Let’s Talk Books – The Hunger Games Trilogy

Warning: Spoilers

The Hunger Games trilogy will always stand out to me because it’s one of the few series I’ve both heard of and read before a movie adaptation came out and the rest of the world jumped on the hyped-up bandwagon. If we’re being perfectly honest, when I first heard about The Hunger Games movie coming out in early 2012, I had a pretty smug attitude towards it. I was all like, “Oh, The Hunger Games? Yeah, that was actually a book. And, uh… yeah. I read it. No big deal.” (Although it’s not like I’ve been reading the series since it was first released; in fact, I barely made this cutoff by reading the trilogy in the summer of 2011, so I wasn’t too smug about it).

Anyway, Mockinjay Part 1 was just released (I’m never going to adjust to addressing movies in parts). One of my friends told me it wasn’t very good because nothing interesting happens in the first half of Mockingjay. I hardly even remembered anything about Mockingjay, let alone most of the series, so since people will probably be talking about it for a while, now would be a good time to reread the series.

The Hunger Games

One of the first things I noticed was how straightforward the narration is. I remember this being one of the stronger things about the series as a whole, and I’m glad to say it was still effective in the first book. Katniss paints a pretty good picture of what her life is like: illegally hunting for her own food to keep her little sister and mentally unstable mother fed, choking down a deep-seeded hatred and fear for the people that oppress them, following their ridiculous circumstances for living, and constantly feeling underfed and despaired. I got a pretty good idea of what her home life looked like, and its movie adaptation matched that image pretty well. The Hunger Games starts off pretty intensely for a young adult book, (I’d even argue for a book in general), and as a whole it keeps a decent rate of intensity throughout the entire novel.

One of the reasons this works so well is because of Katniss’ narration throughout the book. It’s almost written entirely around her own thoughts being portrayed to the reader, as there’s little dialogue between characters. Katniss’ commentary on the world is the novel’s strong point, so keeping conversations to a minimum isn’t an issue at all, especially because Katniss doesn’t trust many people and part of her struggle is identifying who to count on and who’s an enemy.

About half the book is spent preparing Katniss for The Hunger Games while depicting the Capitol that hosts it. Katniss lives in one of the twelve districts under the Capitol’s oppression, and every year two children from each district are chosen to fight each other to the death in an isolated arena for the Capitol’s amusement. Where life in the districts is poor, the Capitol thrives in trivialities; people dye their skin, get exaggerated haircuts, impractical, flashy clothes… basically, the Capitol is supposed to represent a wasteful, rich tyrant. This first half of the book includes sending Katniss through a number of makeovers to impress the Capitol and get their support for her in the Games. A bit dragged out, but it does a good job at identifying the type of people each side represents.

The second half takes place in the Games, following Katniss and her iron will to survive. You might think reading 200 pages of what’s essentially one of Lost‘s season one episodes may not be entirely thrilling compared to watching it, but it’s done surprisingly well. There’s some confusion that constantly trips Katniss up regarding the other chosen person from her district; prior to the start of the Games, they were supposed to be allied as long as possible, but he’s off doing his own thing. Katniss spends the majority of her time avoiding other people and obstacles while using her hunting skills to survive. Eventually she makes an alliance with a girl named Rue, who reminds Katniss of her sister back home. Katniss eventually loses her to another contestant, and she makes a memorial for her. Doing so shows an act of defiance to the Capitol, and unbeknownst to Katniss, starts a chain of events among the districts that leads to a rebellion during later books.

Katniss and her other district tribute, Peeta, eventually find each other and continue (well, more like finally begin) the alliance they were supposed to have. Earlier in the book, during an interview that was being broadcast to the Capitol, Peeta admitted he was in love with Katniss. Their mentor suggested rolling with a star-crossed lovers bit in order to gain sympathy and better support from the Capitol viewers while they performed in the Games. Peeta, who is now badly injured, provides an opportunity for Katniss to nurse him back to health, increasing the intensity of the fake romance they’re supposed to have.

