First of all, let me clarify something. I’m not a teenage girl. (Shut up, you people with your jokes.) I say this because I want to make it abundantly clear that I was told by several people that adults would also enjoy “The Hunger Games” and that I should definitely read all three. So, faced with a long car drive, and a mile-high pile of books in my reading room, I chose to pick off three books that would put a dent in the pile but not take months to read.
In fact, these books took just a handful of hours to devour. The first one took about the time it takes for a Ford Fusion going about 75 miles per hour to get from Cincinnati to St. Louis. The second I squeezed in during all-day-digestion on the Friday after Thanksgiving. And the third one? Three cups of coffee and a bagel this morning.
Some people believe that if a book is a page-turner it is a great book. I disagree. Yes, these books read quickly and once I started, it was imperative that I finished. But that alone does not denote a great book. Others suggested that the books were good for some mindless reading, a few hours of enjoyment. I’ll give them some points for that. (Mostly because anything is more enjoyable than driving through southern Indiana and Illinois.) But given all the buzz, I figured there would be something more here than a fast read and some mindless entertainment.
Let me tell you how I really feel about this trilogy.
The first book, “The Hunger Games,” was fairly decent. The premise is unique enough, and it did have some legitimate surprises and plot twists that kept me interested. Sure, some of the characters were flat (the mom, Primrose, Gale) and others were stereotypical (Cinna, the stylists, and President Snow), but on the whole, there was a lot of potential in having Katniss, a strong female character, become a rebel hero after overcoming great adversity. A modern Luke Skywalker.
I put it down and thought to myself that maybe you all were on to something and that, as is typical with me and parts of our cultural zeitgeist, I came late to a really good party.
And then I started book two, “Catching Fire.” The second part of a trilogy is supposed to be the best. It’s the “Empire Strikes Back Rule.” Yet this book was positively awful. Katniss has won the games (sorry, there are going to be spoilers in this post, and since I’m not going to be recommending these to anyone, I really don’t care) and has become the unwitting symbol of a revolution. Focus on the word unwitting. Katniss is the sorriest leader of a revolution I’ve ever seen. She’s a total patsy for people more powerful than her (in almost all cases, men) and for most of the book, she is alternating between pining over her two (male) love interests and having other people (again, nearly always men) explain complex plot points to her. We’re not exactly advancing feminism with this book, folks. For the remainder of the series, even her heroic actions are almost entirely happenstance. In the make-believe world called Panem, Katniss is simply a pawn in a game (a theme stated repeatedly in the book). She is a brand. Just like every other train wreck teenage rock singer, supermodel, or movie star.
I haven’t yet started on the third book, “Mockingjay,” and I’m already ranting. The third book was ridiculous. The plot twists were entirely unbelievable. The characters devolved into absurd sketches of who they were in the first book. And the actual revolution—a plot premise that had genuine potential—is glossed over with a wave of indecipherable battles, amateur dialogue, and flash-forwards that leave the readers wondering why we have to miss all the good stuff.
All the while, Katniss is busy wringing her hands over her lot in life and her two love interests, who, in a scene that gave me great joy, eventually confessed to each other that they knew she was basically a manipulative young woman who they each loved but didn’t really respect.
And then the end. The tragic end. I say tragic not because it was heartbreaking, but because it was so dreadful. It was preposterous. For most of it, fortunately, Katniss is in and out of comas and is heavily sedated. She exhibits precisely zero leadership characteristics as she tries to lead the revolution. That she is a reluctant symbol, and not a willing revolutionary, gets many innocent people killed. She feels badly about this and then mostly just passes out. She wakes up long enough to overthrow the new government that she, to some extent, helped install, and then we jump to an epilogue that is a half-hearted attempt at a happily ever after. At this point, I’m wishing that the poison in book one had worked on poor Katniss.
Nearly always the characters were one-dimensional. They could be described as convenient—and I think a good character should sometimes be inconvenient. Haymitch, for instance, is the drunken mentor to Katniss and her partner Peeta. He’s helpful in an “I’ve been there” sort of way, and he redeems himself at times during the games. But then in book two, he becomes the plotting and scheming rebel who helps lead the revolution, in between swigs of liquor, of course. That’s convenient. But not believable.
The plot has roots in “Star Wars,” in “The Truman Show,” in “Lord of the Flies” and in several other dystopian novels. (There are some accusations it is an American rewrite of a Japanese novel called “Battle Royale.”) But that it lacks originality isn’t enough to condemn it. Originality is hard to come by in storytelling. It’s just that this story was so poorly executed. If you are going to borrow and allude, then please do it well.
If there is one thing that author Suzanne Collins did do well, it’s the nod to the horrors of our reality TV culture. Collins says as much in some of her interviews. The Hunger Games are reality TV for the ruling class in Panem. Indeed, there are some uncomfortable parallels to how the citizens of the Capitol exist and how our society exists today. Unfortunately, this theme was largely skipped over as we drowned in teenage angst.
Yes, these books passed the time and kept my attention this holiday weekend. They were at times entertaining and almost always mindless. In fairness, I should temper my criticism with the fact these books were written for young adults. And truthfully, I’d recommend book one, if I thought that all of you wouldn’t then feel forced to then read book two and book three. And I don’t want that on my conscience.
Thanks for reading.