Hunger Games – Book List

This series has been wildly popular among both youth and adults, and it’s easy to see why. Collins writes in the voice of a strong first-person female protagonist, and you quickly find yourself wanting Katniss to win against the distant apathy of the Capitol. While I enjoyed the first book, I couldn’t quite bring myself to love the sequels. This series is definitely worth reading, and I’m glad it has inspired kids to read … but it isn’t necessarily destined to be a classic either.

Reviews

1. The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games  cover image
ISBN:
9780439023481
Format:
Hardcover, 374 pages
Published:
Scholastic, Inc., 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The perverse, contrary part of me enjoys panning books that receive wide acclaim. It's a calling (in the same way that being a creepy funeral home director is a calling). Giving a wildly popular book a bad review is almost as fun as giving a bad book a bad review. I'll be honest: it's an ego thing, a sense of smugness that comes from not succumbing to the hype.

So when I like a book, when I really like a popular book, as I did with The Hunger Games, I humour that sceptic-within. I comb through the unfavourable reviews to see if I missed anything, if my emotions, having been manipulated by the author, are clouding my critical evaluation. Such a tonic usually serves to cool my ardour toward a freshly-finished book. Still . . . I really, really liked The Hunger Games. Not enough to gush over it, and to some extent, the unfavourable reviews reminded me of some minor complaints I'll express later.

For all of my scepticism, however, there are some complaints with which I disagree. I found the characterization neither shallow nor sappy. Suzanne Collins' style is easy to read, has well-placed exposition, and perfectly captures Katniss' voice. It was the strength of the protagonist that won me over. After all, the premise of The Hunger Games is certainly not original—and most of my problems with the book are in the premise and setting rather than the plot—so it's Katniss and the cast who carry the story.

There's certainly a debate to be had over this book's "young adult" status. I have some reservations about this whole "young adult" label in general; I won't get into those here. Nor will I discuss charges that this book shouldn't be for "young adults" because it has too much violence and isn't innocent enough. Such statements are absurd. If anything, The Hunger Games isn't young adult fiction simply because the characters themselves don't offer "young adults" anything.

Even this analysis misses the mark, in my opinion. One of Katniss' defining traits is her independence. It's entwined with a resentment toward her mother, who retreated into grief after the death of Katniss' father, forcing Katniss to take care of her mother, her sister, and herself. Not only do I think that adolescents can identify with this sentiment, but I think it's a timeless sentiment of adolescence. For one reason or another, many children eventually find themselves taking care of their younger siblings (or even a parent or two). Responsibility is thrust upon them, unasked for and unwanted, and you have children who are twelve or thirteen years old running a household. This aspect of Katniss' life, while ultimately a product of her post-apocalyptic society, is proximally unrelated to the Hunger Games, to a violence-obsessed and oppressive culture, etc. She's just the most mature member of her family, struggling to keep things together.

Beyond her independence, Katniss is obviously a survivor. But she's not ruthless, not much of a fighter, in fact, even if she's not too friendly to everyone around her prior to the commencement of the Games. This, too, is a product of her life growing up in the Seam. She leads a pragmatic life, trading for what her family needs, with little time to indulge in a rich social life. District Twelve's Seam isn't a community so much as a group of people who have managed to get along so far; only in Katniss' sacrifice of herself to save her sister do we see the people begin to rally around something.

It's that one act of volunteering that initially cements Katniss as a heroine. Prior to that, she was obviously the protagonist, but she hadn't quite won me over. But Katniss' compassion doesn't end there. She struggles with her growing sense of amiability toward Peeta, which could be a problem come Game time. Then, in the Games, she befriends Rue, who reminds her so much of her sister. Katniss is a protector, not a killer, which is why her participation is more than just a tragic loss of a child's innocence (even if one wants to claim that there exists, somewhere, a theoretically innocent child, let's not try to argue that the children of Panem are innocent). It's a tragic waste of an individual who so clearly has a contribution to society beyond "reality TV show celebrity." Even if she survives the Games, she can't ever go back to a "normal life" in the Seam. She'll be a star, and she'll have to mentor next year's tributes—her life will never be the same. The Capitol has her, and it will let her go only in death, if even then.

Those hoping for a story of a girl single-handedly sticking it to a dystopian power will be disappointed. Katniss manages only one or two acts of rebellion against the Capitol (although you could probably get away with viewing the second one as a major rebellion in principle). Indeed, I have some issues with the lack of realism in the way Collins structured her dystopia, with the neat partitioning of geographical districts that provide certain needs to the Capitol. Despite making it such a big part of the plot, however, Collins never addresses many of the thematic issues that arise from the setting in which The Hunger Games takes place. Katniss never does confront the major moral issue, that of becoming a killer.

