I love book series (e.g., Bandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera). So although I don’t usually read YA novels, when a student lent me his copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy a couple of trimesters ago, I couldn’t resist at least reading the first page. And I got hooked by… Buttercup the cat. 🙂
“Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a bornmouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.” (Chapter 1, The Hunger Games)
The trilogy is set in post-apocalyptic North America, where a wealthy Capitol is served by 12 Districts. Each year, to continue to instill fear throughout the nation, the Capitol hosts a reality-TV event called the Hunger Games, in which two 12- to 18-year-old “tributes” are chosen by lot from each district to fight each other to the death until only a single tribute remains. The Gamemakers choose a different location (e.g., an island) each year to serve as the arena for the games and then design all kinds of dangers (e.g., earthquakes, tidal waves, flesh-eating plants, carnivorous insects, wolf-like “muttations” that seem to include body parts of dead tributes) to add further gore to the game show. Viewers can “sponsor” any tribute and send gifts (e.g., food or medicine) to the tribute that are vital to his/her survival anywhere in the arena.
Note: Spoilers here.
BOOK 1: The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen is a tough 16-year-old who hunts and forages outside the electrified fence enclosing her district to keep her mother and younger sister, Prim, alive. When her sister is selected at random to be one of District 12’s two tributes to the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss immediately volunteers to take Prim’s place. The other tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, whose only talent useful for survival in the Games is the gift of gab. On the way to the Capitol, the pair’s drunken mentor, Haymitch (the only victor from District 12, who uses alcohol to cope with his nightmarish victory in the 50th Games and the subsequent murder of his family by, he suspects, President Snow), and stylist, Cinna (who designs a costume for Katniss that makes her look like a spellbinding conflagration) determine that the two should be marketed as partners, if not lovers, to attract sponsors. However, two unexpected things happen. First, Katniss finds herself responding to Peeta’s displays of genuine affection, for it turns out that Katniss was Peeta’s childhood crush, to the joy of the viewers, but to the consternation of her long-time hunting partner, Gale, who seems to have begun to see her as more than a friend. Second, Katniss, by: (a) stopping in the Game to solemnly spread flowers over the dead body of fellow tribute and ally, Rue; and (b) outwitting the Gamemakers by threatening that she and Peeta would swallow nightlock, a lethal berry, unless the Gamemakers reinstate their rule that would allow both of them to win (there would be no victors should they both die), unwittingly becomes the face of the rebellion against Snow’s oppressive regime, with the mockingjay on her pin serving as the rebellion’s unofficial symbol.
RATING AND COMMENTS: I give this book 3 stars out of 5. I like Peeta’s character best, particularly his inherent goodness and steady devotion, though what caught my attention and caused me to read the book with greater enthusiasm than I would normally give a YA novel was Prim’s devoted cat, Buttercup. Because I love cats (and dogs), it was Buttercup whom I enjoyed visualizing the most. And though I don’t like reality TV shows, and dislike the extreme violence of the annual Hunger Games, especially since the tributes are so young, I find impressive how the author effectively uses the idea of combining Roman gladiatorial games and reality TV to frame her story of transformation (Katniss’), steadfastness (Peeta’s, Cinna’s), and revolution (of the districts against totalitarian rule and the poverty that it brings). (Some people have suggested, though, that Ms. Collins might have gotten the idea from Battle Royale, a 1999 Japanese novel, which the author denies.)
BOOK 2: Catching Fire
Katniss and Peeta begin touring the districts as part of their duties as victors. Their first visit was to District 11, home of Rue, where the people salute Katniss, confirming her as the unofficial symbol of the rebellion against President Snow’s tyranny. Seeing this on national TV, Snow therefore forces Katniss and Peeta to play in the Hunger Games’ Quarter Quell, which occurs every 25 years, and in which the Capitol is allowed to introduce new twists, such as forcing two surviving victors from each district to be their district’s tributes. Katniss outwits the Gamemakers again, however, by firing an electrically charged arrow against the arena’s force field, thereby destroying it. Commotion results, and she finds herself being transported to the rebel base, District 13, which until then was only rumored to exist, while Peeta is captured by Snow. When she wakes up, she learns that due to her rebellious act, District 12 was bombed. Fortunately, Gale was able to get Katniss’ mom and younger sister out in time, but Peeta’s entire family was wiped out.
