Wednesday, May 16, 2012

girl gone wild

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.



  1. So, I didn't read the book but saw the first episode of the movie. Your review of the book tracks what I saw.

    I couldn't grasp the thinking behind the annual Hunger Games. I mean, the fearless leader (done well by Donald Sutherland) said it was to prevent another revolution, saying the people need hope, but not too much hope. Whatever that's supposed to mean. But still, it seems like the Games would just piss off at least two families in each district every year, and at some point folks will have had enough. There was a little foreshadowing of that in the movie. But I just never got how this was supposed to keep the people satiated or repressed.

    Also curious if you picked up in political overtones in the book. The urban elites in the capital sure did look a lot like our "progressive" betters in NYC and SF, but maybe that's just me.


  2. I agree that there's something not quite valid about the psychological aspects of the narrative. Something doesn't ring true about the way the Hunger Games are set up, and what their purpose is. Since 23 of 24 tributes must die, every district is guaranteed to feel some pain. Then again, maybe the psychology is similar to that of the mobsters who demand "protection" money from local merchants: Make the sacrifice or we kick your ass.

    The book explains that the Games are a yearly affirmation of the state's power over individuals. To that extent, the story can be read in a conservative way. But I've seen a bit of online discussion about how Collins's narrative can be read in different ways by people of different stripes, and some liberals see the series as a protest against the repressive aspects of conservatism.

  3. Unlike the pure fantasy of the "Harry Potter" tomes on wizards, invisible trains, and flying-broomstick games, the "Hunger Games" series strike a much more realistic chord with me, especially as I am just south of some really nasty games that have been going on for the better part of a century in North Korea. And like the rulers in the capitol of Panem (that allow their well-fed tributes to prepare for the annual games while those from the other districts cannot), those not from the capitol rarely ever win (the game keeper is very manipulative). And then if they somehow do so, it is through dumb luck (i.e. Haymitch), as most don't have the strength and schooling that those from the capitol have (definite shades of North Korea and other repressive nations).

    And even when a few have escaped (with their lives) to freer nations, they still haven't gotten far enough away from the long swords of those behind all that evil.

    It's also not purely relegated to truly oppressive regimes as Jennifer Lawrence has already demonstrated in Winter's Bone where she tries to teach her brother and sister about not turning your nose up at the types of food that others might find appalling in the land of the free, the brave, the poor, and the starving.

    The "Hunger Games" is, first and foremost, about survival and what we are capable of doing to do so in more ways than one as those who have read the book and then seen the way toned down film can attest to. Our world is full of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but even the lows of children bloodily killing one another had to be cleansed and whitewashed in the Hollywood production of "The Hunger Games" adaptation to make it more palatable for the majority of the viewers' digestion as many may have been outraged by the violence on the screen. Odd that make-believe screen violence "might" outrage them, yet the all too real and bloody violence occurring everyday on our planet doesn't seem to faze a single soul.

    p.s. John, if you read the book, you would find out that all those children who voluntarily put their names in the pot to have their names drawn receive extra allotments of food and oil (for themselves and their starving families) as food is very scarce in the years following the aftermath of the unsuccessful post United States/North American rebellion/civil war (District 13 was totally destroyed for its part in the rebellion). Not having enough to eat and being under the constant guard of well-fed capitol security forces keeps the people in the poorer districts in line.

  4. Having neither read the books or seen the first film (and, despite your positive review, I honestly have no real desire to do either), my first thought upon hearing the plot was to think of Theseus and the Minotaur. Too classical?

  5. I find/found Katniss's unreliability to be entirely in character for a "child" in a hellacious situation who has been raising/feeding herself and her sister while taking care of her depressed mother for the last few years (albeit with a bit of help from Gale and Peeta). And, as she sees/saw first-hand what additional mouths to feed mean in her bleak and desolate world, she doesn't see the need for such cumbrances in her future. I doubt I'd be much in a hurry to settle down and raise kids in such a world either (like a lot of debt-ridden college grads are doing in today's real-life America). However, as she has lost everyone in her family, I can see how time, and their shared hell, drew her close to Peeta and then how her love for him finally (after how many years?) brings a couple of additions to her new family, especially as their world has turned a corner for the better.

    As for Cinna, he was expected to fail from the get-go as he was given an absolutely impossible job as the fashion designer for the girl from coal country. The reality of that job seems slightly above that of an avox for those born and bred (not "borne and bread") in the luxurious life of the capitol. He would definitely not be among the movers and shakers of capitol society if he didn't do something drastic; however, we don't know what his real motivations were as they were never explored in the books. I'm just saying those associated with the caretaking of the lesser districts' tributes once they were chosen weren't the sharpest tools in the shed for the most part. Anyway, Cinna seemed to be just as misjudged by those on high in the capitol as both Katniss and Peeta were.

    Contrary to your leaning, I find "The Hunger Games" books to be much more inspiring than the fluff in the "Potter" series and much more reread able. I never found myself invested in the Potter books' characters and only found myself invested in the actual actors in the films, notably Alan Rickman from "Quigley," Truly, Madly Deeply," "Die Hard," etc, as my rooting interests.

