Series Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (spoiler warning)
Since I’m starting to finish up a bunch of series I’ve been reading for quite some time, I decided it’d be nice to reflect on the series as a whole after finishing. I tend to do this in my head anyway, and it’ll be nice to get it out in writing. Needless to say, there will be spoilers for every entry in the series. This is about analysis and reflection and conversation with others who have read the series. If you’re the type who likes spoilers before reading a series, you’re of course welcome as well.
The Hunger Games trilogy is a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the small nation of Panem, which we assume is what is left of livable land in what used to be the USA. Panem is divided into 12 districts. It is a dictatorship that faced a rebellion previously by the 13th district. Every year each district, except the Capitol, must send one girl and one boy, chosen by lottery, to participate in the Hunger Games–a reality show in which they must fight to the death until only one survivor is left. Katniss lives in District 12 and volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim. She forms an alliance with the boy from her district, Peeta. When they are left the only ones standing, they grab poisonous berries, planning to thwart the Capitol by leaving no survivors. They, of course, are stopped and are paraded around as engaged lovers for a year. The President is angry at them, but they believe themselves to be relatively safe from his wrath as national heroes. The next year, however, it is announced that this year’s Hunger Game will consist of the victors from the previous games. It is believed that this act of violence will help squash the rebellion that is brewing. Some of the victors plot with the rebels, however, and Katniss and some other victors escape with their aid and join in on the revolution, with Katniss the symbol of the rebellion.
I first stumbled upon this series last summer. I’m not sure how exactly, but given that I love dystopias, and it is one, it’s not too surprising. I loved that for once in YA lit there was a main female character who was interested in something besides the mysterious new boy at school or make-up. She is focused on survival and caring for her family. I also enjoyed how she is presented as powerful, strong, and deadly. It’s a nice change of pace from what generally is out there for teens to read. I thought the teens fighting to death as punishment concept was unique, and was ranting about it one day to someone else who said, “That sounds a lot like Battle Royale.” And that’s when my entire view of the series started to change.
I watched the Battle Royale movie, which is based on the manga series of the same name, and I was flabbergasted to discover the exact same basic concept of a corrupt government forcing teens to battle each other to the death once a year. There was less backstory on the characters, and Battle Royale has the teens actually behaving as sexual beings and is more violent, but the basic driving plot is the same. Battle Royale, the manga and the movie, was released in 2000. The first book of the Hunger Games was released in 2008. I immediately investigated to see if Collins admits an influence or even discusses a similarity between her trilogy and the Japanese series. She does not. She claims her influences were purely from watching reality tv and war coverage, as well as from Greek myths. She never discusses the similarity between her own books and Battle Royale. This is disrespectful at best. Most writers are influenced by other writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it is acknowledged. Yet Collins refuses to even acknowledge the similarities between her own books and Battle Royale. She doesn’t have to admit to swiping the idea and Americanizing it (although, I personally believe that is what happened). She doesn’t even have to say she was influenced by it (this is what I believe she should do). She should at least talk about how the two are similar and recommend the Battle Royale series to fans of her own series. It’s the only respectful thing to do. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s ignore for the moment the questionable origins of the story and focus on the content.
Katniss spends the entire series struggling against forces that are bigger than herself. She sides with the rebels only to find herself questioning them as well, and in the end, she causes the death of both President Snow (inadvertently) and President Coin (directly by shooting her). Katniss claims she wants things to be different, yet all she sees is power hungry people all around her. She winds up doubting in humanity as a species, wondering at a species that repeatedly sacrifices its children for their own amusement and gain. I agree that humanity is pretty fucked, although for different reasons than Katniss’, so I enjoyed seeing this viewpoint in print. I was therefore a bit saddened to see in the epilogue that Katniss winds up settling down with Peeta and having babies in District 12 (and apparently doing nothing for the rest of her life?). This sounds to me like she didn’t know what to do with her depression or her accurate viewpoint of the world, so she just decided to hunker down and live it out as quietly as possible. You would think that someone who had seen what she had seen would find comfort and solace in working to improve things for others who suffer instead of living in luxury in the victor’s village. Of course, Collins doesn’t have to provide a positive ending, but the thing is, I believe that she thinks she did. Katniss goes through all of this and winds up with the “American Dream”–the white picket fence, husband, and babies. It feels like a serious cop-out to the critics of her much more realistic first two books to me.