I didn't find the ending as sappy or too-convenient as some people did. I liked the hesitant nature of the romance (if you can call it that) between Katniss and Peeta. We can't tell if Peeta really cares for Katniss or if he's just going along with it for the sake of the Games, nor can we tell if Katniss really falls for him. It looks like, in the end, Peeta is telling the truth; he really does care for her. At the very least, he's reluctant to kill her when the time comes. The resolution to the necessary showdown is clever and dramatically appropriate.

In my review of The Giver, I called that book "good utopian literature" but said there was much better literature available. The Hunger Games clearly falls into the same genre; yet even though I liked it much, much more than The Giver, I still can't call it better in its handling of a dystopia.

Collins seems to be setting up for a more explicit confrontation against the Capitol in Catching Fire, and hopefully a deeper exploration of the issues inherent to the Hunger Games and the quality of life in Panem. I'll be happy if my hopes are borne out, but the first book in a trilogy should never just be used to set the stage for book two. I'm not saying that makes it a bad book—there's no doubt that it's an entertaining read, and it certainly has worthwhile themes. Nevertheless, I had hoped for more moral conflict, and for a depth that The Hunger Games is lacking. For all of its flashbang excitement and its fast pace, The Hunger Games is heavy on style and light on substance.

Having let my inner sceptic express itself, I'll return now to some praise for The Hunger Games. As an example of dystopian fiction, it's not quite a paradigm case. As science fiction, however, it hits all the right notes. Collins presents us a society very different from our own, but one that's easily imagined and with the same kinds of people who populate our society. Most importantly, she left me wanting more—not only because of my reservations, but because I became invested in these characters and want to learn what the Capitol has in store for them next.

2. Catching Fire

by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire  cover image
ISBN:
9780439023498
Format:
Paperback, 391 pages
Published:
Scholastic Press, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Two years, almost to the day, have elapsed since I read the first book in this series. Since then it has gone from trendy young adult sensation to international book series phenomenon. My second student-teaching practicum is in a Grade 7/8 environment, where it seems like every student is reading one of these three books. I even got to accompany my Grade 7 and 8 classes to watch the movie when it came out in theatres. (The movie is nowhere near as good as the book, in my opinion. It has a certain stylistic appeal but beyond that seems to emphasize all the wrong things.) With the popularity of this series so evident in my current situation, I decided it was high time to read Catching Fire. Also, borrowing it from my associate teacher was much easier than putting my name on the waiting list at the library….

As with anything that gets as big as The Hunger Games has, deep divisions and schools of thoughts have emerged surrounding this book and the messages it might or might not send to youth. My ardour for the first book has probably cooled somewhat since I wrote my review, but I remain of the opinion that it’s a good book for adults as well as adolescents. The argument that it’s “better than Twilight,” while true, strikes me as extremely disappointing: what does it say about the state of YA literature that we have to praise things for being better than Twilight?

So I went into Catching Fire with a two-year gap in my memories only partially restored by the movie’s light dusting of plot. I know many of my friends rank this as their favourite in the trilogy, and I can see why. In my first review, I hoped for “a deeper exploration of the issues inherent to the Hunger Games and the quality of life in Panem" in Catching Fire, and for the most part that wish comes true. (We can quibble about depth later.) We get the satisfaction of seeing the fallout from Katniss and Peeta’s survival, including a lengthy and frank conversation between Katniss and President Snow. And Suzanne Collins makes it clear that Katniss’ disobedience has been the catalyst for something so gigantic it might conceivably lead to another rebellion. So much for retiring peacefully.

Alas, I couldn’t help but see Catching Fire as a faint retread of everything in the first novel. Was anyone really surprised that Katniss once again has to fight in the Hunger Games? It seemed like a foregone conclusion the moment the book began that she would end up in the arena again. Once that gets announced, the majority of the book follows the structure from the first book. Granted, it’s much more satisfying than many aspects of the first book: we learn more about the other tributes, for instance, and the description of the Games themselves seems to focus more on the intricacy of their design and less on Katniss’ own need for survival.

In a way, this makes sense: The Hunger Games was about Katniss’ own personal struggles in a harsh, totalitarian world; Catching Fire is a transition to a story that is wider in scope, involving uprisings of entire Districts. Katniss still has a personal stake in this story, but it is clear now that hers is part of a much larger narrative sparked by her unconventional strategy in the Games. Now she has to deal with the consequences, continue being someone she isn’t and try desperately not to say or do anything that could be perceived as rebellious. In the end, of course, she fails miserably, because she can’t help but be the kind and inspirational symbol the would-be rebels all need. This isn’t her fault.