    Not only am I drawn to "The Hunger Games'" gritty, life and death subject matter, but I favor these types of films too. My second favorite film of all-time, Battle Royale has been seen as probable Collins's source material by the short-sighted, but these homers of "Battle Royale" and "The Running Man" need to read the books or watch the films to see just how different the works actually are. And as you alluded to, much of these tales are straight out of the Roman Empire and Star Trek. Damn, now I'm going to watch that episode again before I go to bed.

    In the end, I am definitely glad you decided to give this series a read as they are quite a bit deeper and much more meaningful than Meyer's "Twilight" series, and now you should also be able to relate a bit better to those currently of school age (elementary-university) when you head back into the classroom. Especially, as you now know what an avox is.

  6. Your impressions pretty much dovetail with mine.

    Guess I'll go and read the third book now.

  7. I read the trilogy, and I agree that I felt like I was missing something compared to the Harry Potter series. I've re-read a few HP books, but I have no desire to re-read Hunger Games. I didn't feel much depth in it--much richness. I guess, being a parent, I have a gut aversion to any story that bloodily kills kids.

    I did like how the arena was set up in the second book, and the third book had some truly horrific imagery.

    I think I felt like the world fell apart with all the deus ex machina twists. I mean, you actually have silver parachutes pop out of the air to give a character what she needs. Character in a tight situation? Pop in a parachute. Manipulate nature. Create a ridiculous coincidence.

    Okay, no coincidence was a ridiculous as Luke crash landing unharmed by giant tree trunks exactly where Yoda was living.

    Charles--The author says that Theseus was a major source for the series.

  8. @ZenKimchi: Ah, OK. I know next to nothing about HG, so I had not heard that.

    As for Luke crash-landing right where Yoda lived... I always thought that it was a pretty obvious example of the Force at work, as opposed to a ridiculous coincidence. You can get away with that in a universe where there exists a force that binds everything together and controls destinies. I assume HG was not set in such a universe.

  9. "The Hunger Games" series takes place in the future and, even in our current day and age, we still have several primitive societies on Earth that have yet to experience the wonders of air conditioning, iPads, rap music, hair dryers, air travel, nuclear power/horror, smart phones that make the lunar module technology seem beyond archaic, and many other items too numerous to even list that most of us use to manipulate nature on an hourly basis.

    And, actually, the arenas (Capitol man-made studios) were just set in such a Universe/world where engineered mutts, tracker jackers, and silver parachutes of life and death are commonplace, so those "the deus ex machina twists" were nothing of the sort. This is just futuristic television at its best (and akin to North Korea's one-state media and "The Running Man/Battle Royale") as there is only one channel to keep viewers' eyeballs glued to their viewing apparatuses and to remind them about the Capitol's capabilities should they think about rebelling again. As any time there is a lull in the action of 12-18 year-olds battling to the death, well...the head programmer can have a forest fire instantly break out and manipulate it to drive the surviving tributes all together for something a lot more sinister than a marshmallow roast. In the final book, we see just how evil both governments really are as the Capitol streets make the arenas look like simple child's play in comparison.

    Yeah, those little parachutes are very convenient, but they are sponsor and public support for specific tributes. They enrich the game and add new dimensions to it. Luckily for Katniss, Haymitch knew how to manipulate her to get her the best gifts he could that were crucial for both her and Peeta's survival. But even he could not count on her forming an alliance with Rue on her own and how she cared for Rue before and after her death. That alone was worth a gift, delivered to her by Rue's supporters, that helped to save her life.

    Deus ex machina twists? No, just how things in Collins's version of the future are: brutal, bloody, repressive, and technological advances of the utmost in cruelty delivered at a moment's notice and out of, seemingly, thin air.

    Now, if you really want to have some sleepless nights, read some of Brad Thor's thrillers. Terrifying doesn't even begin to describe his take on today's worldwide political/military landscape and the weaponry available today to destroy the world without the need of last century's out-dated nuclear weapons. Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and Joe Lansdale aren't even in the same league as Thor when it comes to making someone want to head out to the middle of nowhere and dig an underground survival shelter as the only real monsters we have to fear are those flesh and blood ones wanting to destroy the world, take it over, or hell-bent on keeping themselves in power at all costs.

  10. I think you are being a bit hard on Haymitch. His lot in life for "winning" his "Hunger Games" was enough to drive most people into the bottom of a bottle or to end their lives as you go on to read about other winners and the rewards that winning actually entailed like Finnick's stud for sale life and (there's no telling about) the horrors Annie and Mags had to endure after their wins but these rewards were enough to warp their minds for life.

    I don't know if you remember this in the books, but Haymitch was sixteen when he won the Second Quarter Quell due to his good luck and understanding the tricks of the force field, and he paid dearly for it. By upstaging the Capitol, his mother, brother, and girlfriend were all killed.

    The fact that he's able at all to pull it together to help Katniss and Peeta after what he's been through is pretty much as far from feckless as one can get in my book.

    By the way, if you want to catch the next craze before they hit the big screen, both Brad Thor's books featuring Scot Harvath and Lee Child's books featuring Jack Reacher are solid, fast reads. Brad Thor will scare the hell out of you though, and Lee Child will make you see red when you realize Tom Cruise will be playing the 6'5", larger-than-life, military/civilian hero.



All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.