Reading List: The Hunger Games (Review)

The Hunger Games and its two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, have spent the last few years steadily accumulating praise, awards, and buzz.  These days in the US alone there are close to six million copies circulating and a film in works with a rumoured cast of Oscar nominees.

My own introduction to The Hunger Games was two years ago when I was taking a Women's Studies class.  Our assignment was to write a critical analysis of a piece of young adult literature and we were provided a list which included The Hunger Games.  After having no connection to Twilight I visited my prof and after a lengthy talk she suggested that The Hunger Games might be more to my taste.  It would be an understatement to say that she was right.  Since first devouring the book in what felt like hours, I have waited with baited breath for its sequel, Catching Fire, and the last and quite recent installment, Mockingjay, and have read the series no fewer than five or six times (often instead of doing required reading or writing essays).

Do not be deceived, however, into thinking that The Hunger Games is anything like Twilight.  In fact, they're about as opposite as it gets, which was and is a huge part of the draw for me.  One of my biggest problems with teen lit is the appalling gender stereotyping which is so inescapable.  I can't count how many times I've encountered this particular combination: strong young female protagonist; kind, beautiful, desirable, intelligent etc; either has no inclination or is unable to have children; but by the end of the book/trilogy/series whatever has magically changed her mind or miraculously conceived: story concludes.  First of all this disgusts me because it suggests that all women ultimately want the same thing: children.  This is absolutely false.  Second of all, this particular plot element suggests to readers and to women especially that no matter how amazing you are, no matter how wonderful your boyfriend/husband/life partner is, no matter how fulfilling your life is, these things are totally nullified if you cannot have babies.  Would it be so impossible to end a single damn book without a pregnancy?  Is this supposed to satisfy readers?  Keep the possibility of more sequels?  I don't know, but I hate it with a fiery passion.  Anyway, this isn't just a rant about books, this is relevant to The Hunger Games because the characters are so far from stereotyped.

The female protagonist, Katniss, is an abrasive, suspicious, and deadly-violent young woman.  Yet, in spite of this, it is impossible as a reader not to love her.  She is so refreshingly different it would make the series worth reading were she the only good part of it.  But of course she isn't.  The male protagonist, Peeta, is just as nuanced and dynamic as she is.  Peeta is sensitive, artistic, charismatic, funny, and has feeling.  Of the two he is the less capable at survival skills and the more social of the two.  Much like themselves, their relationship is equally complex and atypical.  Rather than any clich├ęd romance, Katniss and Peeta are brought together both by a mutual need to survive.  However, things are further complicated by an omnipresent media which must be manipulated and by the inescapable truth that only one's survival means the other's death (more on this in a moment).  I won't go on for fear of giving away too many details, but I'll say the the entire rest of the story's cast have the same depth and intricacies as the two main characters.

Besides the character work, the rest of the story is equally riveting.  Taking place in a dystopic post-apocalyptic United States, the first two books revolve around the archaic Hunger Games, where a boy and a girl, between 12-18 years old, are taken from each of the twelve districts to fight to the last man standing in a huge outdoor arena on 24-hour live television.  This surprisingly violent tale is made even more poignant by the subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) critiques that it makes of our own society.  To me the books were a fascinating account of the amorality of human nature.  The author, Suzanne Collins, has taken all of our own practices and acts to their logical conclusion.  Her dystopia addresses Reality T.V., the evils and inequalities of capitalism, so-called first-world societies' own bizarre and grotesque practices, and the manner in which spectacle is used to distract and pacify the enfranchised mass.

While The Hunger Games and Catching Fire to a large degree focus open the anomalous relationship between Katniss and Peeta, many fans were disoriented by Mockingjay's change in tone.  While at first I found it a little odd, after reflection it perfectly adheres to the unsweetened truth that Collins infuses her work with: Mockingjay unflinchingly dedicates itself to detailing the consequences of the characters' experiences on their bodies and minds, and the consequences of the political situation.  While I have my own issues with the final book's conclusion (which you'll now understand), I can't help but still love the series.

Now that the film has been announced I'm vacillating between excitement and conviction that I'll be disappointed.  They have announced that it will be PG-13 (to stay accessible to younger devotees), but I always found that the books' violence added to the gritty reality of it so this concerns me a little.  All seems to hang in the casting, which is now limited to the realm of rumour (if Abigail Breslin is cast as Katniss I refuse to see the damn thing).  Anyway, my point is if you haven't read the books yet, do it now before any inadequate film can impede the rich landscapes and characters of your imagination and disappoint you with its missing scenes.