Book 1. The Hunger Games
Book 2. Catching Fire
Book 3. Mocking Jay
It seems more often than not these days I’m doing things the wrong way round, watching films before reading the book. The inner literature student in me shrieks a lot in angryprotest and my conscience attacks me with pretentious and scornful accusations such as ‘A true lover of literature would never bow down to the lowly art of film to inspire them to read a book. YOU HAVE LOST YOUR WAY’, but I shut all these things out, because really…it’s not that serious.
Moreover, this is exactly the same position that I find myself in again with ‘The Hunger Games’; I watched the film and was so impressed by it, that against all attempts by myself (it’s not like I don’t have enough books to read already), I found myself drawn to a shop window in Westfield Stratford, saw the book in the window pane, said to myself ‘Oh I’ll just have a peek and see what the font size is like (Lies, lies and more lies), accidentally read the blurb of the last book, add that to the fact the font-size wasn’t ridiculously small so I knew it wouldn’t take me a long time to read them if I was to read them (but of course I wasn’t going to), but you know…by the time I walked out of that shop less than 60 seconds later, I knew I was going home to Amazon: *confirm payment* *click* *payment accepted* The end.
The Hunger Games Trilogy are science fiction novels by Suzanne Collins, set in Panem – a post-apocalyptic totalitarian state located where North America was formerly. There are 12 districts (previously 13) within this society and the Capitol. The Capitol is the most lavish and richest past of Panem, and the inhabitants of the other 12 districts live in poverty, frugality and suffering, and are controlled and under the constant watch of the Capitol (via Peacekeepers) who punish them severely for any attempts to rebel against them or for law-breaking. Punishment is swift including execution or maiming. Each district specializes in a specific field (e.g. District 12 in Mining), the products of which are used to sustain the ever greedy, fickle and silly inhabitants of the Capitol who live in luxury and indulgence. This state is due to a rebellion many years ago in which the inhabitants of the previously 13 districts rebelled against the Capitol; in the end the Capitol won, District 13 was destroyed entirely and as punishment and as a reminder to the districts of the Capitol’s power and victory (but also as a source of yearly entertainment for the Capitol) one year, a boy and a girl from each district (between the ages of 12 – 18) are selected via a lottery process to fight against each other and for their lives in an arena loaded with sinister booby traps, animal mutations, and more in the annual Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are televised throughout all of Panem, so all its inhabitant can see how their ‘tributes’ (the boy and the girl) progress in the challenge. It’s a bloodthirsty occasion in which only 1 out of 24 tributes can win, and live in luxury for the rest of their days as a reward.
In the books, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen is the voice of the narrator. ‘The Hunger Games’ is an exploration of her experience as a tribute in the arena having volunteered to take the place of her 12 year-old younger sister Primrose (known as Prim).
Comparison to the Film
So perhaps you watched the film first and think you have grasped what the first book is about? In my humble opinion, that didn’t even scratch the surface. Having now read the trilogy and identified the subplots that were ignored in the first film (fantastic though I thought it was and still do), I will be very interested to see how certain storylines that hinged on those subplots, are manifested in the next instalment. I would go so far as to say the two following books cannot be represented in film form to the best ability, without acknowledgement of those underlying plots and an exploration of them in some way. It’s not possible. But something tells me the directors and producers may have already thought about that, and if they pursue the production of the second film in the way I think they will and could (based on how they’ve interpreted the first book), the audience who have never read any of the books, will be in for more than a bit of a shock.
It’s hard to critique 3 novels without revealing integral parts of the plot, but I will try to balance the need for discretion and vagueness, yet information and critical assessment when examining my impressions of them.
I don’t think it is possible to describe this trilogy in anything less than an oxymoron, my choice being, horrifically brilliant. It is horrifying because there is no way of getting away from the fact that much of the storyline is embedded in deception, torture, sadism, psychosis, mental and physical violence and abuse, cruelty and murder. There are also themes less terrifyingly loaded such as love, conscience, hope, victory and freedom. The way in which these aspects intertwine to knit together a tapestry of a moderately complex set of novels however, is what makes it brilliant. In the novel, these aspects are rarely ever presented as coldly and as scientifically as I have listed them.
The brutality and necessity with which people are dispatched with in the novels, reinforces the sense of outrage towards the Capitol and it’s leader President Snow that the reader is encouraged to feel from the very moment we understand the concept of the Hunger Games. No life is valuable enough, and any cost is the ethos under which efforts to preserve the Capitol’s power and authority over the districts, are run. You would think that this totalitarian mindset would plant the reader’s foot firmly in camp Katniss, and later the districts camp, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because we begin to see that in her hunger and the inhabitants of the districts hunger for survival, they too commit morally questionable acts of savagery and bloodshed….also for the greater good.
Other critiques have branded and scorned the ménage a trois between Katniss, Gale and Peeta as a typical literary construct of the teenage/young adult novel, which it is. But what I like about the way in which Collins employs it is that she bases the conflicts that Katniss has regarding it all on rudiments deeper than you will see in many novels of the same genre. This isn’t about Katniss being fickle and not making a decision because so and so is not good-looking enough etc, this about a girl who is fighting a psychological and physical war against the Capitol, her mentor, Peeta, Gale and to an extent her mother, all at the same time, whilst also discovering some things about herself, things she may not like but are a necessary mindset right now. She is fighting for survival in every aspect of the word and so should love, real love be her priority? Is there a role it can play in her getting what she wants, what she needs? [before I say anymore, read the books!]