I was similarly disappointed to see a love triangle introduced in the second book. Why must every YA author include a love triangle? What is up with that? I was enjoying Katniss falling for Peeta and realizing Gale might just be her childhood best friend/crush, but then she whips around changing her mind constantly between the two of them. Peeta and Katniss have the bond of the arena, an experience Gale cannot possibly share or understand. Katniss continually behaves in a disloyal manner to Peeta in a way that seriously makes me doubt the quality of her character. She acknowledges this in the third book when Peeta, upon returning from being tortured, tells her all the ways in which she has been cruel to him and to others, and they are true. Gale knows it too, as he tells Peeta in the third book that Katniss will choose whoever helps her survive better. In the end that’s pretty much what she does. Gale failed her by designing the bombs that killed her sister. Peeta is the only one who understands her pain, so Peeta is the one she “falls in love with,” yet everything about Katniss is so self-centered that I was left wondering why she should wind up with anybody at all. That said, I did enjoy that Katniss recognized that herself and Gale were too similar to be together. They both had too many violent tendencies to make a healthy couple, so she went with her opposite–the calm, peaceful Peeta. They balance each other, and that aspect of the romance made me smile.
Katniss’ original selfless love of her sister Prim gradually disappears over the course of the trilogy. When the bombers are coming to District 13, she forgets about her sister entirely, and it is Gale who ensures she gets to the lower levels safely. By the end of the series, Katniss has lost all the beauty of her personality found in the first book. She went from a selfless love to a self-centered, revenge-driven person who will sacrifice almost anyone in her quest to kill Snow. Even though she periodically has glimmers of recognition that everyone has been wronged by the Capitol, and indeed, some people more than herself. Finnick who was forced to give his body away to anyone he was told to in the Capitol. Johanna and Annie who were tortured. Peeta who was brainwashed. She has glimmers of sympathy, but overall she has essentially turned into an automaton, a Terminator, if you will. Yet Collins still writes her with a sympathetic tone. Why?
I have no issue with blood, violence, graphicness, or battle scenes used in the context of a story. That’s not what bothers me about the trajectory of the Hunger Games. What bothers me is that Katniss realizes the hopeless situation the human species is in, something I entirely agree with. She then proceeds to let it turn her into the worst humanity has to offer. She then realizes this and instead of working to change things, she just gives up. She gives up and bows her head and succumbs to a submissive life. The Katniss of the first book would do anything to defy the expectations and mores of society, but in the end, she sees that society has not really changed with the change of rule. Indeed, the most active thing she does is also one of the worst. She votes in favor of having another Hunger Game featuring the children of the Capitol. Maybe this is realistic and most people would either join the evil or give up, but I’d hoped for more in a series so beloved by so many teenage girls. Yes, the world sucks. Yes, it’s a constant struggle. Yes, it hurts and you may never succeed, but never stop trying. That was the message of the first two books, and yet it was entirely tromped on by the final entry in the series. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that, given the ethics of the author.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Source: library, borrowed, and Amazon
ETA Note: I wrote this post BEFORE the series was a hit or popular and long before a movie was on the horizon. Before most of America had read the books. I didn’t read them or write about them to get blog hits or because they are popular. I read them because they were IN MY LIBRARY. I long ago stopped responding to comments on this post, while still approving them and letting them show up, because my blog is not a ya lit blog! I don’t want to spend my time discussing a trilogy that I didn’t even like that much when I can be focusing on the adult literature I vastly prefer. Additionally, I learned long ago that fans are called fanatics for a reason. They won’t listen to any criticism of something they are a crazy fanatic about. So feel free to comment and discuss amongst yourselves. I approve every comment that shows up. But don’t expect this 20-something to waste her time responding. You’ll note that I made this decision long ago, as I haven’t responded to anything since May of 2011.