I read The Hunger Games trilogy about a year and a half ago, and I’ve struggled with how to review it on this space ever since. Now that the movies are out, folks keep asking me for my thoughts. Here are my reviews of the books from when they were fresh in my mind (I’m copying and abridging slightly my goodreads reviews–goodreads is a fantastic social media site in which users rate their books on a scale of 1-5 stars; I’ll list my star rating with each book).

For those who have not read these yet, the first book is sort of Lord of the Flies (book) meets Lost (TV Show) and Survivor (TV Show). I have not watched the movie, nor, in the immediate future at least, do I plan to. Scroll to the end for why and some general thoughts on the phenomenon/series. This is longer than my usual posts because I’m tackling the entire series in ONE post!

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic
2008
****

Collins does a good job at bringing the classic plot of “autocratic central command and ultimate citizen revolt home” to her young adult readers. I think the issues Collins brings up in this book are worth 4 stars–she does a terrific job of exposing the effects of power, the devaluing of human life that is rampant in our society, and of the importance of not giving in to those destructive philosophies even at the risk of your own life. I especially loved how she allowed the true victory of the Hunger Games be directed towards those who hadn’t turned into little killers-for-the-sake-of-killing; some deaths were truly mourned and not merely accepted.

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic
2009

****

I really, really enjoyed the last 2/3 of this book, but it took a bit to get off the ground. I like Katniss better in this book and found her waffling between Gale and Peeta a little more understandable: after all, she had experiences with them both that were unlike any she had with anyone else. She’d had to depend on them both for survival and they on her. She had an understanding with them both that was shared with no one else. The hard part: those experiences, survival, and understandings were completely different between each boy. The two boys represent completely different parts of her life. She does get redeemed a bit by the end of this book; she’s starting to really look out for others more than herself…. (and that includes looking out for others beyond her own family). 

Mockingjay
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic
2010
***

Again, Collins addresses some terrific (and horrific) themes and concepts, especially those that arise when war happens (treatment of innocent civilians, loss of life in light of the greater good, etc.). But I think this was the least well-written of the trilogy (slow start, choppy near the end). I really wish there had been more clarification at the very end regarding the final choice Katniss had to make regarding whose side was right. I think Katniss’s character remains a bit undeveloped in the sense that she doesn’t seem to mature a whole lot–she spends so much time recuperating from her impulsive actions and being drugged up because she mentally can’t take it. I know she’s under a lot of strain, but come on… show us some improvement. We never know if her fateful decision at the end regarding who was telling the truth was accurate or not. We end the book with too few people in the picture, too, in my opinion. There should be at least a few others who’ve managed to head back with her and remake their lives (like, Finnick–why was his character redeemed and then not a major player at the end? And Katniss’s mom–do they keep in touch? have any kind of relationship?). And the resolution (finally!) of the love triangle seemed abrupt. I know endings are hard for authors, but this one left some to be desired in my opinion.

General Thoughts on the Series as a Whole

I think the writing could have been better. Katniss is a frustratingly obtuse heroine, the “new society” is a bit too transparently like our own (even words like “morphling” for a druggie is not very inventive), and so forth.

These books offer us, as Americans, an uneasy mirror into certain elements of our culture: the violence we find so acceptable in the form of entertainment (certain TV shows, video games, movies, and the like), the “reality TV” we seem to crave (why is fighting and backbiting amongst families so much more interesting when it’s live?), and the usual dystopian reflections on too much governmental control. In addition, Collins drives home the point that war is never pretty, that the good side is often hard to determine, and that our personal lives are profoundly affected by grief.

So, with all this good, why are these books not my favorite? It has to do with book #3 (Mockingjay). In The Hunger Games, we see Katniss defeat her enemies not so much because she “wins” the games, but because she is a survivor–NOT a killer. This is a significant difference in Panem’s worldview. I applaud this distinction because it makes Katniss a hero because of her beliefs as well as her actions.

In Catching Fire, we see some real growth in Katniss as she starts looking out for others–and more than her immediate circle of friends/family.

In Mockingjay, though, we see the chaos continue unremitted. Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water discusses the notion of cosmos from chaos, that true art shows us the cosmos within the chaos. Art which lets us devolve into chaos, accepts that chaos, doesn’t offer any form of redemption leaves us in despair: “We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.” (p. 116).

In sum, I felt that Collins doesn’t give us enough illumination beyond the effects of the fall. Where is the redemption? These are not “bad” books in the sense that they aren’t appropriate to read; despite the violence, I think they are very much worth reading and discussing. But they will leave the reader with the sense that there is no light other than the meager candle Katniss and Peeta are waving. There is more to life than their own human effort. We need to have more illumination.

*For the record, I am totally okay with unhappy endings; I am not okay with despairing or feeble endings.
 See also:
A GREAT analysis from a Christian writer

Things to Note/Discuss

  • Was Katniss right to fight in the arena? Would it be more Christian to just surrender? Redeemed Reader has got an interesting series going on about the books/movie and have alluded to this question.
  • If you read the books, did you like Katniss as a hero? IS she a hero? Is Peeta? Gale? Finn? Why or why not?
  • When is it right to rise up against autocratic government? Ever? 
  • Is it appropriate to distinguish between violence in real life and violence in media? If so, when might you make that distinction? When is it okay to view something that you wouldn’t want to see happen in real life? I might remind you, dear reader, that the Romans took this to an extreme that is reminiscent of the HG: they threw Christians to the lions and watched…. And this is why I find the idea of a movie version of The Hunger Games HIGHLY ironic. Aren’t we doing the same thing as Panem….??

What do you think?

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