Thursday, September 19, 2013

LCC Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

WARNING: Since I'm reviewing the entire trilogy, I will only cover the basic outlines of the series as a whole looking at the books as one story split up into three parts rather than as three separate books. Also there will be some spoilers, so if you don't want to read any of those, then I suggest clicking on one of my other posts or to the link on Sher A Hart's book blog, where I'm sure you'll find many an interesting and spoiler free blog post.


Three books to entertain, one series to rule them all!
When hurricane Sandy decided to cut off my power for three days, while shivering in the freezing cold I decided to finally sit down and read the Hunger Games trilogy--and I was glad I did. The YA dystopian novels were more than I had expected and when the power came back on partly through my read of the third book--I decided to finish out the book instead of getting back on the computer. Personally I found the third book to be my favorite--even though I heard the worst things about it from other people--because it encapsulated the movement of the series so well for reasons I'll explain later.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
The series' plot is about an adolescent girl named Katniss Everdeen, who is also our perspective character, meaning that we as readers live inside her head. She lives in a totalitarian state called Panem which rose out of the ruins of what used to be North America. Panem was originally divided into fourteen parts--the capital region, and thirteen outlying regions. Each district is responsible for producing certain goods that is then shared amongst the rest of the districts. However the capital eventually started taking more than it needed and the rest of the districts rebelled. It eventually ended in the thirteenth district being destroyed (or was it? ;) ) and the complete subjugation of the other twelve districts. As punishment for rebelling against the capital, the rest of the districts are forced to send two children per year (one male and one female) as tribute to fight to the death in an arena amongst other tributes for the entertainment of the capital citizens and the horror of the districts themselves in what is called "the Hunger Games". Whichever district tribute wins, their district gets extra food and supplies for a year. Only one tribute can be left standing at the end of a Hunger Game. Katniss becomes a tribute and goes on to fight and win her Hunger Game but manages to force the game makers to allow her and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta to both win due to playacting being in love with each other (well, Katniss is playacting). That's the first book in a nutshell.

Pick up your programs here!
See children fight to the death!
In the second book, it's the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hunger Games and as such special rules come into effect which states that the tributes of that year can only be drawn from past victors. Since District 12 isn't well known for having very many winners, Katniss is again in the Hunger Games, but this time against other veteran champions. Unbeknown to her, Katniss' act of rebellion in the previous book, which takes place in the preceding year to the events in this second book, has gone on to inspire other districts to stand up and begin to rebel. Also unbeknown to her, the other veterans have a plan to escape the arena and flee to District 13, which they commence much to a muddy conclusion in the second book.  My least favorite ending has to be the ending to the second book which if this were made for television would have a high action penultimate moment freeze frame and have the dreaded words “To Be Continued…” appear at the bottom of the screen.

Graphite was just a cover
story, I hear.
Book three picks up almost exactly where Book two leaves off. When Katniss is "dragged" to District 13 she then starts being utilized as part of a propaganda campaign by District 13 to get the rest of the districts to continue the rebellion. One of the biggest game changers in this book is the change in relationship that Katniss has with Peeta that occurs early on in the book which really shows the horrors and tortures of this dystopia for what it is, as the capital had tortured him into believing Katniss is an inhuman mutant. Katniss after some hesitation manages to go along with the plan and eventually works her way into the army that will invade the capital. For the first time she acts as part of the propaganda to inspire revolution amongst the nation of Panem. Doing this allows Katniss to see and use for the first time in her life, her ability to inspire people in how to act and do things as being "right". The entire third act then becomes one of tremendous horrors where any pretense at heroics is put to the wayside as an all-out battle for survival and domination occurs in the streets of the capital itself. And when I say it's a long drawn out series of horrors, I mean a long series of horrors. The third act manages to keep you on the edge of your seat as the consequences of all the actions come to full fruition. Eventually the capital falls, but the tolls and consequences of war leave deep scars on both Katniss and the rest of the survivors which are dealt with in a slightly prolonged but well worth denouement.

