Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games

This is my Summer Of Reviews. Explained here.

Wow, this review is LONG. I won't have this much to say about the other two books in the Hunger Games trilogy. I felt like I had to cover both my review of this book and the expectations it built up for the trilogy as a whole. It's a pretty unwieldy blog post (!), but the basic portions are as follows:

BACKGROUND - why I read it

TRANSITION TO REVIEW - should kids read it?



REVIEW: THE CHARACTERS - they are why I cared... why I am writing so much!

REVIEW: THE MAIN ARC OF THE STORY - what is this book trying to say?
(or, What should the point of the trilogy be? / What does the point of the trilogy seem like it's going to be?)



The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Last fall, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy (Mockingjay) came out, and there was a lot of buzz about its release. As they had done with the Harry Potter and Twilight installments, bookstores arranged special events for the official release time and young people planned to stay up all night reading. Through blogs and facebook, I saw that there were many people my age who were excited about the series as well.

Then in the spring, my fifth-grade daughter mentioned that her school library had re-classified the Hunger Games books, and were allowing fifth graders to check them out. Many of the fifth-graders had already read them and the talk seemed to be that this series was the thing to read.

My daughter had heard the premise: teenagers sent to an arena and required to fight to the death. The mere thought threatened to give her nightmares, but her classmates told her it was really good. She asked my opinion. I told her that I, too, was a little bit trepidacious about the premise, but that I was interested in reading it. Her response was, "I'll check it out for you to read, and you can tell me if it is scary." (My report back: "definitely scary." She actually seemed relieved to decide "not gonna read it.")


Violent. Gruesome. Brutal. The basic set-up of the story insures that upwards of twenty teenagers will be killed. Not "will die," but "will be killed." By each other. Teenagers killing each other while a country watches on TV. Does this sound to you like something eleven-year-olds should be reading? It sure doesn't to me. But maybe this book is not intended for eleven-year-olds, and their parents, teachers, and librarians should be instructing them to wait a few years. Just because a child is at an 8th-grade reading level doesn't mean he or she should be reading books written for 8th graders... Let's be careful with our children. Once they see, hear, or read something, it can't be un-seen...

Putting that aside, since I hope it's clear where I stand on that, I asked myself a different question: does this sound like something an 8th-grader should be reading? After reading this book, I felt strongly about my answer. That answer was "it depends."

It depended on where this story went in the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this could be a fantastic trilogy for middle schoolers (not to mention older teenagers and adults), *** IF *** it went in a certain direction. I was so excited to read the other two books and see if that was the author's plan all along. I had to wait until school was out to have the time, but I found it so hard to wait!

As The Hunger Games begins, we meet its central character, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen. We also learn about the country of Panem, the North America of some future time period. Panem consists of thirteen districts and a central governing region called the Capitol. Each district has a certain industry (for example, District 3's is electronics and machines, District 4's is fishing, District 8's is textiles, District 11's is agriculture, and District 12's is coal mining). The Capitol takes the products from the districts, and although certain districts are favored by the Capitol and have strong and healthy citizens (Districts 1 and 2), most districts are places of poverty and hunger. The Capitol citizens live lives of luxury and excess.

At some point in Panem's history (roughly 75 years ago), the districts attempted to overthrow the central government. In retaliation, the Capitol blew District 13 off the map to scare the other districts and keep them in line. After the failed revolt, the Capitol was more determined than ever to weaken the districts. One of the steps they took was establishing the annual Hunger Games as a symbol and reminder to the people of Panem that the Capitol will spare no one, not even children, in order to keep its control over the districts.

One boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts, between the ages of 12 and 18, are sent to the Hunger Games each year. They are put into an arena and must fight until only one child remains. That child is crowned the victor, and is rewarded by never having to go hungry again.

The Hunger Games are televised, as are the various ceremonies, interviews, and events surrounding the Games. All citizens of Panem are required to watch. Unlike the fanatical Capitol residents, the residents of the districts hate the Games, but have to act like they enjoy them. (The exception is the "Career" districts, which have the resources to train their children for the Games, so that by the time they are old enough, the children most likely to win volunteer for the Games.)

Okay, so we've got a dystopian society, and the ultimate version of a horrific reality competition show. Don't put too much thought into this world, however, because it doesn't stand up very well to analysis. For example, how big are these districts? Panem is supposed to cover all of North America, and is divided into thirteen districts. We are given some ideas about the geography: Twelve is in Appalachia, Seven is in the Pacific Northwest, the Capitol is in the Rocky Mountains, etc. However, they seem to be the size of a city, both in mileage and in population. Also, there are inconsistencies in terms of the technology of Panem. They are advanced in some ways and old-school in others.

It's not hard, though, to put the analysis aside and just 'go with it.' We readers are drawn into the story when Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister Prim's place in the Hunger Games, and we turn the pages in breathless anticipation of the outcome. Katniss is certain that she is being sent to her death, since there has only been one Victor from Twelve in the history of the Games. Twelve is the poorest district, and its undernourished, underprepared tributes never survive long in the arena.

Katniss is not going alone, however. With her are the boy tribute from Twelve, her mentor (the previous Victors mentor the current tributes, and since Twelve has only had one Victor, he must mentor all of Twelve's tributes every year), and the chaperone assigned by the Capitol. Katniss also soon meets her stylist and prep team, who are in charge of her 'look.' All of these characters are exceptionally well-drawn, and by the start of the Games itself, the reader really feels like she knows these people. This is, by far, what I thought Collins did best in writing this book.

Here is what I know about the main characters:

Katniss Everdeen:
Katniss has been in pure survival mode for many years. She had a wonderful father who taught her to hunt and forage in the wilderness outside of the district fence (Twelve is thought to be such a weak district that the rules are not really enforced very strictly), but he was killed in a mine explosion. Katniss' mother had a mental breakdown when her husband died, and Katniss had to provide for herself and her younger sister, Prim. She almost did not manage to keep them alive. She has never forgiven her mother for 'abandoning' them, and as a result, has two core beliefs. 1) She will do anything to protect her sister; 2) The only person she can rely on is herself. Katniss doesn't think about anything more complex than that. It's just "survive," one minute at a time.
Her only moments of happiness happen when hunting with her friend Gale Hawthorne, a boy who also lost his father (but, in contrast with Katniss, not his mother) and provides for his siblings. They understand each other instinctively after all of this time spent hunting together. Gale is more reflective than Katniss, however, and has strong opinions about the Capitol and the Games. He seems like a budding revolutionary.
Katniss' mother, now that she is 'back,' is a healer. Katniss gathers the herbs, or trades her pelts/meat for the ingredients, and her mother treats the sick and injured of the district. Prim has a knack for healing, as well.
More of Katniss' qualities are revealed during the lead-up to the Games. She has a fiery temper, and tends to lash out instinctively. She also has a certain captivating quality about her that her stylist Cinna highlights by dressing her in "fire." On the other hand, she also gives off an impression of purity and innocence.
She also has impressive survival skills and is deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. She is, by far, the most interesting tribute Twelve has sent in a long time, and her mentor is changed by the realization that she may actually have a fighting chance.

Peeta Mellark
Peeta is the male tribute from Twelve. He is from the merchant class (his father is a baker), rather than the mine-worker class. Peeta is going into the Games sure that he will not survive, but determined to die on his own terms. He is not willing to play the Games the Capitol's way, brutally killing his competitors, but is trying to figure out how to survive while maintaining his sense of right and wrong. He is sensitive and intelligent, with a gift for public speaking. He and Katniss have a bit of history, as he took a beating from his mother in order to sneak Katniss some bread when she was at her most desperate. He has always admired her (for her inner strength, or something), but Katniss, of course, hasn't given him much thought (again, she can only think about surviving).
During the pre-Games interviews, Peeta reveals that he has been in love with her for a long time. This, along with the way her stylist has highlighted "that certain captivating something about Katniss," ensures that the pair from Twelve are the main focus of the Games audience. Katniss doesn't know if she trusts Peeta and thinks that he is faking it to 'play' the audience. She keeps him at a distance because she knows that one of them will have to kill the other during the Games.
Peeta has decided that his way to defy the Games is to put Katniss' survival above his own. His only goal in the arena is to keep Katniss alive. Like Gale, Peeta wants to see the Capitol overthrown and the Games abolished, but believes that that is best done by changing popular opinion (whereas Gale's approach is warfare). If the audience loves these two tributes, and doesn't want to see them die, they may rebel against the Games themselves.
Incidentally, I think this often gets overlooked by people, but Peeta is portrayed as physically strong in this book. He scores well in training, the Careers are willing to have him join them (although they mainly want him to get at Katniss), and early on he is able to fight off other tributes when he needs to in order to protect Katniss. I felt that his character shows that a person can be strong and able to physically overpower an opponent, but they can still have humanistic ideals for how people and society should behave.

Haymitch Abernathy
Haymitch is the sole Victor from Twelve, and is therefore Katniss's and Peeta's mentor during the Games. It is his job to help each come up with a strategy, as well as send them help (food, medicine, etc) if the viewing audience sends money (people can 'sponsor' tributes they are rooting for). Haymitch is a great character, showing how the Games breaks even the Victors. Even though he survived physically, he did not survive functionally. He spends every day in a drunken stupor, unable to reconcile what he had to do when he was in the arena, as well as the toll mentoring dozens of doomed children has taken on him over the years.
Haymitch is an extremely smart mentor, but very difficult to get along with. He sees that Peeta is genuine and will win the audience's affections just by being honest. He also sees Katniss's nature, and they have a sort of instinctive way of communicating with one another.

Katniss is confused by how to play the pre-Games pomp and ceremony, but nevertheless her "certain something" captures the fancy of both the audience and the gamemakers*. Once inside the arena, however, her well-honed survival instincts take over. Again, we see how un-self-aware she is, but despite the fact that the POV is inside Katniss' head, we get some glimpses of her character through the behavior of other characters. We see that she has feelings, skills, values, and a certain specialness to her, even though she doesn't see these things in herself.

(*There are booby traps in the arena that are controlled by the gamemakers - they use them, as well as supplies and weapons they may or may not make available, to manipulate the game the tributes can play. They can flush them out of hiding with wild animals, fire, rain, etc. They can use those same things to make them move toward more aggressive players, or they can use them to just kill the tributes themselves if the Games get "too boring" for the audience.)

Katniss' game play only continues to captivate the audience, as she shows cunning and skill. More importantly, she shows mercy and tenderness- particularly toward Rue, the young girl she befriends. These displays of humanity must not be seen often in the Games, because Katniss knows they will provoke the ire of the gamemakers and are therefore risky. However, she is willing to risk it, showing how fiercely she holds onto her humanistic ideals. Of course, this is instinct: she doesn't realize any of it because her psyche is too busy surviving to spare the time for self-examination (unlike Peeta, who is far more self-aware).

And the Games play on, gory and violent, deeply disturbing in the graphic portrayal of teen-on-teen brutality. Because the arena is an engineered place, Collins ups the goriness of the deaths far beyond what they would be if this were a depiction of kids fighting in the woods (which would be hard enough to read; this is far worse).

WHAT'S THE BOOK TRYING TO SAY? (or, What should the point of the trilogy be? / What does the point of the trilogy seem like it's going to be?)

To remind you, my overall impression was that I'm very uneasy about this level of violence in a YA book (I would feel this way regardless of the YA classification, to be honest), but that this could be all worth it IF the other books take this story to the right conclusion. And what would that conclusion be?

The thing I kept thinking as I was reading was, "why wouldn't these children just decide, as a group, to refuse to fight?" Simple, right? Nobody kills each other, nobody has to die, Hunger Games over. Collins handles this issue in a few ways. For one, there are the Career tributes. Their districts view the games as an honor and, since they usually produce the Victors, are willing to train their whole lives and then volunteer. Their entire belief system is based on proving themselves as the best player in the arena, and they would never agree to some kind of 'truce.' In fact, they would quickly 'take care of' any tribute that even approached them to discuss it. For another, the tributes know that the arena itself (through the gamemakers) will kill them anyway. And finally, this is the 74th Hunger Games. This has been part of the culture for generations, and they have been indoctrinated into its value system.