This romance is actually an extremely interesting part that shows a lot about Katniss. If you’ve never read or watched The Hunger Games before, you may have heard how she’s an amazing role model of a character, especially compared to Bella from Twilight, which was extremely popular around the time The Hunger Games was first released. And there’s good reasons for that claim; she’s an independent woman, was forced to grow up too young, is realistic, supportive of those she loves, and is able to adapt to change. She’s a very strong character in these regards, but she is also very weak in others. Katniss naturally has a difficult time trusting other people, especially Peeta. Peeta, who’s from the same home as her, supposed to naturally be on her side, is an enemy in the end, and his survival in the Games means her death. They’re forced to be enemies, but he said he loves her, and now she has to pretend to love him back in order to put on a good show. She comforts him, holds him, kisses him, displays so much intimacy she doesn’t really mean just to survive.

The thing is, Peeta isn’t putting on a show. He really loves Katniss. Katniss is playing with his heart. At times, disturbingly so, especially when she thinks about what her relationship with another friend from home is like. She’s doing what she has to do, and it’s cruel, and she forces herself not to feel guilty for it because that’s eventually going to lead to her death. This romance shows a dark, unlikable side of Katniss that’s a polar opposite of the role model she’s often portrayed as. And although she (and most other characters, for that matter) have cliche personalities, she makes for an extremely complex character.

She eventually defies the Capitol again by suggesting a suicide pact with Peeta when they’re the last two tributes. Before they can kill themselves, the Capitol stops them and declares them both winners. Again, this continues a chain of events that leads to rebellion in the next two books, but at the moment Katniss has no idea what her actions have caused (both for the Capitol and Peeta).

Overall, I really liked the first book. For a young adult novel, it can get pretty dark, although it never strayed too far from the level of intensity it started with. Definitely recommend reading it if you haven’t yet, the writing style fits this particular entry extremely well and provides an experience you can’t get with the film.

Catching Fire

When I told a friend I was rereading The Hunger Games, she took the words right out of my mouth when she said Catching Fire is a very “middle” book. The “middle” of many series, whether they’re books, movies, video games, or even TV shows, has the unfortunate role of providing a sort of “filler” between the beginning and end of the overarching story. It can never really provide a beginning the way its previous entries can, and it usually doesn’t provide any sort of conclusion. It’s not a law that the mid-book in a trilogy has to suck, but Catching Fire, unfortunately… does, for lack of a better word.

Okay, it doesn’t really suck, but it was noticeably disappointing my second time reading it. It starts several months after the first book ends. Katniss and Peeta are living with more comfortable conditions because of their victory in the Games, although Peeta’s pretty pissed off that Katniss doesn’t share his feelings. They’re noticeably more formal with each other, but it’s done mostly out of spite. Katniss has also started recognizing her feelings for Gale, her friend from the first book that seemed like he was going to be important but was only really around for the first couple of chapters. This is also the same guy I mentioned earlier, the one that distracts Katniss from the fake relationship with Peeta even further.

Yeah, now we have a love triangle. Granted, you could see this coming all the way from the beginning of the first book, but now it’s official. I’ll just say this right now, all that stuff I said about Katniss’ darker side gets even more complex now. Katniss switches back and forth between liking (or seeming to like) Gale and Peeta, and she hurts both of them constantly throughout the rest of the series. It’s almost childish, actually. She switches so easily, and I hate saying that because the narration definitely says what a hard time she has understanding her feelings and the situation, but… well, it just doesn’t do a good enough job, I guess. Or rather, it could be doing a better one.

Catching Fire is where I started noticing how this trilogy has a lot of potential for complex storytelling but doesn’t take the risks necessary to reach greater heights. I mentioned before how none of the characters have much of a personality beyond a standard trait or two. For example, Katniss, buries her emotions and feelings and does whatever she has to for survival. Gale is strong and is driven by a hatred for the Capitol. Peeta is emotional, but artistic. They’re not exactly boring, but you’ve probably seen these characters before.

So wouldn’t this love triangle (that, again, Twilight had influenced so many things to try during the time this book came out) be so much more interesting if we really got the time to know each character? Yeah, man! Too bad Catching Fire decides to spend a solid two-thirds of the book telling the same Capitol tour story the first book gave.