Collins’ problems with creating a believable post-apocalyptic police state continue in Catching Fire. Panem is a very simplistic attempt at a totalitarian government, with the Capitol emerging as little more than snivelling bad guys in this book. We are supposed to believe, from Snow’s visit, that the Capitol finds themselves in a corner of their own painting: Katniss and Peeta are now high-profile celebrities, so the most expedient route of arranging for an “accident” would instead result in martyrdom. Instead, Snow resorts to intimidation of Katniss and then outright oppression of District 12. Thematically, I suppose it’s an effective way for Collins to demonstrate how people who are oppressed to an intolerable point will eventually erupt in violence … strategically, it’s a bonehead move. The Capitol is not a very well-run police state.

So with their precious little system in peril, the Capitol catapults Katniss, Peeta, and a score of other former victors back into the Hunger Games. Once again, Katniss needs to come up with a plan for both tributes from District 12 to survive. One of the more disappointing aspects of The Hunger Games was its failure to address Katniss’ transformation into a killer. To Collins’ credit, Katniss talks a bit about it in Catching Fire, but it still seems to be an issue on the moral back-burner in this series, which is more interested in making sure that Katniss is uncertain about who she should fall in love with. It’s not a coincidence that the tributes who die in the arena are the ones Collins fails to flesh out in any detail—two of them don’t even have names but are just described as morphling (morphine?) addicts.

Combined with a deus ex machina ending of the first order, we’re left once again in a situation where Katniss doesn’t actually have to make any tough moral choices. Yes, there is death and tragedy and sacrifice. But it’s all happening around Katniss, and while some of it is about Katniss, none of it is really her own doing. Which leads me to ask a question that might be somewhat incendiary: is this really better than Twilight? The main premise of that argument is that Katniss Everdeen has much more agency than Bella Swan, who faints at the merest hint of an action scene. To some extent, this is true in the minutiae of the plot, especially in The Hunger Games: Katniss volunteers to be a tribute; Katniss has a strength of will and character that constantly gets her into trouble. She is most certainly not like Bella Swan. Yet her role in Catching Fire is little more than a first-person vehicle for the reader: she is not involved in most of the decisions that seal her fate or Peeta’s; she is constantly overruled by other people (mostly men) who know better how to play this game. Where did my Katniss from the first book go? Who is this changeling that has taken her place?

I am intentionally writing this review before I read Mockingjay, which I’m about to start. I don’t want my experience of the third book to influence my opinion of the second. I expect that it will tie up loose ends, both when it comes to the nascent rebellion in Panem and Katniss’ love triangle. I will continue to hope for more depth and more detail when it comes to the dilemmas that are a natural consequence of the events Collins includes in these books. Catching Fire disappoints me, because it seems so uneven. The first part of the book reads like a laundry list of all the problems Katniss has caused, both for herself and for the Capitol. Some these are real and terrifying in the way they remove her ability to choose her own path in life. But this serious discussion evaporates to make way for yet another bout in the arena and another unlikely resolution. It’s like there’s two books in here, one that is really good and studious but probably somewhat boring, and one that is exciting and flashy but probably not very substantial. Both of them are vying to come to the fore, but neither quite manages to win the day.

This criticisms are not meant as a condemnation of the series or this book. The Hunger Games was really good, and while Catching Fire comes nowhere close to meeting that level of quality, it still delivers a pleasant echo of that first hit. I just think there’s plenty of room for improvement. Because I’m not content to settle for “better than Twilight” for myself or for my students. I want something that’s just awesome for its own sake.

3. Mockingjay

by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay  cover image
ISBN:
9780439023542
Format:
Paperback, 398 pages
Published:
Scholastic, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.

I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Katniss rebelled against the Capitol, inadvertently started an uprising, and now finds herself the face of that revolution regardless of her desires in the matter. It seems inevitable that the third and final book will feature the climax of this uprising, an assault on the Capitol, and one last confrontation with the apparently serpentine President Snow. This is my way of saying that Mockingjay’s predictability was itself predictable and not inherently a bad thing. Unfortunately, Suzanne Collins did nothing to allay my problems with the world and characters she has constructed.

In my review of Catching Fire I lamented Katniss’ loss of agency. This remains a problem in Mockingjay, where Collins explicitly portrays it as part of the conflict Katniss faces: District 13’s leaders want her to be their “Mockingjay”, a face of the revolution for propaganda and inspiration. Collins lays on thickly the parallels between the Mockingjay role and Katniss’ time as a tribute and victor for the Capitol, including an outfit designed by Cinna and her old prep team back for one last bow. She has almost no say in where she goes or what she does, and she is not so much a frontline warrior as a glamour soldier for the cause.

