So it’s been a while since I’ve written a book review or anything that’s not about tech policy. But I decided I simply have to share my thoughts about my latest read, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I know this review will be just one of many considering these books are all the rage right now with the movie just beginning filming, but they’re so good I don’t care.
I just heard about the Hunger Games books recently after someone at my internship mentioned them and I saw a couple news articles about the movie, so I downloaded the audiobooks and listened to them pretty much constantly over Memorial Day weekend, and now I’m re-listening to the whole series because I just can’t let it go. As a huge fan of dystopia stories, and of young adult sci-fi and fantasy literature in general (except Twilight–I refuse to ever touch that series), I found these books absolutely thrilling.
For those that don’t know (in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading this since there WILL be spoilers), the Hunger Games are about a future dystopian society of 12 districts in the remains of North America, ruled with an iron fist by the evil Capitol, located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. [Note to various fan sites from a Coloradan–it is NOT Denver. The book clearly says it is on the WEST side of the mountains, not the east.] The Capitol’s trademark form of oppression is a twisted reality TV show called “the Hunger Games,” where 24 children called “tributes” must fight to the death every year, in an event that’s a cross between the Roman gladiator games and the TV show “Survivor.” The story follows a girl called Katniss who is forced to fight in the games, and ultimately winds up the reluctant figurehead of the rebellion that overthrows the tyranny of the Capitol.
The story’s central premise–the Hunger Games themselves–was pure brilliance on the author’s part. The very idea of forcing randomly selected children to fight each other to death for the people’s entertainment evoked a sense of horror and pure evil on a level I haven’t encountered in literature since reading Orwell’s 1984. The monstrosity and abject cruelty of the idea is simply breathtaking. I once formulated a theory that the best books in the dystopia genre are the ones that focus on some fundamental aspect of human nature and craft a society that either takes that away or corrupts or perverts it. I always thought one of the most horrifying aspects of 1984 was the state’s perversion of language itself to deprive people of the means to even express dissent. In this case, the idea of the Hunger Games contravenes the fundamental human instinct that children are to be valued and protected, and instead throws away their lives as pawns in a game, which the evil government uses both as a form of entertainment and as a means to keep the populace in line.
Not only do you have the tragedy of children dying, but the perversion of forcing them to kill each other, turning otherwise innocent kids into murderers and causing them to lose not only their lives but a part of their souls as well. All this is done not only to entertain the decedent Capitol populace (which would be bad enough), but to send a message that the state is absolutely in control in the most terrifying way: “We can take your children and not only kill them, but corrupt them and steal everything they are.” The psychology of oppression and control is a huge element of these books just as it was in 1984 (it plays an even bigger role in the psychological games President Snow plays with Katniss in the third book), and is just one thing that makes these books so good.
The story itself is absolutely enthralling, to the point where you simply can’t stop reading. When I first started these books, I found the first-person present narration a little disconcerting. But I quickly discovered it serves to draw you into the narrative in an incredibly immersive and intimate manner, forcing you to focus on the present and giving the feeling that all this is happening right now, to you. It almost makes you feel like you’ve become the character, feeling what they feel and experiencing what they’re experiencing. All that gives the story an intensity I’ve rarely seen in books. This is especially true during the parts in the games, where it really conveys the intensity and emotion of it all. I was constantly imagining the most intense airsoft/paintball/capture the flag game I could think of and magnify that 1000 times and add in constant fear of death at every turn. [Though for characters that are constantly faced with immanent death, they seem to think surprisingly little (read: none) about what happens after death, almost as if this society had absolutely no concept of an afterlife, which I found somewhat disappointing as it deprived the story of some of the philosophical depth it could otherwise have had.]
Speaking of death, it was that constant theme that struck me most about these books. Death is everywhere in this story, with no attempt by the author to sugar coat it or make it seem any less painful. Two death scenes in particular struck me as probably the most heart-rending scenes I have ever read in literature: Rue’s death in the first book, and Prim’s death in the third. Rue’s death was especially heartbreaking, and I swear the professional reader’s voice in the audiobook even cracked with tears during the part where Katniss sings Rue to sleep with a bittersweet lullaby. When the movie is made, I believe that scene has the potential to be one of the emotionally powerful scenes in modern cinema, especially if this amateur production of the scene is any guide. I absolutely can’t wait to see that scene on film, and especially to hear what the film’s composer does with Rue’s Lullaby.
Prim’s death in the third book was just as painful, though in a different way. You would think the author would give her death at least as much screen time as Rue’s, considering she’s the little sister Katniss has been fighting for the whole time. But her death happened so fast and unexpectedly, it was like a knife in the gut, but then the story moves on so quickly the reader doesn’t have any time to grieve until Katniss’s character does at the end of the book. At that point I really felt the full weight of Katniss’s grief. It was made all the more powerful because by that point I had already seen pictures of the actress (Willow Shields) who will play Prim in the movie, who, just like her character, is a sweet, innocent, adorable little girl who would raise the strongest protective instincts in any adult. There could be nothing more tragic than imagining a child like that dying a horrible death in battle, driving home the emotional impact of the story in a way that nothing else could.
All in all, this trilogy had one of the most poignant, bittersweet endings of any story I’ve read. Normally you expect this kind of tale to have a happy ending, and it does in a way, but by the end of the series so many beloved characters have died, it is clear that Katniss, like the reader, will never be the same. These books are sad, but their power can be seen in how much they really make you FEEL. I read another review that said it best–good books are memorable, but the BEST books are the ones that haunt you and make you feel like you have given a piece of yourself to them. That is certainly true of these books, and it is why I think they are fully deserving of all the hype they are getting with the upcoming movies. I can only hope the films manage to do them justice, and will be eagerly awaiting the first one’s release next March.