And yeah, you hardcore Hunger Games enthusiasts, it’s not exactly the same. Katniss and Peeta tour the districts and give speeches the Capitol prepares for them. Except, not really. Katniss and Peeta choose their own words and end up inspiring some of the districts to rebel. President Snow, the leader of the Capitol, ain’t too happy. He even started the book by surprising Katniss in her home, basically saying “Don’t fuck with me.” Now he’s pissed, and puts Katniss and Peeta in the next Hunger Games, under the guise that it’s the 75th anniversary of the Games and a special rule will be chosen from a box. The rule states this Games will include tributes that have already won existing games (the winners are supposed to be immune from being chosen again).

He’s a swell guy.

So basically this, and all the makeover sessions, is what most of this book is about. I guess you can say we start seeing the flames of rebellion starting to grow (Catching Fire? Get it? Ha.) between bouts of love triangles and new dresses, but ultimately it’s just showing how evil the Capitol is all over again, only longer. It was okay during the first book, when we were getting to know the world, but now that we’ve got a pretty good grasp on it, wouldn’t it have been better to start focusing more on character development? I can’t say it’s not there, but it’s certainly not enough to stand out.

In fact, I’ll just say it. It was a chore to get through Catching Fire. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t until the actual Games started two-thirds in until the book began to get interesting. I finished the first book within a week; it took me three to motivate myself enough to finish this one.

But just so you don’t think I completely hate it, I will say the Games are much, much more interesting this time around. The first book was basically a forest, which worked well because it suited Katniss’ isolated personality and promoted the tone of the book. But the new arena is smaller, forcing the tributes to meet more quickly, and it’s rounded, with jungles on the outside and water on the inside, with a beach balancing between the two. The arena is divided into twelve sections, each representing a clock (and district?), and every hour one of the sections has some kind of horrible event occur.

Here’s the tricky part. Katniss and Peeta have formed alliances with a number of different tributes that ultimately become “the good guys.” There are some small reflections how only one of them will walk out alive, but you get this overall sense of teamwork that makes the entire experience seem completely different. What made The Hunger Games a good book was the narration; so much of it took place inside Katniss’ head, and that complimented the lonely, dark feeling the story had. Now we have a whole bunch of characters talking with each other all the time, which wouldn’t be so bad, except…

The writing style never adapted to this.

So I don’t know if this is something everyone may get, but the font size, style, length of paragraphs, and many other technical aspects of writing can go a long way towards influencing the readers’ perception of a story. In the first book, where there was a lot of narration and not so much dialogue, the writing style works, but here there’s significantly more dialogue and the way it’s combined with the narration feels… sloppy.

It may just be a me thing, but it kind of irked me how a simple back and forth conversation feels like it takes forever when the dialogue is sprinkled among descriptions and narration. I know that may sound stupid, but for me it’s extremely distracting. Like everything blends together, and since a lot of details are often being given within fairly large paragraphs to start with, just looking at the page, let alone absorbing information, can be a little taxing.

Like I said, the writing style in The Hunger Games works so well because it compliments Katniss, her thoughts, and her acting by herself. I’m not saying adding so many new characters and conversations is a bad thing (in fact, it makes the overall story more interesting), but Catching Fire is such a different type of story than the first book, and I feel like the writing style needed to change along with it to be more effective. I don’t know if that makes sense, I’ve always had trouble explaining this type of thing, but hopefully I’ve made my point.

Mockingjay

The last book starts very… awkwardly. Some time has passed since the end of the previous book, just like Catching Fire, but at least then we were back in familiar territory with familiar characters. Mockingjay starts in District 13, long-thought destroyed and abandoned by the Capitol. In reality, its inhabitants have lived underground, preparing for another rebellion against the Capitol once it has enough support. Katniss, after being rescued from the Games at the end of the second book, is adjusting to life here and learning that the rebels aren’t much better than the Capitol. She’s constantly being remade into a symbol that can spark all districts to unite and fight as one (so basically, more makeovers).

The reason it’s so awkward is because there’s a slew of characters introduced that I honestly can’t even remember. There’s Coin, the president of District 13, and Boggs, this solider guy Katniss seems to respect, but that’s it. There’s a bunch of other names for a bunch of other characters with small roles that are ultimately so forgettable you have to wonder what the point of even naming them were.

