THE HUNGER GAMES SERIES
Suzanne Collins (2008, 2009, 2010)
The Hunger Games: ISBN 978-1-407132-07-5
Catching Fire: ISBN 978-1-407132-09-9
Mocking Jay: ISBN 978-1-407109-37-4
There is certainly no need to convince anyone to buy more of Suzanne Collins super-successful series, but I think there still may be a need clear up some confusion about this series and point out that if you haven’t read it, you probably should and why.
I wouldn’t have really thought a review like this one was necessary, but twice now I’ve heard a reviewer of movies discussing the first and second films (not books) in the Hunger Games series and I listened intently as said reviewer managed to… well… just sort of utterly get it all wrong. First off, The Hunger Games is not the next Twilight. The comparison is borderline ludicrous and no-one who has read both works could think that. They are both successful series – yes – but whereas Twilight is a cleverly engrossing but ultimately insubstantial work, The Hunger Games is a skilfully written piece of work from an author who has a long history of producing really good YA stories, and more to the point, The Hunger Games is substantial in a way that Twilight is not. The Hunger Games is very definitely saying some very serious things about society, life and expectations imposed on young people in today’s world.
I’ll start off with the confused points that the unnamed movie reviewer rattled through and move on from there. As the same reviewer engaged in an equally confused review of the second movie in the series (which by pure chance I happened to also catch) I’ll bleed into some of that confusion as well. Now. To start. The reviewer described the first movie as being a post-apocalyptic tale about a teenager surviving in a world after a terrible disaster, like those books he read in the eighties, like Z for Zachariah. The Hunger Games was just another coming of age sort of book, one of those making it in a dangerous world books and fear about the end of the world books repackaged for a new audience. He went on to complain that although Katniss was interesting enough Peeta was passive and always needed rescuing and Gale hardly seemed to do anything at all.
Right. Okay. No. No. No. Listen: those books back in the eighties were all about the fear of nuclear insanity and catastrophe and were of a different era when it really did seem like the world might end at any moment because some middle-aged men somewhere very far away were squabbling. The Hunger Games is not about that at all. It is about the poisonous culture of celebrity, unhealthy youth worship, a world in which middle-aged men instruct young women how to behave and how to be sexy for fame, and it is about survival in a world where every single mistake is watched and scrutinised and the competition for success is suffocating. Is it any wonder that this series caught fire with young people today? This is a book of today and mistaking it for warmed over 80s nuclear fear-fic defies sense. Moreover, The Hunger Games is about social inequality and an unfair economic system. Consider that for a moment. This is a YA book about bad economics. Yes, the economics in the book are simplified to the point of parody for easy digestion, and yes, the economic system described could never actually work, even under a totalitarian boot-heel, but it’s a parody of the capitalist economy we now live in where the increasing efficiency and productivity of everyone seems to flow to only a haphazard few. Again, is it surprising that this book spoke to people coming out of high school wondering what possible future they will have in the current economic climate?
I want to also address the criticism that Peeta is passive and always needs rescuing and that Gale doesn’t really do much. Peeta and Gale are the two male parts of the Katniss love-triangle. Saying that Peeta is passive completely misses the point that he is the nice girlfriend and Gale is the more exciting femme fatale who isn’t as emotionally connected and supportive but is alluring all the same. Peeta cooks, he give emotional support and he needs rescuing. He’s the girlfriend. He even has a feminized name. For that matter, so does Gale, which although it might be spelled differently from Gail, is also a feminized name. Whether the author did this consciously or unconsciously, Suzanne Collins could not have been more obvious with her subversion of gender expectations, but clearly it is still possible to completely miss this point. This is a story in which the young woman is the hero and she gets to have a supportive girlfriend and an exciting, dangerous girlfriend, and if it were the other way around, if Katniss were male and Peeta and Gale were young woman, I suspect weary movie-reviewsters wouldn’t so much as remark on Peeta’s passivity, except perhaps for a few female reviewers who would mumble and mutter that gender stereotypes rear their ugly head again.
Finally, if you will excuse my prior rant, I want to make an argument for you to read this series if you have not. Before all else, it is extremely tightly written and a very quick and engrossing read populated by deep and emotional characters. There are very few better examples of tight, cogent writing published in the last ten years, and it would be hard to find a dozen novels written with such a skill for brevity of words published even in the last half century. If you are a would-be writer and your prose is wordy or bloated then you could do a lot worse than read The Hunger Games and take careful notes. The storytelling is intelligent and it is relevant, addressing things that young people today are actually really worried about. And, if you are not already aware, this book is different from Twilight in another way: it is not escapist. This is a very, very grim story. If you have seen the first couple films and think there is going to be a gloriously successful rebellion that leaves the heroes smiling gleefully like the end of Star Wars, it just ain’t so. When you think the story can’t get darker, it does. The ways in which Katniss is used and exploited by the adults around her spiral downwards. I’m pointing this out because I suspect there are readers who prefer to read only Very Serious Books who have not read The Hunger Games because they don’t realise that this is actually a Very Serious Book masquerading as an exciting, can’t-put-down read. Of course, it is that too: an exciting, can’t-put-down read. So, either way you win. Which is certainly not the case for Katniss. No matter the outcome for her, she loses. And that should make us all start to rethink the economy and the culture we live in.