So the question then becomes: does Katniss somehow regain her agency by the end of the book? Does she retake her independence and begin once again making decisions for herself? Arguably she does, but it’s a long time in coming and not very satisfying when it happens. The problem with Mockingjay and, alas, by extension the entire series, is that it confirms the suspicion lurking in my mind since the middle of Catching Fire: Katniss is just a spectator. She was in the right place at the right time to spark a revolution, and now she is going along for the ride.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, perhaps on some level this is how many revolutions work: few symbols intend to be symbols or set out to inspire rebellion. Yet it’s disheartening, especially after the first book’s emphasis on Katniss’ self-determination, to see that she has been reduced to nothing more than an observer. True, without her presence as a symbol the Capitol would likely have crushed the rebellion with extreme prejudice. But that’s all she is, at every turn. Even toward the climax of the novel, when she finally makes it to the Capitol and goes off to murder President Snow, Katniss is just an observer to the final act that ends the rebellion. She wakes up a few days later and gets filled in by another character. (Fade to black: rebellion over.)

This is a dramatic and very strange arc for Katniss’ character. One would expect it to work in reverse: a character with very little volition or agency slowly begins to gain a sense of self and self-determination, culminating in a final act of rebellion or sacrifice that makes the difference. Here, we begin in The Hunger Games with Katniss urging Peeta to commit suicide with her in order to cheat the Capitol of its victor. In Catching Fire she resolves to save Peeta once again but ends up being rescued by District 13 in the eleventh hour. Now, in Mockingjay, she sort of floats around aimlessly for the majority of the novel. Towards the end we get flashes of the former, fiery Katniss, only for any hopes of significant contributions to get dashed by the events I mention above.

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. It never is, is it? Katniss does commit one act so shocking it requires a trial, an act that alters the future of Panem forever—hopefully in a positive way. Try as I might, I cannot pigeonhole Mockingjay or Katniss into a neat little box of disappointment. There are glimmers of hope that are enough to keep me ambivalent about how this trilogy ultimately concludes.

The ending also portrays Katniss as suffering through a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to mislabel anything here—but I think Collins does a good job demonstrating the toll that Katniss’ twisted life has had on her psychology. Although I continue to long for a more explicit discussion of this whole killing thing—because, let’s face it, Collins makes every other message in these books explicit and obvious—I have to admit that the Katniss of Mockingjay is no longer the uncertain child we met at the beginning of The Hunger Games. She is damaged goods now. Worse still, she survives the rebellion. Many characters mention throughout the book, in one of several clumsy incidences of foreshadowing, that no one knows what to do with Katniss.

Collins plays up the “what happens to the warrior after she wins the war” theme very neatly. It’s so easy for a series like this to conclude immediately after the rebellion ends and offer no hints as to the future. Collins instead goes more the Harry Potter route, with an all-too-brief epilogue. But this is enough to let us see the permanent scars to Katniss’ psyche. It’s rather like the exchange between Mal and the Operative in Serenity: the Operative is working to create a better world, a world with no place for men like the two of them. Katniss created a world that no longer needs her, but by dint of all that she has experienced, it’s not the world she needs.

This series has catapulted to absurd heights of popularity. I don’t think it deserves to endure as a literary masterpiece (then again, I don’t make those decisions). Yet I won’t heap upon it unearned condemnation simply because of the hype that follows in its wake. The Hunger Games was a pretty good novel. In many ways, the latter two books are disappointing, especially by comparison. Their stories are still relatively complex, but their characters’ motivations are less fully explored.

In discussing this review and my reaction to the series with a friend, I came to one additional revelation. For all my griping, it seems obvious that these books are far superior to Twilight, and even if one doesn’t always appreciate the story or think highly of the plot and character development, the following is true: these books make readers, particularly teens, think. Katniss doesn’t always have agency, but she has issues beyond wondering whether to date a vampire or a werewolf. She’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police state that forces children to fight to the death! That’s something to talk about. We can have discussions about The Hunger Games beyond “Team Edward or Team Alice?” (Hint: answer is “Team Alice”). That potential for meaningful conversation is valuable.

In the end, though, I think it all comes down to Katniss Everdeen. She is the heart and soul of these books: their narrator, their protagonist, their girl on fire. The books live or die on Katniss’ ability to hold the reader’s interest, to be someone with whom the readers can empathize. We don’t always have to like her, but we have to understand her. In my opinion, the last two books in the series begin to waver in their connection with Katniss. In so doing, they lose what made The Hunger Games so special, fading back into the general noise of all those other books that want to be like them.