Aside from that, I never really understood what District 13 is. It’s supposed to be underground, and it seems like it’s pretty far down there, but they launch hovercrafts to all over the country like it’s no big deal, and there are times when it seems like Katniss is outdoors entirely while in the district. The other two books gave me a pretty good idea of what the world looked like, but Mockingjay seems so disorienting in comparison.

It also didn’t help that once they started ground combat in the districts and Capitol, everything was basically a war zone, with buildings being destroyed and all that jazz. In terms of place, Mockingjay may have well been a dream where random scenes are loosely connected.

However, the narration and descriptions seemed to come back to the level of effectiveness the first book had. The awkward mishmash of dialogue and narration is still there, but this is probably the most intense book in the series. After a certain point, it felt like every chapter ended on such a graphic or strong depiction of something. It also helps that Katniss is the most mentally unstable she’s ever been. I don’t know why the end of the second book affected her in a more dramatic way than the first, but Katniss has become distrustful of almost everyone. Her love triangle continues, even when brainwashed Peeta, who was captured by the Capitol at the end of the second book, returns and tries to kill Katniss. Both of them are extremely unstable, and I think the book does a good job at showing what being used can feel like. And then, perhaps my favorite revelation of the entire series, happens when Katniss realizes she’s a cold monster for the way she’s switched back and forth between Gale and Peeta. Again, it would have been more interesting and sympathetic if we got to know every character a little better, but at least Mockingjay took this in a unique direction by showing Katniss realize what she did. And make us feel like she did.

Mockingjay is a bit odd because even after everything that’s happened, it’s still so forgettable for me. It’s not really about anything but the war on the capitol, and the series transformed from a dystopian survival story into a science fiction war story, and the transition feels nonexistent. I heard Mockingjay was rushed because of deadlines, and it sort of feels like it. It’s not that it doesn’t feel like a finale, it feels like it’s missing a book between this and Catching Fire. There’s such a dramatic shift in genre that it honestly doesn’t feel like a Hunger Games book, but some parallel world of one.

Overall, what did I think of this series after rereading it? Well, I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as my first time, but I still had a good enough time. The first book was good, the second not so much, and the third, well… the third was something, all right. If you want to give the series a shot, but don’t know if you want to commit yourself the whole way through, you’re in luck. This happens to be one of those trilogies where the first book handles well enough as its own thing. If you like it and want to explore more of this world and story, there are two more books. If not, well no harm done.

But as a final note, I wanted to say this would make a much more interesting TV series. I’ve watched both the first and second movies while rereading the books, and honestly, I think there’s just so much more potential for a deeper story than either the books or movies could handle. I think extending each book into its own season can give room for some much needed character development. For example, it’s supposed to be so cruel for Katniss to learn to distance herself and kill other teens in the first book. Wouldn’t it be more intense if an entire episode was dedicated to her growing closer to Rue and pushing away thoughts of eventually having to kill her, and then having another episode dedicated to finding Rue’s killer, showing a more animalistic, savage side to her as she hunts him down?

How about Cato, the “bad guy” of the first book? We don’t really know him too well, do we? He’s one of the kids trained to fight in the Games his whole life, and he’s painted as sort of a villain for the sake of having one. What if there was an episode where we got to know him more? Show how he used his other teammates and disposed of them when they were no longer needed (you know, that’s actually longer than a couple of brief scenes). Or show the episode from his perspective; have some flashbacks of a terrified child forced to become a killing machine. His death would certainly seem more powerful than how it was in either the book or movie.

Just a thought. Anyway, I’m glad I finally revisited the series, but I’m definitely ready to read something else now. ALL of this aside, I’m not much a fan of reading a series of books in the first place, so take this as you will. Happy New Year! 🙂

Info for my edition of The Hunger Games:

  • Published 2008 by Scholastic Press
  • Hardcover, 374 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1

Catching Fire:

  • Published 2009 by Scholastic Press
  • Hardcover, 391 pages
  • ISBN 978-0439-02349-8

Mockingjay:

  • Published 2010 by Scholastic Press
  • Hardcover, 390 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-439-02351-1
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s