So have you heard of this trilogy of books called The Hunger Games? I understand it’s got a small following.
Or it could be a massive hit which has spawned an upcoming summer blockbuster movie.
Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, which is kind of surprising after reading through the trilogy. I mean, these are dark books. Especially when you consider they are technically classified as “Young Adult” fiction. The bleak, post-apocalyptic, autocratic world of Panem definitely leans toward the tone of George Orwell’s 1984, heaping misery upon misery over the protagonists.
And the Hunger Games themselves are a cross between Roman gladiatorial combat and The Running Man. Neither Russel Crowe nor Arnold Schwarzenegger make appearances, mind you, but the comparisons are still easy to make.
Katniss Everdeen is the heroine of the trilogy, and tells the story in a first-person, present-tense perspective that does lend an immediacy and sense of urgency to the tale. She’s a brave but bristly sixteen year old who’s been hunting with a bow and arrow to keep her family from starving. When her younger, less-adept sister gets selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, and sets herself up for romance, revolution, and violence. Tons and tons of violence.
The first book is well-paced and conceived, and has that “can’t put it down” quality one always strives for in fiction. Katniss is far from the most sympathetic character in literature, and her survival is – spoiler alert – never in question, but she’s complicated enough to root for, if only to see what she’ll do next.
The second book, Catching Fire, serves largely as a bridge in the trilogy but is just as solid as the first book, building on the behind-the-scenes machinations in Panem, further entangling Katniss in a very chilly love triangle, and setting up the revolution that takes place in Mockingjay.
And here’s where it all falls apart for me. Hunger Games and Catching Fire were quick and entertaining reads highlighted by their aforementioned excellent pace. Mockingjay, on the other hand, starts and sputters, starts and sputters. Katniss’s unlikable traits get magnified as she is coerced into becoming the symbolic leader of the revolution. The plot and our heroine switch back and forth between cold, raging violence and sullen, selfish depression. The story never really builds to anything, and deaths of major characters almost end up as footnotes. If the message behind the final book is that romanticism is dead, then it succeeds at least on that point. Even her two potential lovers take time to comment that Katniss’s primary motivation is survival and that she’ll only pick the one of them that would best help her survive. Katniss claims she’s angered by this, but doesn’t have an argument to the contrary, which makes me wonder if even the author realized how detached her protagonist had become.
Romance is certainly a strong word for what takes place in this trilogy. Katniss spends enough time agonizing over the love triangle, but most of the time it’s being used as a charade to gain favor in the games, as a flashpoint for the revolution, or finally as an instrument against her. And her final choice is little more than what both men predicted. Even after the war ended and the dust settled, Katniss merely picks the mate better suited to her post-revolutionary life.
The weakness of the finale and of Katniss’s character aside, it is easy to see why these books became a phenomenon. Even the cover design is stellar. Stark and clean but eye-catching, with an angular font set reminiscent of Soviet propaganda type, the covers alone tell a good story. And the intense violence and pace of the first two books will lend themselves very well to the upcoming movies. Rising star Jennifer Lawrence dyes herself brunette to take on the role of Katniss. It’s intriguing and fairly appropriate casting, since her character in Winter’s Bone suffers some similarly-bleak hardships as Katniss, and her turn as Mystique in X-Men: First Class no doubt prepared her for the action-oriented Hunger Games.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how much Hollywood deviates from the books. Whether some of the more-brutal violence will be downplayed, or if they will try and make Katniss a little more approachable. Of course, given the usual mood of Twilight heroine Bella and the overwhelming popularity of that franchise, they might make Katniss even more cold and morose…