Jan 5, 2012

Review: "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

The Hunger Games trilogy has generated a lot of buzz recently, mostly due to the upcoming (and fantastic looking) movie adaptation of the first book. So I decided to bump it up on my to-read list. And I wasn't disappointed.

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For those unfamiliar with the trilogy, it's set in a dystopian future America, called Panem, where various unnamed wars and environmental catastrophes have devastated the human race and left much of the Earth's landmass underwater. Panem is ruled by a totalitarian regime called the Capitol, that showers itself in wealth while enslaving the people within its twelve districts. Each district has a specific trade that nearly everyone is expected (and forced) to contribute to.

The defining mark of the Capitol regime is "the Hunger Games," an annual event where both a male and female tribute from each district are forced to fight to the death in a massive booby-trap ridden arena as perpetual punishment for an uprising in a time called "the Dark Days."

The trilogy follows the life of a teenager named Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister as a tribute from District 12. In the first book, The Hunger Games itself, Katniss fights for her life both in the arena using her honed survival skills and within the cut-throat (literally) politics of the Capitol. Her mentor, former Hunger Games victor Haymitch, who knows how to play the Capitol's political games, sets Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, up as a pair of "star-crossed" lovers, a theme that follows them throughout the entire trilogy.

The Hunger Games themselves are quite brutal to read through (and I imagine will be even more brutal to watch), as the scenes of the "Games" involve children killing each other in the most horrible ways imaginable. However, they mark the center of a well-written and poignant story about the nature of humanity and its relationship with power.

The end of the The Hunger Games is predictable (I saw it coming for a while), but that doesn't make it any less effective. In fact, it makes it even more so, especially as you learn more and more about the other tributes and become attached to them as well.

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The beginning of the trilogy, in my opinion, is a perfect execution of the kind of world that Collins was going for. It has the perfect amount of drama, violence, and romance, all wrapped up in a powerful moral message that's lessons are defined by the abundant corruption seen on just about every page of the book.

So, the first book is an amazing read. But what about the other two?

The second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire, begins to shift the story away from the corruption itself and more onto its effects on Katniss. The major plot still chugs along just fine, but the focus on Katniss' emotional state as the story progresses is much sharper and incredibly shocking. And Collins pulls this off perfectly as well.

I often see a lot of authors gloss over ambivalence in their characters, as if keeping them "steady" is realistic. But Collins doesn't fall for this. She shows every little mistake, every moment of confusion, that Katniss experiences throughout, and if this doesn't make Katniss a realistic heroine, then I don't know what does.

One of the things I enjoyed most from Catching Fire is the abundance of new characters. Since most of the characters you come to love in The Hunger Games actually end up dead by the end, they need some good replacements. And Collins delivers, in my opinion, even better ones. This is because Catching Fire revolves around the "Quarter Quell," which is a Hunger Games round where the normal rules are thrown out the window and a special set of tributes is chosen.

And, of course, this Quarter Quell's tributes...are chosen from the previous winners. Seeing as Katniss is the only female winner from District 12, she automatically has to compete. You see, in the first book, Katniss uses a trick to save both her and Peeta's life (since there is usually only one winner).

The "president" of Panem, Snow, and makers of the Hunger Games, therefore, are humiliated and shamed. And beyond that, Katniss' defiance of the Capitol's rules sets off a rebellious streak in all twelve districts.

And so a target is painted on Katniss. One that is not erased until the very end of the trilogy.

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Catching Fire then proceeds to introduce some of the most memorable characters ever. Since the contestants are past tributes, they each bring heavy histories and emotional baggage to the Quarter Quell. They also bring a plan to break out of the arena, unbeknownst to Katniss. To me, following the stories and plans of these new characters was far more compelling than the ones from The Hunger Games.

And so, at the end of Catching Fire, we are left with a setup that promises a grand finale.

Then we get to Mockingjay.

I'd seen a lot of people around before I started the series who didn't like Mockingjay, and after starting the series, I kept wondering why. Then I actually got to it, and I understood perfectly.

Mockingjay is not like the first two books. Whereas the focus in the first two is split about evenly between the main plot line and Katniss' emotions and thoughts, the final book suddenly tips the scales toward the latter. By a lot. While the plot still marches onward toward an exciting, horrifying, and bittersweet finale, its often overshadowed by Katniss' collapsing mental state.

There were times in the book when the only thing I could focus on was Katniss' obvious and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She ends up in the hospital so many times, drugged up on the equivalent of morphine and suffering endless nightmares, that I often forgot what else was actually happening.

I still like Mockingjay, quite a lot, but it is hard to have the same feelings for it as I do for the first two. The story descends into a pit of severe depression and mental trauma that it never really climbs out of, and it tended to jar me a bit out of the story as a whole every now and then.

Now, don't get me wrong. The events of Mockingjay and Katniss' declining mental state were obviously planned by Collins to have this effect on the reader. Collins doesn't spare any expense to make you feel the pain her characters are in and to understand why they're suffering. It's plainly obvious that one of Collins' major points was to make the world of The Hunger Games universe as real as it could possibly be.

And she succeeded, in my opinion, because there really is no getting around the fact that the mental and emotional trauma, the horrors of war, and the stress that her characters face are eerily and horrifically realistic. But at the same time, that level of realism has the potential to turn some readers off, especially since the series is YA.

So, while I find that the series as a whole is a dystopian masterpiece, I will warn you now that it descends into some very dark and disturbing places. You will watch as teenagers have their lives completely destroyed, their families killed and tortured, their minds left in tatters, and their emotions horrifically distorted. Permanently.

And even at end of all things, you won't find any real happiness. You'll find realism. And that realism entails the depiction of horrors of totalitarianism and war and its lasting effects on the people who experience it.

So, The Hunger Games trilogy. Dark. Thrilling. Poignant. Realistic. Should you read it? Definitely. 

The Hunger Games Rating: A+
Catching Fire Rating: A+
Mockingjay Rating: A

Overall Series Rating: A+

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