Lost in The Hunger Games series

22 August 2010

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to conclude my summer than to read some terrific young adult fiction — and I’ve just discovered Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (to be released this week).  It’s the most riveting young adult series I’ve read since the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  Lionsgate is developing a film (eagerly anticipated by the book’s fans, many of whom have released their own versions of what the trailer should look like).  If you ask me, the best part of these books is the way they trace a teenage girl’s core struggle — a struggle over how to be true to herself in an environment that demands she appear to be a more stereotypical kind of girl.  Whereas Harry Potter got solipsistic and repetitive as he considered his own inner struggles, Katniss doesn’t have a moment to spare in the dystopian world she inhabits:  she’s been chosen to participate in the Hunger Games — a brutal televised reality show in which each of her country’s twelve districts send one boy and one girl, twenty-four in all, to fight to stay alive by killing one another until only one is left.

Partly inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, The Hunger Games explains that some seventy-five years earlier, one of the nation’s districts rebelled against the government, only to be utterly destroyed in a show of federal force; the Hunger Games thereafter became at once a reminder of the government’s absolute power and a riveting TV opiate for the masses.  The inhabitants of Katniss’s district are so poor and malnourished that only one has ever won the Games — traumatized by it, he’s now a drunk who can’t stay sober long enough to provide much coaching for Katniss and her co-participant, a shy baker’s son named Peeta.  That’s too bad, because they need help in both survivalist strategies and TV self-presentation.  Luckily, Katniss has some talents up her sleeve.  For years since her father’s death in a mining explosion, she’s supplemented her family’s meager food supplies by illegally poaching meat, fish, and berries from the woods.  The details of her skills with a bow and arrow — and the way she’s taken on conventionally male tasks in providing meat and pelts for her family — evoked for me similar passages in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a book I re-read dozens of times when I was 10.  Collins manages to explain methodically Katniss’s forest knowledge while also plowing ahead with a fast-paced narrative.  It might be a cliché, but this is the truth:  I read each book in less than 24 hours and then lay awake at night thinking about them.  If I were 10, I’d have created a variety of outdoor imaginary games in which I play the role of Katniss.

If this recap of the books’ dystopian elements makes you fret about its author’s political commitments (is she some kind of Tea Bagger, with these calls for rebellion against the government?), it’s cold comfort to remember that the book was written during the final year of the Bush administration.  In the end, Collins’ own beliefs don’t matter:  the same anti-Obama forces who bark about taxes and authoritarianism might well embrace these books.  But if this makes me depressed, I have to remember that the same people use the Constitution to claim there is no separation of church and state:  this is a group singularly weak in reading skills (and logic).  I have read the books carefully, and I see less a political allegory than a great read about a girl in a tight spot.

It’s more likely that girl readers eager for another Twilight-like Edward v. Jacob faceoff will obsess about Katniss’s confusion about two boys — but the books aren’t really a love story.  It’s true that she finds herself torn between Peeta, the meek boy she competes with in the Games, and Gale, the boy she used to hunt with back before the Games started (I even found a “Team Peeta” t-shirt when trawling the web for images).  Rather, the books seem to me more a reflection on how some girls find themselves thrust into romance before they’re ready.  From the outset of the series Katniss announces that she will never marry or have children; nor is she prepared to have crushes on boys, fall in love, much less deal with sex.  It’s only when she feels a make-believe romance with Peeta might help win the hearts of the reality-TV audience — benefiting them both during the competition — that she agrees to it.  Boys become impossibly confused with the crazy logic of the Games, and she wrestles throughout with the implications of that lie; she doesn’t have much time to think about her own feelings or what she wants.  As a result, the books offer a fascinating commentary on how hard it is for a girl in her teens to set her own terms for engaging with romance.  Some girls simply take a while before they’re interested.  

Oh, if only there were more of this rather than the syllabus-writing, the committee meetings, and the specter of the fall semester looming before me — good thing that final volume comes out on Tuesday.  But be assured that my enthusiasm for the series isn’t simply a distraction from my more quotidian responsibilities.  This is the best young adult heroine I’ve discovered in a long time — and with a good director and production team (go, Lionsgate!) we could have a riveting series of films before us in another year or so, too.  Here’s hoping.

12 Responses to “Lost in The Hunger Games series”

  1. servetus Says:

    Hadn’t thought of Island of the Blue Dolphins in years. I loved that, too.

    • didion Says:

      What a good book. And based on a true story. Although O’Dell was pressured by the publisher to convert the main female protagonist into a boy because of the never-ending industry wisdom that boys won’t read books about girls.

      But to be less of a feminist scold, I was surprised to see that Island of the Blue Dolphins was first published in 1960 — it felt so fresh and real and perfect for a certain kind of environmentally-conscious late 70s vibe. But maybe I should simply see it as an American classic.

  2. servetus Says:

    Now that I’ve read it, I can say that the aspect of the book that I admire the most is the relentlessly ethical quality of the female protagonist and her insistence on being herself even as she’s molded into directions she despises. Her behavior as the book ends, after the games are over, is a particular case in point.

    • didion Says:

      But it’s more than that, right? She also succumbs to pressure to act a certain way on camera, understanding that deception as a strategy; and she feels deeply the soul-crushing distinction between her real self and that she tries to project in camera-ready ways. (Wait, am I just describing myself?)

  3. servetus Says:

    well, that’s it — she sees her decision to act that way on camera as a decision with certain ethical ends, and when that moment is over, she simultaneously withdraws from it, damn the consequences — and wonders how it has changed her.

    self and performance. it’s the ongoing problem.

  4. JE Says:


    And boy, you aren’t kidding about the 24-hour obsessed reading fests. Actually, the second book had to be split up into a couple days because it was interrupted by work. Stupid class schedule.

    My husband went through them at about the same rate. He was up to around 4 in the morning finishing the first book.

    • didion Says:

      Yup, I too resented the start of the school year JUST as I’d received that final book in the mail. It was all I could do to keep from calling in sick.

      Let me say that I’m glad you posted, as I’ve been passing around my copies to friends and get a huge charge every time they email me to say, “The Hunger Games OMG!!!”

  5. smintheus Says:

    An aspect that I especially like is that throughout these violent books, violence directed against other people almost always is portrayed in a negative light. It degrades even the people who could be portrayed as fighting the good fight or acting in self-defense. It debilitates everyone, sometimes in unexpected ways. The ends of violence are highly unpredictable. And often the use of violence is shown to be futile or self-defeating. The only obviously productive application of violence I can think of is the assassination of the murderous interim president at the end…who really had it coming. And people’s willingness to keep turning to violence is shown again and again to be linked to the government’s manipulation of fear. There’s a lot of All Quiet on the Western Front in these books, with a dollop of Series 7: The Contenders.

    • didion Says:

      Too right. And didn’t it make you jittery early on, when you couldn’t figure out how Katniss could survive without killing someone in the Games. It grants an enormous amount of the major emotional drama to that final book. Great comment.

  6. […] with that, I’ve got March 23 on my calendar. (Have read the trilogy twice. Just as great the second time through.) It’s nice to know I’ve got something in common […]

  7. […] now The Hunger Games is due to open. As a big fan of the books, I’m bracing myself for disappointment — how could they possibly do justice to this […]

  8. […] in that respect the film offers worthwhile commentaries on how hard it is for young women to set their own romantic […]

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