When I review or recap books and movies, I try to sketch only the broadest strokes, telling little more than what can be determined from the jacket or a movie trailer. I give my reaction, and try to give enough information for the reader to decide for herself whether she’s likely to enjoy it. This approach will be difficult with Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet read it, yet I want to give enough information to help those on the fence decide whether to read it.
I’ll begin with the first book, The Hunger Games. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel narrated by a 16 year-old girl whose world is both like and unlike our own:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Collins gradually adds detail to the girl’s life and her world until the Hunger Games of the title is explained. Anything more, and I risk giving away one of the strengths of the book, which is the author’s slow and effective construction of the characters, their universe, and the Hunger Games. The main character is likable, her situation sympathetic, and the story filled with action, romance, mystery and danger. There is darkness, death, and murder, though, so this is not for younger children.
The second and third books are similarly engaging and quick to read; I finished all three in less than a week. Book 2, Catching Fire, and book 3, Mockingjay, continue the tale begun in book 1, giving further detail to the world, as well as moving the story forward in often disturbing, though perhaps inevitable, ways. Each book is progressively darker and more violent than the one before. Not only do terrible things happen, but they happen to children. The 2nd and 3rd books go beyond the death and murder of the first to include references to underage prostitution and grim torture.
I don’t want to scare people off; this trilogy is a thumping good read. But the complicated pleasure of a thrilling story comes at the price of a great deal of fictional violence and pain. Once the first one is devoured, I can’t imagine not reading the 2nd and 3rd in short order. Yet the 2nd and especially the 3rd are way more to handle than the 1st. Enter this series with caution, because once begun, you’ll likely be with it to the end. And parents should definitely read this before OKing it for kids, in my opinion.
Interestingly, in spite of copious violence and a few references to prostitution, I found an almost total lack of sexuality in the book. I found this strange, given its teen protagonists, who I assumed would be bundles of hormones. While I can see this being a good thing for parents worried about the over-sexualization of teens in books like the Twilight and Gossip Girl series, the almost surreal chasteness of the characters rang false to me. Over the course of three books, so did some of the characters themselves. In one book this can be excused by the primacy of the story. Over three books, I felt many characterizations were stretched thin rather than fleshed out.
I knew these books would be difficult to write about. There are many passionate and devoted fans of the series, and I fear I’m doing a disservice to the many things that are good about this series by writing my reservations about it. Yet while I’m glad I read it, I’m fairly certain not everyone would be. Like the Harry Potter series, and perhaps even a little more like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Hunger Games trilogy has a tough, sympathetic survivor of a main character. Over the books, though, bad things happen to her and those she’s close to. These things happen again and again and again. The series won’t work if you’re in a fragile, blue mood or if you have a hard time reading fictional violence in general or against children. If you’re feeling tough, though, and ready to wrestle with some thorny questions of situational morality around government, violence and young people, then go for it. And we can talk about it when you get to the other side.