One of the prime aspects that made the trilogy stand out for me, was that reading it was almost like reading a moral indictment against current society. As I read along, I found it increasingly impossible not to mentally explore it a little further in my mind in terms of the age we live in today. If I’m honest, it was a bit discomforting. Who are the rich and powerful and who are the poor and weak? How are the rich and powerful staying rich and powerful? Is it at the expense of the poor and weak? At the expense of the lives of the poor and weak? And what happens when the people who produce all the richest and powerful’s wealth and riches, don’t want to play according to the rules anymore? Are they snuffed out and continually reminded that they will forever be subjugated to the rich and powerful? In fact there were countless parallels that could be drawn with some of the current situations of the world where citizens have rebelled against totalitarian governments, and the retaliation and barbarity that those governments have set loose. Also the violence and bloodshed rebel factions have also inflicted on the masses. And that was the ‘beauty’ of the trilogy – they weren’t just books to be read and forgotten about; they made me as a reader consider that placed in the same situation as some of the novel’s protagonists (situations that are plausible in real life), I too might develop a warped sense of vengeance, justice, retribution and unity where the solution is pretty much torture or murder to the first three to get to the fourth. The lives that were vanquished in the novel became more than a body count of collateral casualties used for literary dramatic effect; as their thoughts, their personalities and backgrounds were explored, the more I invested in them as characters, as plausible potential human beings, hence the more I felt the loss of them. The same is true for the characters that survived; the emotional breakdowns in the trilogy were emotive. The trilogy was quite harrowing at times.
Collins must be congratulated on what was gargantuan task with regards to the sheer amount of imagery that is packed in the three books. I often find that many authors who have so many location and sites of action and drama, lose sight of the plot whilst trying to conjure up the reader’s visual imagination through words. Collins managed to vividly describe these locations, yet also left an appropriate amount of space for the reader to formulate their own vision in their mind about how things would look. Her ability to make the action and the description compliment each other, compounded the fascinating terror of some of the events in the trilogy. I was amazed at how deeply I felt about how some things panned out; the sadness, the fear, the exultation.
Collins appropriately created and made use of cliff-hangers. She did not toy too long and unnecessarily with the reader’s curiosity. Cliff-hangers were dealt with immediately in the next segment, which was necessary for these books as there was so much action going on already; too much suspense would have complicated the narrative and confused an already multi-layered plot. The plot twists were fantastic and well placed. In ‘Mocking Jay’ especially, these were used for great dramatic effect. I was dumbstruck on more than a few occasions.
In terms of maintaining the pace of ‘The Hunger Games’ in ‘Catching Fire’, I was stunned at how persuasively this was done. I am still now unable to say which book was better, ‘Catching Fire’ or ‘Mocking Jay’. They are both fascinating but for totally different reasons. In ‘Catching Fire’, Collins revolts against reader expectation in terms of stretching one plot into three books, but instead develops that plot into several other strands, with more action, more characters, more intrigues and more dimensions drawn in. There is nothing indulgent about this second book in terms of plot development. The only thing that I found slightly annoying in the last two books, was the way the narration seemed to provide information (one or two times) as if the reader had not read the preceding book. I found that a bit odd. I don’t believe an author should ever try to make up for the fact that a reader may have not read the books in the right order; that is the reader’s prerogative and should not enter the content.
What I liked about Collins characters is that it was almost impossible to empathize or like any of them 100% of the time. The Capitol’s inhabitants are presented as greedy, bloodthirsty and ignorant fools on the one hand, but at the same time Collins explores their naïveté with regards to the impact of the games on the inhabitants of the districts as a way of us empathizing with their very silly and childlike mentalities. They are too stupid to know any better. But when they do know better, they are capable of redeeming qualities, doing as much as they can (under the jurisdiction of the Capitol of course for they are not immune to punishment either, there is a status quo to be upheld), to show their support. And in the same way as a reader we empathize and feel righteous indignation at the treatment of the Districts, we are also forced to see the individual agendas and the depths some of these people are willing to go to, actions they are ready to commit which a life under the jurisdiction of the Capitol should have better informed them against. In short Collins’ characters highlight a major flaw and component of the human condition (a point I believe she was trying to make)….that put in the right circumstances, we are all capable of anything.
‘And may the odds be ever, in your favour’ Effie Trinket.
I know that I have literally gushed about the trilogy for all of this review, but I am trying, and I am struggling to find a bad word to say about it. I have a great love for and have read many books of this utopia/dystopia genre and therefore I am quite critical of them and have higher expectations the more of them I read. However I finished this whole trilogy in the space of 9 days collectively. It was that good. I found myself wishing that it was longer, then I realised that would have destroyed the impact of the first three books. There is no need for another. There are few loose ends left for the reader to wonder about and that is something I love about it. For me, the predominant impact it had on me as a reader, is that it forced me to see the world that I live in now through slightly less glossy eyes, because the truth of the matter was that Panem exists and could exist on a wider scale in the world, in the future. And I know that right now some people are screaming at their screens yelling ‘this is just a bunch of teenage novels, and how dare I draw parallels to the real world get a grip!’, but I don’t think those thoughts are too wild a parallel to draw. If anyone has different thoughts, I’m all ears. Needless to say, this is just my opinion after all…
I could say so much more, but this is just a review, not a PhD thesis.
Nevertheless, the above is why I read books.