In my life before law school, I was an avid reader. Like most kind of geeky, kind of awkward, not-a-social-outcast-but-also-not-popular kids I have loved reading for fun for basically as long as I can remember. Since starting law school, I’m so swamped with reading casebooks and articles that I don’t have much time for “fun” reading anymore, but I do try to get in a good book or two during my breaks. This spring break, I made it my goal to tackle the Hunger Games series.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably at least heard of the Hunger Games by now. The movie based on the first book hit theaters last week and broke all sorts of records. On top of that, there’s been a ton of commentary about the books and the film in anticipation of that release, and a lot of my friends have been talking about the series for a while too. Naturally, I had to see what I was missing.
The Hunger Games (Image Source)
My friends know that I read a lot, and try to keep up with whatever series are currently “big” (except for Twilight…I never really hopped on that bandwagon). I know that I got to the Hunger Games scene a little late, but a few people have already asked me for my opinion after hearing that I finally got around to reading the books over spring break last week. Here are my thoughts.
If you haven’t read the books or seen the movie, I suggest you stop reading now. Unless, of course, major spoilers are your thing.
(A quick note on methodology: I wrote each of these reviews after finishing the book in question but before starting the next book in the series. So I wrote my review of Hunger Games before reading Catching Fire, etc. I figured that way it would be an accurate reflection of each book, without the extra knowledge that can obviously affect the way you feel about previous installments after reading further ahead.)
Book 1: The Hunger Games
First thing’s first: the premise of these books is original and extremely thought provoking. It’s obvious why they became a sensation so quickly, because they’re very accessible but also make readers of a variety of ages think about things we’d probably rather not think about on a daily basis. You know, like the government forcing kids to fight to the death on a reality tv series once a year.
One of my biggest critiques at this point is that I want more backstory. I want to know how North America devolved into chaos and the Capitol rose up and formed Panem. I want to know more about the rebellion that led to the destruction of District 13. I want to know more about all of the Districts, not just the ones that Katniss, Rue and the Careers come from. I think there’s something to be said for keeping boring descriptions to a minimum in a book like this, but for me Collins’ bare description of how Panem became the way it is was just a little too bare. It seems like there’s a lot more left to be said, and I really hope that some of it gets fleshed out in the other books. Other than the Hunger Games themselves, this is where I see the most promise for thought-provoking discussions generated by the books.
One fan’s artistic rendering of the districts of Panem. I’d love to see Collins’ map, though (Image Source)
As far as the Games themselves, I generally liked Collins’ plot line and the way that it all worked out. I thought Foxface’s death was pure brilliance, because I honestly was really unsure how Katniss was going to take her down. For a while, I was sure that the final battle would be between Katniss and Foxface. But that also kind of brings me to my biggest qualms of all – for better or for worse, Katniss doesn’t really have what it takes to kill any of the other tributes in cold blood. She killed Glimmer with the trackerjacker nest, but that was borne out of necessity, as the Careers had her trapped in a tree and would undoubtedly have killed her in the morning as soon as they had the chance. Besides, she didn’t really mean to kill them per se…just to give herself a means to escape from the tree. She killed the tribute who speared Rue, but only to avenge the little girl’s death. In the end she kills Cato, but only after he’s mauled by the mutts for several hours, and only to put him out of his misery. I think there was a lot more character development potential for Katniss if she had had to face the difficult issues that Collins only contemplates hypothetically – what if Katniss and Rue were the last two tributes remaining? Of course, this worked out much better for Katniss’ morally and perhaps from a character likeability standpoint, but I would have liked to see how she would have handled some of these tough situations. We got a little taste of this with her poison berry plan with Peeta when the Gamemakers originally withdraw the special rule, but (as you’ll see below), I’m not entirely convinced that Katniss’ only motivation in that situation was to stick it to the Capitol or to avoid killing for its own sake.
Finally, (and I’ll just put this out there because it seems to be one of the biggest questions since the movie came out) I’m Team Peeta all the way. I understand the arguments for Team Gale, but after having finished this book, I honestly just don’t see it. I understand why Katniss is conflicted, I really do. She grew up with Gale and had many similar life experiences with him. But none of those compare to going through the Hunger Games with Peeta. And even though Katniss effectively convinced herself that her relationship with Peeta was manufactured for the audience and the Gamemakers and the Capitol, she hasn’t effectively convinced me. Because although it probably started out as an act in the beginning, it sure didn’t end that way. She legitimately cares about him, and the longer that she hurts him by not acknowledging that fact, the more and more angry I’m going to be at her during these next two books.
Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Image Source: Vanity Fair)
All substantive critiques aside, I think the first thing that struck me about this book was how very quickly I finished it. I wish that it had taken me just a little bit longer to devour this novel. I know it’s meant for younger readers…but so were each of the Harry Potter books, and those took a considerably longer time to read. I’ll try to keep my future analogies to Harry Potter to a minimum, but it seems the best basis for comparison that I have as far as young adult mega-hit books go.
Book 2: Catching Fire
This book surprised me even more than the first. Although it started out slow and sappy, it quickly picked up and started to address some of the issues that I said I wished Collins would delve into deeper. Including the history and politics of Panem – to me, that is the storyline of these books. The book starts with Katniss and Peeta’s victor’s tour around Panem, and culminates with them re-entering the arena as tributes for the “Quarter Quell,” the 75th Hunger Games where previous winners are chosen to compete instead of children from the districts.
