I finished the Hunger Games trilogy last Friday, having bought the three-book boxed set for a mere three dollars and change, thanks to a Barnes and Noble card I'd received this past Christmas.
First things first: was Suzanne Collins's series a worthwhile read? The short answer is Yes. The prose was easy to navigate and the story moved at a healthy clip. A slightly longer answer would be Yes, but it didn't inspire me to reread it in quite the way that JK Rowling's books inspired me. This may be because the Hunger Games trilogy didn't feature any characters in whom I felt emotionally invested: it was hard to like anyone.
For those who aren't familiar with the trilogy, here's a brief summary (with some minor spoilers).
The first book, The Hunger Games, introduces us to our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in the repressive country of Panem, which arose in the wake of war and catastrophe. Panem covers much of North America; Katniss's home district, District 12, is the poorest of the twelve districts and is devoted to mining (each district is devoted to one major product or function). 12 is located in what used to be Appalachia; this is relevant to me, since I too live in Appalachia. District 1, the Capitol, had to put down major rebellions about seventy-four years prior to the beginning of Katniss's story.
In order to keep the other districts down, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games: every district is obliged to select two "tributes," a young man and young woman between the ages of twelve and eighteen, to compete in a televised gladiatorial contest in which only one winner is allowed: every contestant has a 23/24 chance of being killed. We meet Katniss on the day of the Reaping for the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games: the day when the tributes are selected. Katniss's sister, twelve-year-old Primrose, is picked by lottery, along with Peeta Mellark, a sixteen-year-old boy whom Katniss knows only vaguely. In desperation, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place. Much of the novel is then devoted to the pre-Games preparation: Katniss and Peeta are groomed by Cinna, the wise and worldly fashion designer; they do television interviews and undergo combat and survival training. Katniss, who was taught to hunt by her now-dead father (killed in a mining accident), proves a natural with the bow and arrow. Peeta, a baker's son, proves to be very good at playing the media, and is physically strong enough to do well during the hand-to-hand combat phase of the training. During one interview, Peeta confesses to the nation that he has always been in love with Katniss. This confession has repercussions throughout the rest of the story.
The second and third books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, deal with the consequences of how the 74th Hunger Games ended. The districts, seeing in Katniss a symbol of defiance and resistance, are beginning to rebel in earnest; this will have dire implications for the Capitol, which relies on the products and services that each region provides. All of this comes to a head in the final book, which also resolves a crucial question about whom Katniss will choose as her life partner: angry, idealistic fellow hunter and "best friend" Gale, or the sweet-tempered yet clever and calculating Peeta.
The books were nearly impossible to put down, which I suppose is a point in their favor. The story was told purely from Katniss's point of view, affording the reader both narrative cohesiveness and, thanks to the protagonist's personality, a certain gritty, propulsive drive. At the same time, the series overall felt fluffier and more superficial than the Harry Potter heptalogy, which dealt, in much greater detail, with such themes as family, courage, loyalty, betrayal, ambiguity, cleverness, evil, the will to live, and even the notion of a repressive state (see especially Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Hogwarts goes full-on police state). This isn't to say that the Hunger Games trilogy lacks depth; on the contrary, it proves adept at not providing simple answers to complex emotional and moral questions.
We see what we want to see when we read, of course, and our interpretive filters are informed by our own experiences. For me, Collins's trilogy evoked several references to books I've read and to movies or shows I've watched. First and foremost was the resemblance of the plot to that of Stephen King's novel The Running Man (and the Schwarzenegger film of the same title), which is about a deadly "reality" show and people who are fighting the system. Collins's bleak world is also reminiscent of the one we encounter in George Orwell's 1984, and by extension is a reflection of real-life horrors like North Korea. (Panem can be thought of as a kind of North Korea Lite.*) The "bread and circuses" aspect of the book (panem et circenses-- from which the country's name is derived) called to mind the dying Roman Empire, as did all those character names evoking classical antiquity: Coriolanus, Seneca, Plutarch, et al. Because Katniss spends much of the story pushed to the brink of sanity (she's sedated several times), I was also strongly reminded of Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle, in which one of the main characters, Morn Hyland, finds herself trapped in a circle of male brutality and barely holds on to her own mind. This latter aspect of Katniss's experience provides us with an interesting wrinkle, for it's clear that Katniss is, in some respects, an unreliable narrator.** Finally, the books called to mind the movie "Dragonslayer," which is about a kingdom that periodically sacrifices a virgin to appease an evil dragon, Vermithrax, who lives in the nearby mountains. The Capitol is a glitzy, corporate version of Vermithrax.
The trilogy had a more girly feel to it than did the Harry Potter series. Katniss spends a lot of time in pretty dresses (despite her claims that she isn't impressed by clothing), and one of her greatest sources of life-wisdom is her fashion designer Cinna, a fact that had me rolling my eyes. Sure, sure: there may indeed be wise and worldly fashion designers out there, but I normally associate such folks with superficiality (contradict me at your peril!). Cinna is, of course, a subversion of that stereotype: he lives in the fashion-obsessed Capitol, but is using his design skills and profound wisdom to undermine the Capitol's oppressiveness. The feminine tenor of the story can also be perceived in the Grrrl-power nature of Katniss's character, and in the emasculated names of the male characters: Cinna, Gale, Peeta, Snow.***
One ingredient that was almost completely absent from the books was humor. Oh, it was there-- scraps and hints of it-- but I imagine that Collins was trying hard to evoke the grim, desperate pragmatism that comes of scratching out a living within a brutal totalitarian system, scrounging for food and watching child sacrifice for entertainment. By the end of the series, Katniss has little reason to laugh, given how much she has lost, and despite what she has gained. This solemnity may have been one of the most realistic elements of the story. I can almost see The Hunger Games and its sequels as a sort of "gateway" to books like 1984, Brave New World, and Darkness at Noon.
It would be impossible to discuss my opinion of certain events at the end of the series without giving away crucial plot elements, so I'll conclude by saying that, all things considered, the Hunger Games trilogy was a quick, worthwhile read-- not as deep or as well-crafted as the Harry Potter books, but certainly compelling in its own desolate, lugubrious way. It describes a world of horror in sanitized terms a young adult can appreciate, and gives us a tough, honest heroine who is doing her best to keep from becoming a pawn in the various power games being played all around her. If you have some free time, give the series a read.
*In the Collins books, the districts have trouble communicating with each other, but they do communicate, and rebellions are easier to organize than they are in the real North Korea. That said, Collins's novels make for awfully dark reading. The very notion of the Hunger Games is, when you think about it, sickening.
**Katniss's unreliability comes out at several points, often when she's being frank about having misjudged a person or a situation. Her biggest self-delusion, though, comes at the end of the series, where she defies her earlier repeated insistence that she would never end up with any man.
***Haymitch is the only prominent male character to get a respectably masculine (and Scottish-sounding) name, but note that he's a drunk and an awful role model. Whatever power and prowess he possesses is undercut by his alcoholism, cynicism, and fecklessness.