The Hunger Games trilogy

“May the odds be ever in your favor!”

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay

These three books by Suzanne Collins tell the story of Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl struggling to survive in a cruel, oppressive society, the difference she makes to that society – and the terrible price she pays.

I love these books. They are tense, imaginative adventures. They show Katniss’s self-sacrifice, her bravery against incredible odds (the odds don’t usually seem in her favor), and how she evolves in her ability to love. The settings are amazing, and for me, completely relatable (I still forage for edible food in the wild). The only irritation is that the first two volumes are both cliff-hangers. If you decide to read one you should realize you will feel compelled to read all three.

But the great entertainment given by these books may mask the incredible craftsmanship that Collins has used in creating this story. I want to pay homage to some of her technique without major spoilers.

First, there’s the symbolism from colors. Katniss has black hair and is associated with coal; Snow has white hair and is associated, obviously, with snow; Coin has gray hair – at first we don’t know whether she is more good or evil.

Second, there are the yellow flowers, both literal and figurative, that play such strong roles in restoring Katniss to life. Most people will notice the names of Primrose, Rue and Buttercup, and it is impossible to miss the significance of the dandelions. But Collins also includes yellow lilies and honeysuckle at special moments.

Third, the books include incredible themes and allusions, with throwbacks to Rome’s bread and circuses, the wars of Spartacus and the terrible sacrifice that the ancient Athenians had to make: sending seven youths and seven maids to Crete to be forced into the labyrinth with the Minotaur. We can't help noticing her story's relevance to understanding human nature and current politics.

Fourth, the characters are well-developed and consistent. They are all distinctly different, with idiosyncrasies and goals, strengths and weaknesses. Everything is told through Katniss’s point of view (first person, present tense) but with enough detail to make you feel as if you know these individuals.

But the books go beyond even these things. One way I often look at a series of novels is by reviewing the structure at different levels: words, phrases, sentences, books and series. Collins shows imagination and incredible skill at these levels.

For words, Collins chose imaginative names, borrowing from classical times: Plutarch, Cressida, and Seneca. Peeta’s name evokes both the name Peter (which means rock) and pita (a type of bread). She made up words -- muttation, jabberjay – for simply amazing concepts.

For phrases, Collins has “happy hunger games!” – a simple phrase combining ideas that sounds as if they could not go together – and others such as “may the odds be ever in your favor,” even when those odds are overwhelmingly against you.

Her sentences and paragraphs are competent – much harder to do than it looks – so that the reading experience flows instead of stumbles. Her chapters are coherent entities and often cliff-hangers. Each volume is also organized into three parts. I especially liked Mockingjay, where the different sections are titled, “The Ashes,” “The Assault,” and “The Assassin.” Not only do I have a weakness for alliteration, but each section title can be interpreted multiple ways.

Finally, I especially admire Collins in this construction of a series. For a series of novels, the trick is to have each book follow a similar pattern, while nevertheless offering something new and different at each level (consider Harry Potter, and how each volume follows a school year – although in Rowling’s books a lot of the exciting stuff happens at the very end). In The Hunger Games trilogy, each book starts with a tense build-up followed by lots of exciting, life-in-danger action. Each novel climaxes with Katniss having to make a decision without all the facts, while guessing what those in power want or will do; at each of these moments she risks everything. Then there is the aftermath of that decision, with surprises yet lurking.

Any quibbles? Of course. At some point in The Hunger Games Collins uses “addictive” when she should have written “effective” – and another time she wrote “sponsor” when she clearly meant “escort.” In Catching Fire she tells us far too often that Katniss can swim (usually Collins is extremely deft at planting information just when you need it). In Mockingjay Katniss spends a lot of time simply not talking for one reason or another. But my complaints are minor. If you have not discovered these books yet, I envy you; you’re in for an adventure. Just make sure you have enough time available, for the drama and thrills will suck you in.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

6 comments:

Baz said...

I loved these books when I first read them, I got a feeling of having to finish them that I hadn't really had since the Harry Potter books when I first read them as a young teenager. However... the last couple of chapters of book three seemed like a hot mess - as though she either ran out of time to finish the book how she wanted to, or she just didn't know how to finish...

I must have read the parts involving Katniss sister about four times until I could process what was being conveyed - which soured me a little to the series. Still a great trilogy though - has the author written anything else that I should try do you think?

My daughter is currently reading them and is similarly hooked which makes me happy :)

Billie Doux said...

Lovely review, Victoria. I really enjoyed reading this trilogy, in fact more than watching the movies, even though the movies are decent adaptations. This is much more my kind of fiction than, say, Harry Potter.

Patryk said...

I also love how Collins makes us complicit in the plot. We are supposed to be horrified by the games but we can't help ourselves and participate in watching them and rooting for kids to kill other kids.

One of the missed opportunities in the books for me was not seeing how Katniss would fare on the other side of the hunger games as a former victor, a mentor to some other unfortunate girl (like say the mayors of district 12 daughter) and deciding whether to advise her to kill her disctrict 12 partner or not.

Lamounier said...

Great review, Victoria. I love this trilogy. It's probably the best YA dystopian story (it's the one that started the trend, isn't it?).

My favorite book (and movie) is the second. There is a lot to love. The growing tension in the districts, the twist of the quarter quell. Katniss destroying the arena is one of my favorite moments in fiction. I also love how it's more about a group fighting for survival than kids killing one another. The new characters are so rich and fully realized. It's a terrific book.

Like you said, each book follows a similar pattern. There is always a hunger game (even when it's war) and there is always a decisive moment when Katniss turns the tables (keeping Peeta and herself alive, blowing up the arena, killing Coin). It works really well on the second book, but it becomes very formulaic afterwards. It's hard to buy that Snow would turn the Capitol into an arena and I don't like how inert Katniss is for a large part of the story. Even when she takes action and kills President Coin, she is still doing what somebody else expected her to do. It's disappointing.

Still, it's a wonderful tale and a rich universe to dive into.

Dustin said...

I enjoyed the first two books of the series, but did not like the third. I agree with Baz about having to reread what happened to Prim a few times to process what happened. Plus it irritated me that the whole reason Katniss entered the Hunger Games was to keep her sister safe, yet in the end Prim died anyway.

I also agree with Patryk about the missed opportunity of having a year of Katniss being a mentor to new competitors. Since Susan Collins didn't do this, it would be great for her to write a Haymitch book/series exploring this theme instead. Maybe showing him go from idealistic new mentor to apathetic drunk to covert revolutionary.

magritte said...

Like the rest of you, I enjoyed the first two books more than the third. The third book's pacing seemed off...slow through the first two thirds of the book then action-packed to the point of being confusing toward the end.

I also felt that the admirable narrative tightness of the first two books had a drawback when it came to the third. I admired the lean storytelling and the sharp focus on the experiences of a single character, particularly in this era of bloated series with convoluted plots and dozens of characters. However, when it came to telling a tale of national revolution, I began to feel the limits of Katniss' perceptions of the world. We just don't know that much about the districts other than 12.