RATING AND COMMENTS: I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5. Though Katniss is now more decidedly mature in her thinking and her character therefore less flat than in the first book, the novelty of the gladiatorial reality TV has, at least for me, worn off, despite the new dangers designed by the Gamemakers and the fact that this time all the tributes are former victors. The rebellion that is rapidly gaining momentum could have been developed more carefully as the reader is exposed to a world that is larger than that portrayed in the first book, but one wonders, among others, why nobody seems to know of any nations outside of Panem, despite the high degree of technological sophistication that the world seems to have attained. I suppose most of the book’s YA readers would appreciate the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle, which this volume definitely ratchets up, but for adult readers, this love triangle simply cannot compensate for the lack of sophistication in the trilogy’s world building or in the characterization of those in supporting roles. This disappointment coupled with a rather heavy workload caused me not to open the third book, Mockingjay, until a couple of days ago.
BOOK 3: Mockingjay
Katniss wakes up in District 13, where she is pressured by President Coin, leader of the resistance, to become the “Mockingjay,” i.e., the official symbol of the Districts’ rebellion. Wearing a mockingjay-inspired suit, the Mockingjay now visits various districts and engages in skirmishes, all of which are expertly filmed and broadcast to all of Panem. Meanwhile, Gale learns to apply his skills in designing hunting traps to the design of bombs; and though Peeta is rescued from the Capitol, his memories have been “hijacked” so that some of them cause him to hate Katniss and want to kill her. Swearing to kill Snow, Katniss goes to the Capitol with many other rebel soldiers, including Gale and Peeta, who has learned to differentiate false memories from real. Upon reaching the President’s mansion, however, a pre-climactic bomb explosion occurs, killing Prim and burning Katniss and Peeta. When Katniss wakes up after receiving extensive skin grafts, she finds Snow sick and under house arrest. He manages to convince Katniss that it wasn’t him but Coin who dropped the bomb that killed Prim and many other civilians, mostly children, in the President’s mansion. When Katniss is chosen to execute Snow, she shoots her arrow at and kills Coin instead. Pandemonium ensues during which Snow dies also. Katniss is tried by a new government for the murder of President Coin, found not guilty (due, apparently, to temporary insanity), and sent home to District 12. Peeta follows her but not Gale. In the epilogue, Katniss watches her and Peeta’s two kids in what appears to be nation with a brighter future.
RATING AND COMMENTS: I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5. I decided a couple of nights ago to finally read this book, thereby finishing the trilogy and my review in time for the Hunger Games movie, which opens today. I tried to keep an open mind after having been disappointed by the second book; alas, this book somewhat disappointed me as well. The whole part where Katniss was in District 13, preparing for the final showdown between her and President Snow (which would never take place despite the story appearing to build up to it), was rather boring despite her rebellious mini-escapades and the side stories of other victors-turned-rebels. President Coin is as one-dimensional as President Snow, and it turns out that Habermitch and Gale remain as flat as they were in the first book. The character I like the most in this final volume is Prim’s, whose gifts of empathy, wisdom, and emotional strength are unfortunately eclipsed in the story by Katniss’ physical prowess and self-sacrifice; unfortunately, the author sacrifices Prim, too, so that in the end Katniss will have no one else but Peeta (her mom decides to work full time at the Capitol nursing people).
Despite the caricaturish supporting characters and the underdeveloped story world, the Hunger Games trilogy is noteworthy for its engaging plot and heroes. Now to watch the movie 🙂 which I hope will focus more on the goodness and self-sacrifice of characters like Peeta, Cinna, and of course, Katniss, and less on the violence and gore, though some might say that goodness shines more brightly amidst wickedness.
Thanks to Greg Argulla for lending me the books!