I finally got around to reading this young-adult blockbuster, not because the movie was coming out, but because my daughter, an avid Hunger Games fan, convinced me to read it. I’ve heard so many great things about the series — from kids, from reviewers, from other adult readers. So I came in with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a compelling futuristic dystopia, the plot is a page-turner, and the characters are strong and well-developed. And there’s a lot for a mom to discuss with her pre-teen daughter after they’ve both finished reading it.
Warning: If you haven’t read the books yet, and plan to, this review will contain spoilers.
Even people who haven’t read the books or seen the movie may have heard the basic premise by now. In a dystopian, post-catastrophe North America, twelve resource-producing “districts” are ruled by an autocratic government in the Capitol, where people live lives of luxury and ease off the profits of the backbreaking work people do in the Districts. In their bread-and-circuses quest for entertainment: the people of the Capitol have taken reality TV to the next level. Every year, 24 young people culled from the Districts are forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised fight-to-the-death that amuses Capitol residents while reminding people in the Districts that the Capitol holds the power of life and death over them. Katniss becomes a competitor when she volunteers to compete in place of her younger sister, and ends up unintentionally becoming the face of a revolution.
One of the reasons people like to praise is because it’s so good in comparison to the other great young-adult blockbuster of this decade: the Twilight series. Not only is it much better written (and I will confess to having read only excerpts of Twilight); Katniss makes a far more impressive role model for young girls than Bella. I’m reminded of the quote often attributed (probably wrongly) to Stephen King comparing the Harry Potter series to Twilight: “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” Granting that that’s true, which not everyone might agree on, what is The Hunger Games “about”? What message does it offer to young readers, especially to young women?
There’s a superficial similarity to Twilight in that just as Bella has her two suitors, Katniss also has two young men, Peeta and Gale, in love with her. Some fans, in imitation of Twilight’s “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob,” have declared themselves as “Teem Peeta” or “Team Gale,” but they’re missing the point. The plot of whom, if anyone, Katniss will eventually love and marry, is a subplot. Her conflict is how to survive, and what role, if any, she will play in confronting and destroying the unjust situation under which she lives. She knows herself that she has neither time nor emotional space to think about romance when her life is in constant danger.
Readers like to cheer for Katniss because she’s a tough, kick-ass heroine. She’s the antithesis of the stereotypical damsel-in-distress. Rather than waiting around to be rescued, Katniss recognizes from the outset that she has to rescue not only herself, but the people she loves — her sister, her mother, Peeta and even Gale. She’s physically strong, skilled, and smart when she’s figuring out how to solve a problem. But she’s also ultimately powerless, the victim of a cruel society in which she is a pawn in much larger power games. This continues to be true even after the revolution begins. Katniss is drafted by the revolutionaires as the face of the uprising, but she understands that she’s wanted only for her PR value: she’s not expected to take any active role or wield any real power.
For a book that probably gets classed as sci-fi (I tagged it as “fantasy” because that’s the closest category I have, though it doesn’t fully fit), The Hunger Games and its sequels are extremely realistic. What Katniss feels and experiences is what a young woman growing up in the midst of oppression, thrown into civil war, would feel. Much of the time, she’s suffering from what would be, at the very least, diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. And as the story winds to its conclusion in Mockingjay, Katniss has to face the possibility that she may have contributed to the overthrow of a corrupt, evil system — only to help put another, equally corrupt system in its place. Realistic? Ask some folks in Afghanistan about that one.
This level of moral ambiguity is pretty deep for young adult literature, and pays young readers the compliment of assuming they can handle a world that’s not easily divided into “good buys” and “bad guys.” It goes beyond even the shades of gray visible in Harry Potter, where Harry has to face the complexity of individual characters like Snape and Dumbledore who are capable of both good and evil, but where there’s never any doubt about which side is right and which is wrong. Katniss lives in a more complex and more realistic world, and in a way, it makes her less powerful, less of a free agent, than we often like our fantasy heroes and heroines to be.
Katniss does get one strong, hero moment at the end of the book, when she finally makes a decision entirely on her own, without being a pawn of others. But after that decisive action — which, we’re lead to believe, really does change things and make a better world at least a possiblity — she retires from public life. She’s never been more than a reluctant celebrity and takes no leadership role in the rebuilding of her world, but concentrates instead on finding what hope and healing she can as a private person. The ending is far less bleak and more hopeful than I expected even ten pages before the book ended — it’s a cautious hope, tinged with the knowledge of many serious losses, but there is love and there is healing, both for Katniss and for her world. But as to whether Katniss really is, or ever truly can be, a hero — I’m not sure.
A thought-provoking series of books with lots of action and suspense. I highly recommend them, even though I didn’t agree with every choice that either the author or the character made. Well worth reading.