In the last week I’ve read 1165 pages of young-adult oppressive-dystopia reality-television-bashing coming-of-age revolution fiction.
The Hunger Games trilogy chronicles the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager whose big heart, indomitable spirit and rage land her on the front lines of a fight to change a reality she never really thought to question.
It’s sometime in the future, and the all-powerful Capitol rules over the twelve districts of the country called Panem. The rules are designed to prevent rebellion from the citizens after the government won a war against them 75 years earlier. Where “prevent rebellion” means each district is walled off and cut off from the others. Food is rationed. Everyone lives under martial law. And every year, as a reminder to the citizens of who’s in charge, the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games. A boy and a girl between twelve and eighteen from each district are chosen to participate in a fully televised and dramatized fight to the death.
The rich, frivolous citizens of the Capitol delight in this ultimate form of entertainment. Each of the twenty-four tributes is assigned a prep team that makes them up, dresses them up, and puts them in front of cameras so they instantly become celebrities. Except to the people of the districts, who are forced to watch but who experience no entertainment from it.
When Katniss’s sister is chosen during the annual reaping, Katniss volunteers to go in her stead. That’s allowed. She’s joined by Peeta, the baker’s son. And so begins one of the most horrifying young-adult stories I’ve read.
Katniss leaves behind her widowed mother, her beloved sister and her best friend Gale. Gale, who we think might be her boyfriend someday, maybe if she wins the Games and comes home.
It’s hard not to compare this series to other YA stand-outs, so I’ll do it. Collins achieves the pacing of Harry Potter and the poignancy of The Book Thief. The two-boys-who-love-her storyline blows right through the trite drivel of the Twilight series. Where I complained that Twilight didn’t have evil that was evil enough, The Hunger Games has more evil than most books I’ve read of any genre. And nothing about that evil is supernatural. No, this is a tale about the darkest depths of human depravity and the prices people pay to fight it.
It’s an indictment of our culture of manufactured “reality” entertainment; of how we seem to simply accept and devour it rather than question what it means to us as humans that we delight in watching the worst moments of others.
It’s a study of war and peace and poses the hefty question of how far the means can go before the justified end is just as unpalatable as the beginning.
This is no simple triumph-of-the-human-spirit story. Every triumph comes with a price, and many human spirits are broken, some never to be repaired.
I gasped, I cheered, I cried my eyes out, I felt ill. I finished reading last night, dreamed about these characters, woke up and started writing this before finishing my coffee.
You should read these books. They examine questions we’d all be better for having pondered. Teenagers should read these books. I probably would have experienced them fully when I was around fourteen, but they’re gruesome and Collins pulls no punches. So it’s possible a teen might not be ready for it till they’re a little more mature.
Ok, a little more beyond the vagueness.
**Spoilers ahead. Some minor, some major. BE WARNED**
You might be inclined to think that Katniss’s Hunger Games will be different. Something about this story will be different from the norm, right, or why would the novelist tell it to us? So you think in this Games the tributes would do something like refuse to kill each other. They don’t. Children die. Horribly. At the hands of other children.
Of course Katniss wins; for the first time, there are two winners. She and Peeta, the baker’s son who’s loved her since childhood. But right away, you know this isn’t the same kind of YA book we’ve read before. There is no tidy ending like in Harry Potter. No return to the warm hearth of home, with everyone safe and cozy. No. Katniss and Peeta are plagued by the lives they’ve taken and seen taken. Of course they are.
The simple act of defiance that Katniss made to result in Peeta winning too was the catalyst for the inevitable rebellion of the districts against the Capitol. And thus we’re thrown into the second and third books – the stories of politics and war.
In Mockingjay, the third book, it’s impressive how complicated Collins makes the relationships between these three. She never, ever falls back on cliché with them.
Katniss choosing Peeta in the end is the right choice. Really, it seems more an acceptance than a choice. Peeta’s the only person who can make Katniss’s life bearable after all she’s been through. Because he’s been through it, too. The intensity of their losses – of loved ones, of innocence, of moral clarity, of sanity, of health – binds them.
Even the brief epilogue, twenty years after the end of the story, shows those scars will never heal. How could they?
In 1165 pages, Suzanne Collins built up and knocked down, tortured, burned, blew up, stabbed, poisoned, drowned, shot and chewed up some of the most relatable and therefore lovable, flawed, triumphant, strong, vivid human characters I’ve ever encountered. And she managed to reflect it all back on our current reality – to force us to question, examine and maybe even to get a little better acquainted with our own moral existence.