Title: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Teen Fiction
Star Rating (out of 5): ***
For: Fans of dystopian fiction, action, survival skills/combat, teen angst
In order to prevent her family from starving to death, Katniss Everdeen daily slips under the fence of District 12 and meets her friend Gage to hunt in the woods, a crime punishable by death. The teens live in Panem, a country that rose up in the wasted land that was once the United States. Besides the constant fear of starvation or being caught hunting, another threat hangs over Katniss’ head: the reaping, a yearly lottery where one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games.
Years ago, the Capital crushed a civil war and instituted the Hunger Games in order to punish the rebellious districts and remind them that they are at the Capital’s mercy. Each year, two children from each district are chosen in the reaping and dropped off in an artificial world called the Arena where they are televised as they are forced to fight to the death against their fellow competitors.
Katniss has been in the lottery several times, but this is the first year her beloved younger sister, Prim, has had her name in the reaping ball. As the ball stops spinning and the name is chosen, Katniss’ world seems to spin to a stop when she hears Prim’s name read. Before she has time to think, Katniss volunteers to go to the games in her sister’s place.
The boy chosen from Katniss’ district is Peeta, who once saved her life but whom she has never thanked. It appears she will never get the chance now, as she will have to kill him in the games if she wants to survive. That is, if no one else kills her first.
The Hunger Games is the first of three books aimed at a young adult audience. The strength of the book lies in its fast pacing and unique world where futuristic technology merges with gladiator style barbarism. Collins envisions a world where our reality-TV obsession has degraded to the level where we are willing to watch children kill each other for sport. While the book briefly touches on the moral implications of this, the bulk of the book is spent watching Katniss try to survive. The action is gripping, mixing survivor skills with tactical strategy and hand to hand combat. Yet while the fast paced problem solving is interesting, there is relatively little plot other than sheer survival.
Catching Fire, the second book in the trilogy, begins by going into more complex workings of Panem, but then Collins apparently ran out of ideas and (**Spoiler Warning**) she basically repeats the plot of book one by throwing Katniss and Peeta back into the arena. (**End of Spoiler**)
In Mocking Jay, the final book of the series, the rebels are at last ready to go to war with the Capital and want Katniss to be their figurehead. But Katniss is not so sure she wants the position.
Without question, the Hunger Games Trillogy is gripping, unique, gruesome, and full of action. Based on its over 100 consecutive weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and the record-breaking success of the movie version, this is enough for many people. But should it be?
My first big problem with the series is Katniss’ lack of moral and character growth. Throughout the series she is selfish, self-pitying, and cowardly. In the first two books she is too consumed with her fight to survive to spend time mentally or morally fighting against the Capital. While her desire to survive is completely understandable and portrayed as heroic, all she is truly doing is (literally) playing the Capital’s game. She is brave when it comes to fighting, but has little moral bravery outside the arena. Katniss never really takes a stand against the games: she condemns them in her head, but her desire to survive trumps her moral principles and so she kills her fellow contestants just like the Capital wants her to. I couldn’t help comparing this with Christian martyrs who were thrown into the gladiator games in Rome; there are stories of them going into the arena and refusing to fight or renounce their faith—ready to die for what they believe in. In contrast, Katniss’ moral stance that it is wrong for her and the other contestants to kill each other ends as soon as her life is in danger.
Katniss is an unwilling leader who, instead of rising to the position of leadership because of her convictions, is thrust into leadership by chance and the adoration that comes from the crowds’ misunderstanding of her actions. In Mocking Jay, the final book of the series, I held out hope that Katniss would at last rise to the position of leader that the rebels had thrust her into, but she spends most of the book either arguing with the people who love her, wandering around in a coma-like state that I would call post-traumatic stress disorder, or bitterly pitying herself and wallowing in guilt over the pain she’s caused. These are reasonable reactions to what she’s been through, but they do not make a heroine. A true heroine would struggle with these things, but deeply long (and try) to rise above them. I pitied and sympathized with Katniss, but never respected or admired her. Even until the end of the series I held out hope that she would at last rise to the challenge and become a true leader, but she never does.
This leads to my second issue with the trilogy. Collins condemns the citizens of Panem for their voyeuristic enthusiasm as they watch children murder each other, yet invites us to read about just that. Don’t get me wrong; I do believe there can be value in thinking about the impact of violence in our media and entertainment, and sometimes it takes a shocking read to get us to think. But, ultimately, I felt that the author shied away from the emotional and moral conflict that could have made the book deep and thought-provoking and instead focused on page-turning descriptions of violence and survival skills. Moral lines are definitely blurred—Katniss’ fight to survive is shown as noble, while most of the other competitors are portrayed as evil so that it is “okay” for Katniss to kill them, but really Collins is still justifying children killing children. Collins wants to condemn the citizens of Panem who gleefully watch the games, yet she invites her readers to do the same, and further, to believe it is acceptable for Katniss to kill in order to survive. In my opinion, in order for this gruesome subject matter to be justified, the author has to take some strong positions and really make the characters (and the reader) wrestle with society, entertainment, and the value of life, yet Collins (and the main characters) shy away from this.
To be clear, I am not unequivocally against fiction that portrays violence (or sex, or poor choices, etc). One of the powers of fiction is to force us to think about difficult issues, and sometimes this requires putting characters in gruesome and disturbing situations. But the purpose of writing about evil should be to encourage us and the characters to grow, change, and take action against it. If the characters do not wrestle with and answer these issues to the best of their ability, then ultimately all the book accomplishes is to entertain us. In which case, what does it say about us as a society if we enjoy a book or a movie about children killing children merely for the sake of our own entertainment? Are we that much better than the citizens of Panem?
So, for me in the end, the fast-paced writing and unique concept was not enough to outweigh an unlikable heroine who shows very little character growth, or a disturbing and unredeemed subject matter.