When I initially started thinking about what I wanted this blog’s first review to be, I decided that I wanted it to be something in pop culture that had resonance, but was fairly recent in readers’ minds. Something that everyone was familiar with, so that they could focus on feeling out what the tone of this blog was going to be, but that I could-hopefully-give a fresh take on. Eventually, I knew exactly what this first review was going to be about.
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
The Hunger Games trilogy is about a sixteen-year-old named Katniss Everdeen (Sixteen! Not twenty-one-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood!) who lives under an oppressive regime called the Capitol in post-apocalyptic North America. Every year, the Capitol holds and celebrates the Hunger Games, during which pairs of 12-to-18-year-old boys and girls from each state-like “District” fight each other to the death on live television until one is left standing. It serves as a reminder that a second attempted rebellion-as the Districts had tried and failed once before- is futile. The trilogy follows what happens to and around Katniss after she has volunteered to enter the Hunger Games in the place of her younger sister, Prim. Along the way, Katniss is forced to learn that sometimes, a spark is impossible to put out, even by the person who helped to create it.
The first book, aptly titled The Hunger Games, is the one that possesses the most richness and political weight in its social commentary. One of the first things we learn about Katniss is that when she was younger, she would frankly and harshly criticize the injustices she saw around her. More specifically, the people, the government, that perpetrated, fostered, and allowed these injustices to happen. As she grew older however, she “learned to hold my tongue and to turn [her] features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read [her] thoughts.” She trained herself to be stoic, to be outwardly invulnerable, so that she would never draw dangerous attention towards herself and, by extension, her family. She had to be able to protect and care for her sister when her mother was so emotionally overcome by the loss of Katniss’ father that she was no longer able to do it herself- a weakness that Katniss deeply resented in her mother and did everything she could to quell within herself.
Furthermore, District 12, Katniss’ district, has the odds stacked against them in the Hunger Games from the jump because they are the poorest District. They have no resources, no education, no opportunity to train as some of the other Districts do. They barely have enough food to eat. There was even a system put into place where a child in the eligible age range can choose to have their name put into the lottery for the Hunger Games extra times in exchange for food. This was a blatantly cruel poor tax that ensures that the poorest people have a greater chance of being killed off, and thus of “no longer being a burden on society.”
By the time we meet the Capitol, 74 years after the first District Rebellion, they have written and rewritten history in the manner that is almost customary for the victors of conflict to do. They call the period of time during which the first rebellion took place as the “Dark Days,” a phrase that carries a negative connotation and thus reenforces that connotation within their citizenry. They paint the Capitol as the steadfast, forgiving savior of “polite and respectable society.” If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. You could say that the Capitol is giving the citizens of Panem “alternative facts.”
It’s not a coincidence that Suzanne Collins has Katniss specifically say that she’s “not good at lying.” With Katniss, what you see is what you get, in all her faults, ideals, and problematic morals. You know who you’re following and what you’re fighting for, if you so choose. If a leader lies to his/her own people, then what’s the point? You’re left following someone who never truly existed, left fighting for something that never needed to be obtained to begin with.
The first time that Katniss commits a true act of rebellion against the Capitol, it’s in deference to a young black girl named Rue. How powerful is that? Even more so, Katniss’ great act of rebellion isn’t something violent. It’s not killing Rue’s murderer (though she does, as her first kill) or protecting her against the other tributes. No. It’s treating Rue as a human being worthy of respect, admiration, and mourning following her death by covering her body with flowers. It’s making Rue’s death mean something, by making it the catalyst of Katniss’ desire to take down the Capitol and finally cease the constant injustices that she has observed and witnessed since before she was even Rue’s age. The parallels to our own society are poignantly clear.
The one thing that I believe is worth criticizing in this book, and this series as a whole, is the overbearing presence of the love triangle. I am not someone who hates all love triangles on principle, as I believe it is possible for them to be done correctly and enjoyably, but this series just isn’t the place for it. It feels like Suzanne Collins feared that her desired demographic wouldn’t be interested in a political post-apocalyptic series about the aromantic, asexual, mentally ill girl Katniss was always meant to be and thus threw the love triangle in to draw those readers. But imagine if there was no love triangle for the media to focus on. If the big plot twist at the end of this novel was that Katniss kills Peeta so that she can make it home to Prim, and then has to deal with the emotional and psychological ramifications of that? If neither Peeta nor Gale were love interests, but the former was merely a fellow human being along with Katniss for this journey and the latter was just a friend that Katniss shares a fond history with and helps her realize her identity? I feel these changes would have made this already fantastic novel and trilogy even stronger.
The second book, titled Catching Fire, is perhaps not as politically rich as its predecessor, but is, I believe, a superior novel for its plot and character development. The introduction of the tragically alluring character of Finnick Odair, as well as the brilliant plot device of the clock arena, makes this sequel stand apart in a way the other two books don’t. After all, the intellectual stimulation of political and social commentary is not absent completely. Katniss is shown to blame and loathe herself for her own victory in the games, thinking that, “No wonder I won the Games. No decent person ever does.” This way of thinking is common in trauma survivors and abuse victims. Any kind of fault they find within themselves, in this case Katniss’ indecision in choosing between Peeta and Gale, is looked at by the survivor/victim as proof that they deserved what they went through. That they, in their human imperfection, brought it upon themselves by karma, fate, etc.
It’s not until a bit later, in an effective passage when Katniss thinks of Prim and Rue, that she once again feels empowered and motivated to fight because she is reminded that this is bigger than herself, “I can’t let the Capitol hurt Prim. And then it hits me. They already have. They have killed her father in those wretched mines. They have sat by as she almost starved to death. They have chosen her as a tribute, then made her watch her sister fight to the death in the Games. She has been hurt far worse than I had at the age of twelve. And even that pales in comparison with Rue’s life.”
What about Mockingjay, the third book, you ask? Well, to be honest, Mockingjay is a mess. It makes the societal critique thesis of the previous two books completely incoherent. It drags and loses focus, screws up characterization, and kills off beloved fan favorites. The only scene in Mockingjay that has always stood out to me is the scene where Finnick confesses that the Capitol has blackmailed him into becoming a prostitute for the people of the Capitol’s overindulged pleasure. It was the only scene in this novel that built upon a character in a way that both made sense and touched the reader deeply. How ironic that Finnick would come to be one of the characters that Suzanne Collins killed off before the end.
When I first read this trilogy in 2012, it didn’t hit me that deeply. I don’t know if it was because I was younger then, and less aware of what was going on around me, or because the world was a much better place, but it scares me how much this trilogy resonates with me now. There are too many parallels between our current society and that of the authoritative, greedy, murderous regime that is the Capitol. Like the Districts, we cannot allow ourselves to go any further down that road. We cannot allow ourselves to be taken advantage of or lied to. We cannot allow ourselves not to fight back.
Best character: Finnick Odair
The Hunger Games: