8, 9, and 10 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.
Yes, I’m doing a three-for-one book blog. Maybe that’s cheating, but it’s my blog challenge, and I can cheat however I want. This counts, you see, because even though I’m writing one blog entry, I did read three books. They go together as a series, and since I read them back-to-back, I’m not sure I can separate the details in my head to write three separate responses.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins are this year’s huge sensation in young adult fantasy fiction. I can’t let a sensation pass me by, so I downloaded the audio version of the first book just to find out what the fuss was all about. Within about five days I’d listened through to the end of the last book.
Understand that I usually don’t speed through audio books. I listen to them in my car. I listen to them when I exercise. I listen to them when I am working around the house. When I’m done with my task, I turn them off, and if I still want to read, I pick up a “real” book. With this trilogy, though, I was making up reasons to keep listening. I went for extra walks. I mopped floors. I took the long way home. By the second half of the third book, I wasn’t even bothering to make up excuses to listen. I just sat on my couch with my iPod and waited to find out what happened.
That said, I don’t necessarily rate this trilogy as among the best of the best. The books are good. They had me hooked. Now that I’ve read them, though, I probably won’t read them again. I don’t know that they will have lasting value to me, but I am still glad that I read them.
The books are dark, very dark. It bothers me that they are classified as YA because they are so dark I can’t imagine giving them to anyone younger than about 15. Scholastic rates them for 12 and up, but I would really hesitate over giving them to a twelve-year-old. I realize that some kids enjoy frightening books and don’t have nightmares because of them, but I had bad dreams after reading these books. They aren’t just frightening. They’re disturbing.
Katniss Everdeen, our teenage heroine, becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games when her younger sister’s name is drawn, and she volunteers to take Prim’s place. Katniss is from District 12, one of the poorest of the districts in a place called Panem, which is what has become of the United States after some sort of catastrophic event. It’s implied that the apocalypse was the result of war, but if so it’s all ancient history by this time, and we’re more concerned with current events.
The wealthy Capitol has enslaved the districts that provide its supplies. In the Capitol, citizens live in high tech luxury, while in the Districts, people scrape by in the most primitive and impoverished conditions. The gap between the haves and have nots is extreme, and to make sure no one rises up in protest, the Hunger Games have been created as a reminder of the Capitol’s power. Each year each district sends two adolescents, a boy and a girl, to the Games, where they compete to the death. Out of the 24 contenders, only one can survive.
See, I told you this was dark. It’s also deeply disturbing in its insight into the nature of violence and cruelty and inhumanity. For the Capitol, the Hunger Games are high entertainment, just as the arenas were in which the Romans forced their slaves to fight to the death.
Many parallels can be drawn between the kind of oppression that takes place in these books and the kinds that have taken place throughout human history — France, Russia, Rome, you name it. Any society that has ever kept one group of people in great poverty while another group enjoyed great wealth can be seen in the cruelties exhibited by the Capitol of Panem. In fact, if you mix Roman gladiators with contemporary American reality TV, you have the Hunger Games. These games are basically Survivor, only deadly and real and mandatory viewing for an entire country.
In fact, according to the Scholastic author page for the Hunger Games, reality TV was a major inspiration for the series. Another inspiration was the Ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur in which Crete forces Athens to send 7 girls and 7 boys each year to be fed to the Minotaur until the hero Theseus finally slays the Minotaur and saves the others from certain death. Collins also talks about Roman Gladiators as a basis for the story.
This is what makes The Hunger Games so disturbing. Though the world is fictional, the horrific and very painful levels of cruelty are nothing more than the kind of inhumanity people have inflicted on one another for the sake of power and privilege throughout all of time.
Maybe this is why I had to read to the end as quickly as possible. I had to find out if there was anything redemptive in the story, if there was anything to help us believe in humanity. I’m not sure there was anything to help us believe that it’s even possible to preserve humanity within the context of great power. I think I respect the books more because of it. They don’t try to fool us into thinking corruption ever really goes away.
The hope for humanity is simply in the little person who stands up for herself, the Katniss who defies authority to protect those she loves, though she leaves herself irreparably damaged in the process.
I don’t want to say much more for fear of giving out spoilers, but I will say that I believe Book 2 is my favorite of the series. After Book 1, I thought there was too much violence without much purpose. In Book 2, I thought that purpose was finally taking shape as people began to rebel against the cruelties of the Capitol. In Book 3, there were so many twists to the story, and there was so much personal tragedy for the characters who had already suffered too much that it just made me tired.
I’ll give the series 4 out of 5 stars. The books are both fascinating to read and thought-provoking. They do have levels of meaning, and they do leave you with plenty to think about. I won’t give them a five because they just don’t thrill my soul. I read them ferociously through one time, but I probably won’t read them again. They bring out too much anxiety without enough of a sense of hope to balance out the anxiety. In that way perhaps they are simply disturbingly realistic, but if I want disturbingly realistic, I’ll read a Russian novel about a real revolution. I don’t particularly need fantasy to give me that.