Okay, so I was able to 'go with it' that the children wouldn't just refuse to kill one another. But that has to be where this is all heading, right? These teenagers, with their carefully constructed characters and philosophies about the world (and Katniss's innate 'special something' the audience senses in her, even though she's not aware of it; and Peeta's innate ability to verbalize these ideas without the audience really knowing what they're hearing), must be destined to change this dystopian society. There's no other way for this to turn out, right? I mean, everything was so carefully laid out in this book. And if that's the point of the trilogy, that young people's ideals can catch on and change the hearts and minds of an indoctrinated populace, then this series could be truly great... a wonderful thing for teens to read, despite the violence that I found brutally excessive.

With this overall impression, I couldn't wait to read the sequels and find out how Collins planned to take the story to that eventual ending. As I said, I felt like I really knew these characters and understood them, and when I stumbled across an article in Entertainment Weekly about the casting of the forthcoming movie, I realized just how much I cared about these characters. I think the casting has been inspired and definitely in agreement with the way I saw the characters. I was getting excited about the movie as well as Books Two and Three! The Hunger Games was frequently on my mind. As soon as school was over, I dove into Catching Fire (Book Two); that review is coming. (It won't be as long as this one... not even close.)


What I liked:
I liked the contrast between Peeta's way of changing the world (ideas), and Gale's (rebellion). I liked the way Katniss couldn't help but be drawn to Peeta and his innate goodness, although she fought against it because she thought it was just a Games strategy on his part, and then she gave in but is such an un-self-aware person who has never allowed herself to feel anything that she was completely confused by her own feelings for him. She didn't know that what she was feeling was love, but we knew. I thought that was setting up a nice arc for Katniss throughout the trilogy - she will grow to become more in touch with her thoughts and feelings, and become capable of operating as a more complete human being. Eventually, this journey would allow her to realize that she loves Peeta with her whole body, soul, and mind, while she loves Gale as an essential piece of herself, the way you love a best friend you grew up with because you shaped each other; you ARE each other. I was looking forward to going through that realization process with Katniss.

(Actually, I found Katniss' confusion pretty frustrating. You love him, you idiot! I didn't really like the love triangle being set up and wasn't looking forward to Katniss playing with the emotions of both boys while she became self-aware. As I said, though, I was looking forward to her getting there and was willing to put up with it for the eventual payoff.)

I also liked how the ultimate defiant act that ended the Games was not clear in Katniss' mind - was she doing this because of her love for Peeta, or as a way to defy the Capitol and ultimately refuse to play their game? Of course, we see that it serves both functions. Katniss can take both journeys during the rest of the trilogy.
I liked the set-up of Katniss as orchestrator of a new Panem, the cause symbolized by the mockingjay pin. Clearly, all this time spent describing her 'certain something' so clear to the citizens, Peeta, and Haymitch as well as her ability to demonstrate humanistic values on pure instinct (her fiery temper, her mercy, her placing the survival of Prim, Rue, and Peeta over her own...) are setting her up to realize her role in changing the mindset of the populace and changing the rule. With Peeta as the voice of the ideals, and Katniss as the untamed emotions growing into being the voice of action, this was looking to be a fanstastic story of a good society rising up out of the ashes... led by teenagers, so often the voice of idealism in society - even better.

*** IF *** that's where this trilogy is going. If not, it's just an excuse to sell books using shocking violence.

Only if the trilogy turns out to be satisfying in the ways I mentioned, because this book ends in a way that leaves us hanging. So much so, that it would be frustrating to read ONLY this book, and even MORE frustrating to read all three if the trilogy as a whole doesn't live up to what has been so effectively set up and foreshadowed.
Sorry to leave it hanging like this, but that verdict will have to wait...

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