Couldn't have said it better myself...
Dystopian stories like The Hunger Games trilogy are never really about the future they pretend to be. They are always the products of linear thinking or the "horrific ends" of "today's worst trends" (I promise, I did not intentionally mean that to rhyme). Where the horrible aspects of today's society are taken and put under a microscope and exaggerated to their logical conclusions. Setting the story in the future simply allows for the critique of the modern day to be more accepted by the rest of society. You see similar tactics in the works of the mid-Nineteenth Century Romantics who instead set their works in the extreme past in order to evade censors and inspire nationalistic revolutionary fervor to fight for a better future against the oppressive post-Napoleonic regimes (Verdi, I’m looking at you and your operas). So it’s very easy to see how setting a story either in the past or the future can allow for an author to say something about the present day that they feel might either get them in trouble or make people feel uncomfortable and thus less likely to follow their story. Doing so also leaves room for a savage attack and satiric examination of such trends, and as the deepest pit of irony, dystopias never fail to live up to that mantle. As much as The Hunger Games is a cautionary tale of a harsh governmental-business dominated future where the rich are empowered and the laborers left to starve, its themes speak loudly today as perhaps the first steps towards such a society are taken seemingly innocently.

The story is quite typical of a dystopian novel--extremely pessimistic which while delivering a somewhat "happy ending" it does so at not only a gigantic cost, but with a deep abiding cynicism that things haven't really changed that much. Human nature is still the same and the temptation to force the conquered capital citizens to participate in a “final hunger game” is too much to pass over for the victors of the rebellion. This of course leads us to see Katniss kill the leader of District 13, and we’re left to wonder whether or not that last hunger game ever happened or not with her death. And it's that cynical but realistic perspective I believe is why the third book isn't as popular with the people I talked to it about. For the people I talked with, they liked the first book for the reason that the ending--though it had its consequences, had a somewhat hopeful tint to it, that change was possibly and that you could beat the system. But the third book and thus the conclusion of the series as a whole ends on the note that the system may change, but human nature doesn't, what you fight against, you eventually become, and that actions have tremendous consequences, sometimes more than is deserved because life seems random. Those hard truths to me speak volumes and are quite daring for Ms. Collins to undertake.

The end is near for our protagonist, always. They're persecuted
and they usually are beaten completely into submission.
Dystopian novels are well known for beating down their protagonists to a pulp. As a genre, Northrop Frye categorizes the dystopian story as the story of least hope, as there is no Heaven or Hell after this life, and thus all we have is a life on earth of endless torment and degradation where the protagonist cannot escape the constant beating they undergo. Many dystopian novels feature their protagonists cracking under such pressure, in fact most of them do (Brave New World’s most interesting protagonist hangs himself, 1984’s protagonist is beaten back into submission, A Clockwork Orange's protagonist suffers everything he made others suffer, and Brazil’s protagonist has an emotional breakdown minutes before the end of the film). There is a part of her final book where Katniss does what no protagonist would do in most other genre beyond dystopian: she ceases to function properly and completely shuts down after all the tremendous amount of shit she’s had to deal with. And from one perspective you could say that it’s rather boring to read about how Katniss isn’t superwoman and can’t cope with everything—but at the same time I feel it’s extremely refreshing to see that even she, the girl who has a million back-up plans or ways to deal with issues, can have issues that are too great for her to deal with. In the end Katniss is only human and manages to do the best she can with the scenario she’s given and that’s it. She’s has to deal with the shitty consequences of the shitty life she has to live with and it’s unfair, but at the same time it’s extremely realistic and relieving to see a writer actually tackle having to deal with the consequences of war in a manner that felt true. My kudos to Ms. Collins for her portrayal and my deepest of regrets to anyone who as even the slightest inkling of what true war is like or has gotten to the point of depression that Katniss gets to in the penultimate scenes in the book.

The characters are memorable and distinctive and though there are a lot to keep track of (especially by the end of the third book), you never feel like you can confuse one for another. My personal favorites had to be Finnick and Johanna from the second and third books, whose distinct personalities and “messed up” natures perfectly befitted the kind of “victors” that would survive a horrific event like a ritualistic slaughter of children.

The main problems of the series I’d say would have to be the slight cop out of the slight hint of a “happy ending” that comes at the end of the third book, as well as the part one and part two feel of books two and three—almost as if Ms. Collins had to divide a longer novel in half to try and make a trilogy. I had smaller issues with some of the humor at times feeling rather forced at moments instead of simply letting the irony speak for itself—almost like Ms. Collins was told in certain sections by her editor to “lighten up”, it doesn’t serve the story well and acts as big distractions at certain moments.

Ultimately the series is a great read, fully entertaining and kept me on my seat, I highly recommend reading it if you have the chance.