The hunger games

The hunger games / Suzanne Collins

The hunger games was a series that I actively resisted reading for quite a while. I’m not sure why – I think I expected it to be something like The maze runner (which I didn’t read until after I had read The hunger games, so it’s not exactly a perfect comparison). I didn’t get into the series until the first movie came out. It was a friend’s birthday and they wanted to go see it so we went and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, so I decided to read the books.

Brief plot summary

In a dystopian future, what was once the United States is now Panem, a collection of 12 carefully segregated Districts all serving the Capital. As punishment for an earlier rebellion, every district must send one boy and one girl as “tributes” to participate in The Hunger Games, where they are thrust into an arena filled with weapons and traps and forced to kill each other until only one survives.

Katniss Everdeen is a teenager from District 12, which is primarily known for its coal mines. Alongside baker’s son Peeta Mellark she finds herself in the unenviable position of being one of the tributes from district 12.

On the whole Battle royale thing

In certain circles, The hunger games gets criticized for being a “knockoff” of Battle royale. It’s something I was vaguely aware of before I saw/read it, but I don’t think it’s a particularly accurate comparison.

Here’s a list of things that The hunger games and Battle royale have in common:

  1. Dystopian future setting
  2. Teens killing each other

And… that’s pretty much it. Even if one was inspired by the other (and it’s pretty clear that they aren’t) the cultural contexts are vastly different. Battle royale is, to use the cliché, “incredibly Japanese”. Battle royale is a pointed criticism of certain aspects of modern Japanese culture – many of which are issues that don’t exist in the cultural context where Collins is writing.

I walked out of The hunger games thinking, “Wow, who would have thought we’d have an incredibly popular YA series turned mega hit movie franchise that boils down to a Marxist critique of capitalism?” – I ended up being surprised when I read critics who claimed it was a critique of communism. The series ended up being more than “just” a Marxist allegory – and after reading the whole thing I don’t really think that it was intentionally Marxist. Regardless, the Capitalism/Communism type issues are completely absent from Battle royale, which is more about unblinking acceptance of authority.

Both also function as criticisms of conformity; in Battle royale, via the suppression of culture. In The hunger games it’s a little more subtle, but if you pay close attention to the way the characters are described, almost all of the “good” secondary characters are visibly different from “normal people”.

So how is it?

I like it a lot. There are a lot of places to criticize the series, but I find that many of those issues enhance rather than detract from the appeal.

It fits a very specific formula – the books have almost identical lengths and they all follow the same plot structure.

Yeah, this is totally true. I don’t see it as a flaw though. I see it more as a demonstration of Collins’s skill as a writer. Like people hail Watchman as a classic because of the way it uses its form, The hunger games series is no different. That doesn’t make it any more artificial than any other series.

The world described is unrealistic/the political system doesn’t work

Yeah, the political structure of Panem doesn’t really hold up under close examination. The idea of 12 districts that have only one industry each is a little weird. I don’t think it’s a problem though. It’s an allegory, and as stories go it’s no worse than strange women in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a form of government.

So, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I really really like this series. I’ve reread it at least 4 times now. That being said, a lot of this is because I find it overwhelmingly applicable to my personal life, to the point where the last time I read it I ended up reading it as an allegory for those personal things. If there weren’t those connections I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite as much as I do. I’m positive I would still have enjoyed it, but I probably wouldn’t burst into tears while reading it on the train.

What I think is most interesting though is the various reactions to Mockingjay. Once again, for personal reasons I really appreciated the first half of Mockingjay. I thought the second half was one of the weaker parts of the series but I did like the ending.  I’ve seen criticism that the third book doesn’t go anywhere for the first part, but I felt like that was one of the best parts of the whole series. I have a feeling that people’s reaction to the first half of Mockinjay is closely correlated with people who either have themselves or are close to people dealing with PTSD. I saw the best portrayal of someone dealing with the aftereffects of major trauma that I have ever read. Other people saw page after page of people aimlessly wandering around. Then again, Fellowship of the ring is my favorite volume of the Lord of the rings trilogy, Taran wanderer is my favorite of the Prydain books, and I genuinely like the Ewoks.

Recommendation

This is one of those series I recommend to just about everyone without restraint. Still, the popularity of the movies means that anyone who wants to read it is probably already aware of it.

That being said, I have fielded some questions from concerned parents about whether or not it is appropriate for their child. Since I live in the U.S., those questions are invariably about possible sexual content. Apparently children being forced to murder each other is totally fine but if the kissing gets too serious WATCH OUT.

Ahem.

The answer, of course, is that there’s sexual content everywhere. Most of the characters are, in fact, living humans, which is clear evidence that at some point somebody had sex to create them. That there are dozens of characters shows just how licentious the books are.

Sorry. To answer the question less obnoxiously, there’s not a great deal of sexual content in the series. There’s *gasp*kissing but for the most part the characters are too busy trying to stay alive or attempting to cope with the psychological trauma they experience from the things they did to stay alive to even contemplate sex.

Every time I’ve been asked about this the children in question had already read the Twilight series, which has significantly more sexual content and features the Secret life of the American teenager-esque obsession with “acceptable” vs “unacceptable” [consensual] sex where women and girls who have the latter are punished by G-d in some dramatically appropriate way (in Twilight, become pregnant with a vampire baby and almost die when it tries to eat your way out; in Secret life of the American teenager, have your father die in a freak accident).

Not that I feel strongly about bizarre societal double standards or anything.

ANYWAYS. I’m a proponent of the “when reading books, children’s brains will generally self-censor things that they’re unprepared to deal with”.

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