Review: Hunger Games trilogy

I just finished reading Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s been a few months since I read the first book, so this won’t be a complete and detailed review, but most of the thoughts and reactions I had to all of the books are still pretty fresh in my brain. Warning: there will probably be a few minor spoilers.

The series takes place in the country Panem, which used to be North America before North Americans destroyed it, or something. Panem consists of twelve districts, all of which are oppressed to varying degrees and in different ways by the Capitol. Every year, the Capitol makes each district send two teenagers, one boy and one girl, to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, which are televised all over Panem and required watching for all citizens.

Katniss, the protagonist, is a very well written character. She feels like an actual person with some qualities that are really amazing and some that are downright frustrating. She hunts well, she takes care of her mother and her little sister, she thinks up shrewd strategies to beat people who are stronger than her, and she fights and fights and fights to stick to her morals, even when she knows she has to kill people for the Capitol’s entertainment. On the other hand, she often acts without thinking, she has a hard time talking about, and sometimes facing, her emotions, she has a short temper, and she can be self-centred and ignore the cause she is working for when people piss her off.

Only one thing bugs me about the way that Katniss is written, and I think I might be able to excuse it. Peeta, and other characters, talk about how great Katniss is, but are rarely able to articulate why. I absolutely hate it when a book (or a movie, or a television show, or a comic) keeps telling you that a character is special, but gives you no way to come to this conclusion on your own. If I need to be told how great the character is, maybe the character isn’t that great. I never felt that Katniss didn’t deserve to have a story about her – seriously some of the stuff she does really did amaze me – but I noticed at least one time in each book that I was being told that Katniss had some special quality that couldn’t be explained but that made everyone love her. I have less of a problem with this in Hunger Games than I have in other stories, because the trilogy is told from Katniss’s perspective, and it makes sense that she can’t see everything in herself that others see in her. But I also don’t think that having Peeta talk about how special she is added anything to the story. She stands up against the Capitol in a way that no one else does, and lives, and that gives people a reason to look up to her. That should be enough. Saying that she just has some magical quality that can’t be explained kind of cheapens her actions. I’ll forgive it, because some of her actions were pretty awesome, but it bugs me.

I didn’t mind the love triangle, and in fact, I think it would be strange if a story about sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds didn’t make any mention of romantic or sexual attraction. It makes sense that Katniss would struggle between which boy she wants to be with, Peeta or Gale, even when she’s also dealing with President Snow probably wanting her dead and most of the citizens of Panem looking to her as the face of the rebellion. Her struggle of trying to figure out what she wants without hurting either of the boys is human and a little bit heartbreaking. However, the fact that she does make a choice in the end is a little ridiculous. I don’t think it’s impossible to fall in love at age seventeen and stay in love with that person forever, but I also don’t think that choosing to be with someone at age seventeen needs to be happy-together-forever story. I would have liked the story a lot more if it had ended before the silly epilogue with Katniss talking about her children, or even before the end of the last chapter with Katniss picking her guy. Katniss had to pretend she was in love as a strategy to save her life, and possibly the lives of everyone in her family and maybe even her district, and showing her struggle with that strategy while still trying to keep herself happy again was painful but poignant story telling. Having her then live happily ever after with the guy she picks at the end of the rebellion not only sends an unrealistic message to teenage (and maybe adult) readers, it feels inauthentic and contrived. That’s not something that I’m willing to ignore or forgive, but since it isn’t the main focus of the trilogy, I’ll move on to the things about the books that I thought were really great.

One thing I love about futuristic literature is the freedom it has from many of our social norms. No one makes a big deal out of the fact that Katniss is a girl who hunts or that Peeta is a boy who paints because he learned to frost cakes in his father’s bakery. In the Hunger Games arena, Katniss saves Peeta’s skin several times, and he never seems uncomfortable with this or needs to assert his strength and masculinity. At the same time, Peeta’s artistic skills, his ability to collaborate, and his way of using language to rally people around a cause are also celebrated. Instead of valuing Katniss’s (traditionally masculine) skills over Peeta’s (traditionally feminine) ones, these novels quite nicely show that we need different people with diverse skills that complement each other.

I also love how futuristic or science fiction stories can exaggerate aspects of our culture to critique them. People in the Capitol frequently alter their appearance; they change the colour of their skin or their hair, they get tattoos but then have them removed and get new ones, and they have things like whiskers or fangs surgically attached to their faces. They aren’t considered freaks or even strange by the standards of the Capitol, but Katniss is appalled by the effort that these people put into their appearance when she and others in her district are struggling just to survive. It isn’t an indictment of people who spend money or effort on their appearance, actually, Cinna uses his position as a stylist to blatantly subvert the Capitol’s power, but it does show a pretty serious contrast between what is important for the haves and what is important for the have-nots.

The best way I can describe these novels is to say that they are gripping. I wouldn’t call them great literature. The story itself is derivative of many post-apocalyptic novels and movies (the move Battle Royal immediately comes to my mind whenever I describe the premise) and the writing can at times be a little obvious and heavy-handed. But I was caught up in the story from the beginning of The Hunger Games to end of Mockingjay. I felt personally invested in all of Katniss’s schemes and emotionally involved in all of her struggles. When someone betrayed her, I felt betrayed. When someone trapped her, my heart jumped into my throat and then dropped to my stomach. When she did something stupid, a big part of me wanted to reach out and stop her but another big part of me just marveled at the amount of courage it took for her to make a huge mistake. The trilogy isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a great piece of young adult fiction that treats its readers like smart people who deserve a story that both challenges and thrills them.