Suzanne Collins “The Hunger Games” trilogy – book review

Hunger Games is one of those few instances where I did not insist on reading the book before I saw the film.  In fact I had little intention of reading the books at all. I saw all the movies, and then a few years later I came across Roxane Gay’s article about the Hunger Games. I was intrigued enough that when a kindle edition came up on special offer, I decided to give it a go.

I devoured the first one. I started reading when waiting for a relatively unpleasant medical appointment – and it really does take an absorbing book to take your mind off things in such a situation. I finished it the next evening, and naturally started thinking of excuses to start reading the next ones. If you are looking for a gripping read, Hunger Games is an easy fix.

I enjoyed the antiutopian setting of a ruthlessly upturned United States in which, the capital demands a tribute from each of the local district to fight to the death in a yearly slaughter.

 The inspiration seems to have been the gladiators’ fights in ancient Rome. “Panem” is the name of the capital city in Hunger Games. It comes from “panem et circenses”, the Latin for “bread and games”, the cry of the Roman populace for food and entertainment. Much like the citizens of ancient Rome are typically portrayed by popular culture, the inhabitants of Panem are decadent lovers of opulence and pleasure, unafraid to have people die just to keep themselves entertained.

Like gladiators, some of the tributes are professional fighters, willingly exposing themselves to the arena, whereas some are dragged into the fight against their will.  Unlike the gladiators, the tributes are children. Each district provides two tributes: one boy, one girl. This is why this book gets classified as a young adult novel, even though the children basically spend most of their time trying to murder each other. The Hunger Games can only have one winner- and this is typically the child who has slaughtered everyone else

The narrator, Katniss Everdeen, has volunteered to take part in the Hunger Games to replace her little sister, Prim.  atniss comes from one of the poorest districts of the country and has little hope of surviving the games. In this futuristic version of the Empire, the games are live television, and survival depends not only on skill but also on attracting sponsors.

The other tribute from Katniss’s district is Peeta, a boy who once saved her life by giving her bread when she was almost starving to death. Cue: the repeated theme of bread and hunger.

Eventually Katniss realizes that the best way to attract sponsors in the Hunger Games is to create an on-screen romance with Peeta. She is unsure whether she really has feelings for him. Before the Hunger Games began, she was enjoying a close friendship with Gale another boy from district 12.

Katniss’s conflict with what she is meant to be portraying “for the cameras” and what is actually real rings very true.

The first book is definitely the strongest of the three. The dystopia of institutionalized reality TV demanding on-screen murder, ostensibly for “preserving the peace” feels eerily recognizable. One might think of some parallels between the well-off Western countries with their demands on the developing world and the greedy Panem, extracting all its resources from the struggling districts around it.

Stop reading now if you are worried about spoilers.

In the second part of the Hunger Games, Katniss’s actions in the first Hunger Games are seen as a sign of rebellion against the totalitarian state. Even though she and Peeta threat of double suicide at the first Hunger Games was simply a desperate bid for survival, some in Panem have portrayed Katniss as a possible revolutionary.

The revolutionary undertones bring upon her the wrath of President Snow, the snake-like leader of the regime, who walks around wearing creepy white roses. This is where the strength of the novels begins to ebb. 

President Snow initially tells Katniss to “convince him” and presumably everyone else, that the love she feels for Peeta is real. This would allow the world to accept that she isn’t a revolutionary, but simply a love-struck teenager. When she fails to convince the people of her peaceful intentions, Snow drafts both Peeta and Katniss into a special anniversary edition of the Hunger Games, presumably because he thinks it will give him an excuse to kill them.

It is hard to believe that a leader of a totalitarian regime would really bother too much about this. National heroes might be required to appear on TV and clarify they are not rebellious.  If they fail, they tend to “have a mysterious accident”. They tend not to be given EVEN MORE screen time.

President Snow really seems to be a glutton for punishment.  He spends a lot of time and effort to make Katniss and Peeta into martyrs rather than getting rid of them simply and efficiently. This makes no sense, especially as he apparently has a reputation for poisoning people. With the country already rebelling would you really waste that much money in setting up a Hunger Games PR exercise?

The interaction between the characters are still entertaining though, and there is fun to be had enjoying Katniss’s melodrama of being torn between Peeta and Gale. Poor Gale would like to rebel against Panem, but Katniss still thinks rebellion is too dangerous to think of. And whenever Peeta is in danger, Katniss tends to forget all about Gale.  Ooops.

Amidst all this teenage angst, in unlikely plot twist, the anniversary Hunger Games are partially hijacked by the rebels, and Katniss gets kidnapped to serve as an inspiration for revolution.

I mean, c’mon…

If the Panem government was truly infiltrated by the rebels to that extent, you would have hoped they’d be busy trying to assassinate the president or something. But apparently not.

They even kidnap some of Katniss’s stylists so that she is ready to have her fashion shoots for the revolutionary propaganda. Talk about convenient.

And that for me, is the problem with the 2nd and 3rd book of the series. Everything seems to revolve around Katniss. Of course, she is heroine of the books, so that makes sense to an extent. However, in most books, there is usually some pretence to covers up the character-centric nature of the story. Things will happen to the character apparently at random.  States will make decisions based on external factors. Not in Catching Fire or the Mockingjay.

Policy will be decided based on what Katniss thinks best. War maneuvers pretty much likewise. Then when the war is almost at an end, and the female president of the rebellion, Coin, decides to bomb innocent children, she makes sure personally that Katniss’s little sister is among them (needless to say, Coin is not fond of Katniss). Katniss is also supposed to be the person to execute president Snow personally.

I know this is a young adult series. But it still feels strange to postulate that the entire future of a huge country rests on one person’s shoulders. In many ways this approach is the height of individualism, pitting a singular self against system. It subscribes to the “great person” notion of history, where the fate of the world lies in one person’s hands. It probably also appeals to a teenager’s sense of self-importance.

But the novels do hint at the various ways in which Katniss might be broken: there’s a constant reminder of why she doesn’t want to have children (because they might be taken from her to participate in the Hunger Games). Her killing rebellious side (highlighted by her affection for Gale who in the end becomes responsible for creating bombs for the rebels) struggles against her warmer impulses (her love for Peeta and her admiration for his baking and art).  It is characteristic that Katniss describes herself as not much of a healer. unlike her mother and Prim, but she is able to provide medication to Peeta. Peeta consistently unlocks Katniss’s softer side. It is when Peeta is imprisoned that Katniss’s demons are truly unleashed – the aim of her life becomes to “kill Snow”.  It is this brokenness that makes Katniss so appealing a heroine. She may well be brave, but she is not without her weaknesses.

I also like the fact that the rebellion itself is portrayed as inherently problematic. Some of the revolutionaries are truly fighting for freedom, but some seem to be willing to exchange freedom for another kind of bondage.

I did enjoy reading the Hunger Games trilogy a lot. I do think there is plenty of stuff to think about and unpack in it.  I just found a single teenage girl with a bow and arrows abolishing a massive totalitarian state slightly unrealistic. But I guess we can all dream.

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