With the talk of Revolution among the districts, Collins finally delivers a storyline that has the potential to live up to older readers’ expectations. Talks of uprisings seem to come second to Katniss and Peeta’s continuing love affair at first, but slowly push themselves into the main spotlight during the victor’s tour, the Quarter Quell, and of course the breakout from the arena which launches the full-fledged revolution. Still, the revolution seems to be in the back of Katniss’ (and perhaps the reader’s) mind throughout this all, until she can no longer avoid it at the end of the book. While I think a lot of people will probably find reason to critique Collins for this, the fact of the matter is that revolutions don’t happen overnight. And Katniss has shown herself time and time again to be a reluctant participant, if it means potential harm to her family or other loved ones. I personally really enjoyed the way that Collins used this book to build up to the revolution that will come in Mockingjay, because we get to follow Katniss’ thoughts and experience this whole ordeal the way she would. Not as an omniscient all-knowing reader, but as a 17 year old girl who just wants her life to go back to normal.
Once again, I also really liked the way that Collins writes the Games overall. I was surprised by the twist of plot that sent Katniss and Peeta back into the arena, and I liked the abbreviated description of the ceremonies leading up to the Games. I also liked the victors using the Games as their catalyst for starting a widespread rebellion within Panem. But again I feel like opportunities to explore Katniss’ character were lost by giving her the easy way out. Before she has to make any difficult decisions about killing her “allies,” another tribute explodes the arena and Katniss is whisked away from the grasp of the Capitol, destined to be the face of the rebellion. Of course, this time she was fighting for Peeta instead of herself, so that might have made the decisions to kill a bit easier on her part. I guess we’ll never know.
Katniss is more whiney in this book than in the first. Overall, I’m starting to find her less and less likable as a main character, but in a way I think that also makes her a more believable character because she isn’t perfect. And despite everything that happened in this book (and despite her constant waffling), I’m still 100% on Team Peeta. My heart softened for a Gale a bit towards the middle of the book, but I still really believe he’ll never love Katniss the way Peeta does. Of course, Katniss can’t make a decision and it basically seems that she prefers whichever one she’s with at the moment. Which is usually Gale, except in the arena. As a side note, I truly believe that Gale and Katniss would have ended up killing each other if they were the two initial tributes in the first book, because they’re both so used to fighting for survival and put themselves and their families above whatever notion they have of the “love” between them. But at the end of the book, Katniss and Gale are together to start a rebellion while Peeta has been captured. Presumably to be tortured and used as bait for Katniss. I can already tell I’m not going to like this storyline.
Book 3: Mockingjay
It’s as simple as this: I loved Mockingjay. It was easily my favorite book in the series. I think Collins used this final chapter to bring all of the big ideas from the first two books that she skimmed over to fruition: the political struggles, the tension between who is “good” and “bad” and whether those concepts are reliable at all, and (ultimately) survival.
I was concerned for the end of this series. Concerned that I would feel unfulfilled or like something was missing. That there would be so many stones left unturned. That I would want more. I guess that one is true – even after finishing Mockingjay, I’m still left wanting to read more about Panem and the world of the Hunger Games. Not necessarily more about Katniss and Peeta, because I feel like there really isn’t much left to say about them. But a prequel would be awesome – something from the Dark Days or for the founding of Panem. I would buy that book in a heartbeat. But as for this particular series, I feel like Collins said everything she needed to say. She finally dealt with the tougher issues without beating each point to death. There’s enough space for imagination to still take the reins, but the questions are finally (mostly) answered.
And since we’re on the subject of how I liked the way Collins resolved things in Mockingjay, I really have to say something about the love triangle in this book. Because as far as young-adult fiction romances go…this one was pretty much flawless. I had my doubts in Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but the amount that she focused on the Katniss-Peeta-Gale triangle here was perfect. It wasn’t overpowering, but it was always in the background. When only Katniss was rescued from the arena, when Gale infiltrated the Capitol to rescue Peeta, the attempts to heal Peeta from hijacking by the Capitol, Peeta eventually overcoming his hallucinatory urges to kill Katniss. I was seriously unsure about how the love triangle would end until the last 50 pages, when Prim was killed by (what might have been) a bomb tactic designed by Gale. Only then was I sure that Katniss would end up with Peeta (or choose at all). And, as you already know, I’m so glad she did.
I even liked the epilogue, which is really saying something for someone who literally laughed out loud at the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
My thoughts on the series as a whole:
Well, it wasn’t Harry Potter. But it was definitely the best series of books (and best 3 individual books) that I’ve read in a long time. And by that, I mean since I read the Millenium Series last year.
I really felt connected to these characters, even if I didn’t really like them at times or thought they were being whiney teenagers. Because you know what? The characters were supposed to be whiney teenagers. At the end of Mockingjay, Katniss is 17 years old. I remember what I was like at 17…I wasn’t much fun and was probably even more boy crazy than she was in the books. But she made a good, relatable heroine. A strong female figure for girls to read about and idolize. That’s definitely better than the only recent alternative for younger girls when it comes to literature, Twilight. I won’t even go there. And the rest of the characters – the soldiers from District 13, the coal miners from District 12, the painted people of the Capitol with their endless body modifications…I believed them all. I could picture them. I could see a little bit of myself in each of them, no matter how bizarre the individual character was.
I feel like this is one series that I will definitely read again when I’m lacking for entertaining literature. I haven’t reread any books since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so that’s really saying something. I think this series is both simple and complex at the same time, depending on how much time you take to think about the characters and the situations they’re facing. I think it’s easy to get frustrated by superficial faults, but that the overall story and premise are captivating. It’s clear why the books are so popular, because obviously they speak to people. I’m so glad for a young adult series that speaks to the reader honestly and addresses uncomfortable issues. I can definitely see giving these books to my teenage children someday to read…after I’ve raised them on Harry Potter for bedtime stories.