up on the bed and sleep until we arrive in the Capitol tomorrow morning. But I have a mission. No, it’s more than a mission. It’s my dying wish. Keep Peeta alive. And as unlikely as it seems that I can achieve it in the face of the Capitol’s anger, it’s important that I be at the top of my game. This won’t happen if I’m mourning for everyone I love back home. Let them go, I tell myself. Say good-bye and forget them. I do my best, thinking of them one by one, releasing them like birds from the protective cages inside me, locking the doors against their return.
Through the trilogy’s first book, The Hunger Games, the reader, like Katniss can mostly comfort him or herself with the thought that it is, after all, just a game; that every game has to end. But Collins is writing about a game that extends beyond the borders of a ring, one that is very much a part of the political control the Capitol has over its people. District uprisings that begin in the second book, Catching Fire, take hold in the third, Mockingjay, and Katniss and her childhood friend and, well, maybe someday boyfriend Gale, along with her family, are drawn into the resistance movement in the rogue District Thirteen.
And here is where I fought, where Katniss fights, against the fear that this movement might be no better than what it seeks to replace. As a Hunger Games victor who “defeated” the Games by her romance with Peeta, with her appeal to the “hearts and minds” of the Capitol’s people, Katniss has been a tool of propaganda for over a year before finding herself in District Thirteen. But as part of this district and the rebel movement, Katniss finds herself a propaganda tool for the other side. Just as in the Hunger Games, her romance with Peeta is mined for its propaganda value:
When I confront Plutarch, he assures me that it’s all for the camera. They’ve got footage of Annie getting married and Johanna hitting targets, but all of Panem is wondering about Peeta. They need to see he’s fighting for the rebels, not for Snow. And maybe if they could just get a couple of shots of the two of us, not kissing necessarily, just looking happy to be back together–
I walk away from the conversation right then. That is not going to happen.
Collins writes some horrifying scenes in which the attempt to create propaganda is juxtaposed with the war itself. Victors of the Hunger Games might be sent into combat, but as Katniss says, “I’m not even a real solider. Just one of Plutarch’s televised puppets.” Even that fiction of the televised puppets can’t last, though; sent into a fairly inactive and tactically unimportant area of the Capitol to stage some war scenes for the propaganda reels, a “pod” (think a landmine, only more high tech) is triggered and all hell lets lose.
We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it’s supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that I’m not the worst actor in the squad. Not by a long shot. We’re all laughing so hard at Mitchell’s attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.
“Pull it together, Four-Five-One,” he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he’s double-checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.
It’s as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.
Okay, I’m giving in to my usual temptation to quote half a chapter rather than a sentence or two. But this scene encompasses so much of what is central to the trilogy – the ongoing attempt to shatter the painted window and find what is reality, only to discover that what seemed to be reality is another painted window. How can anyone react against that? How do you find your way out of a Game when it makes up your entire world?
At end, many of the major characters are dead, lost to the cause of either the Capitol or the rebels or The Hunger Games itself, but those who remain have changed and grown enough to underscore Collins’s skill at character development.
The Hunger Games are those types of books that, though classified as “young adult literature,” seem to be there as a matter of convenience as much as anything else. Where else to place them? Every aspect of these books is so well imagined, though, that I’m glad the books have found their way out of what could be the purgatory of sparkly vampires and are, from what I can tell, being read by about every English speaker on Earth. (I hope this is true and not just some fantasy I’ve dreamt up thanks to my lack of access to US news or bestseller lists.) Not exactly the light read I was looking for, but they’re something all right.