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The Girl who was on Fire: Reviewing the Hunger Games trilogy

2011 March 25

I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction lately. There’s some serious talent in that market that can’t be summed up by glibly taping a Vampire Books: the Section Formerly Known as Young Adult sign to the shelves. Nice one Anonymous, but you’ve obviously never read The Hunger Games.

“Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favour!”

– Effie Trinket, The Hunger Games

Occasionally billed as the ‘anti-Twilight’, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, ‘the girl from District 12,’ who has to fight for her life when she takes her sister’s place in the Games.

The cover of the first book in the Hunger Games series, 'The Hunger Games' showing the book title and the author's name written in white, and a golden badge detailing a mockingjay and an arrow emblazoned over a black background.Basic plot: a long time ago, a series of wars brought humanity to the brink of extinction. The Capitol won out, and to remind the surrounding poorer Districts it rules over of the horrors of war and their allegiance to the Capitol, the Districts must send ‘tributes’ each year, one boy and one girl, chosen by lottery, to fight to the death in games shown on national television. For one winner comes fame, a life of guaranteed luxury, and food for their district for one year; for the losers, nothing save the knowledge that their last breath, every wound, every blow has been broadcast live to their loved ones back home.

The Districts work to provide food and goods for the ruling class in the Capitol; they’re poor, underfunded places where poverty and starvation are rife. Kids can take tesserae, meaning their names are in the lottery more than once, to get extra grain for their family for the year. Katniss Everdeen supports her mother and younger sister with tesserae, and through hunting illegally on Capitol lands, but when her sister’s name comes up on Reaping Day, the whole world watches Katniss step up on stage to take her place.

Journeying to the arena, Katniss is taken to the Capitol, where rich sponsors compete to back her and she gets to know Peeta Mellark, the boy from District 12. But when the Games begin, will she be able to shoot arrows not at rabbits and deer, but at other tributes?

Alliances will be made and broken in the arena, but there can only be one winner.

You can read the first two chapters for free on the official website, and I really recommend you do. If you like it, buy it, read it, and share it with the teenagers in your family, if you’ve got them. The first novel, The Hunger Games, is followed by Catching Fire, and the trilogy concluded late last year with Mockingjay.

“If I can shoot rabbits, I can shoot fascists… If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.”

– The Manic Street Preachers

Why would I recommend The Hunger Games to BadRep readers? Well, they’re great books, and I like you guys. Oh, you mean to a feminist website specifically? Well, in a genre that often seems to think it needs to write about boys to get boys and girls to read it, this series features a brilliant, central female character, and other great, varied female characters besides, including soldiers and powerful politicians.

Cover for "Catching Fire" - very similar to the Hunger Games design, but on a red background. The mockingjay bird from the first cover is shown in more shadow, with a glowing orange light and what may be crosshairs behind it.It’s a successful book by a female author, in a genre where female authors are often dismissed as (paranormal) romance writers or feel the need to hide their gender by writing under their initials. Katniss is neither always a victim, nor a sexualised Lara Croft-alike, and while she is in some ways a role model for young readers, she’s not perfect, she does make mistakes, which make her all the more believable.

While she’s protective of her family, she’s uncaring, paranoid and mean when dealing with people who fall outside her circle. She’s not a dyed-in-the-wool Joan of Arc figure; the first chapters show her arguing against her hunting partner’s politically rebellious comments. She’s clueless when it comes to other people’s feelings, terrible at realising her own, selfish, dangerously impulsive, completely a product of the dystopian society she lives in, and yet…

… I am trying hard, very hard, not to say too much about Katniss, her actions, her choices throughout the trilogy, what happens to her, and the dark places Collins goes with this character, just because I don’t want to make this review too spoilery. Suffice to say, she had me by the heartstrings the moment she stepped up to save her sister, and it is this complex and unique character who makes the series for me.

Collins avoided easy stereotypes and did not write a setting where boys have the advantage in violent situations because of “higher testosterone levels than girls”, or “slightly larger body mass”, or any of those excuses that usually get used when someone is telling you that they Don’t Watch Women’s Football Because [insert reason here].

Girls have won the Hunger Games, and won often. Winning isn’t just about brute strength, it’s about courage, smarts, a certain unsqueamish, unthinking approach to violence and your own survival. It’s also about the skills learned in your District, (some contenders can fish, some know which plants will poison you) the advantages of your District (were you starving before you left for the Games?), and social skill: can you charm the cameras enough so that rich sponsors will pity you, or perhaps bet money on you, and therefore send you gifts of weapons or medicine during the Games?

Skillfully, Collins has included almost ironic echoes of other fiction aimed at this age-group. In another life, the ‘Careers’ in the arena (kids from richer, better-fed Districts who train and actually volunteer for the games, in a bid for wealth and glory) would be the ‘jocks’ of any high-school drama.

The beautiful dresses made for Katniss for her pre-game appearances – every tribute has an image consultant, make-up artists, their own fashion designer – would be the ‘prom dress scene’ in another work, were not for the fact that everyone attending these parties is quite looking forward to watching her fight for her life in the Games, her fashion designer has put more thought into her outfits than one might expect, and that oh, she better fill up on those party favours, because she won’t be eating properly for a while…

It’s refreshing to read about a heroine who’s actually thankful for what she has, and who would find the concept of dieting absolutely ridiculous.

Katniss’s potential romances, Peeta and Gale – and there are two of them, as is traditional – would be the Jacob and Edward, the Stefan and Damon, that this story revolved around, were it not that the reader, and Katniss herself, is far more invested in whether characters live or die than who they sleep with! Though I’m Team Joanna I’m Team Gale, if you’re asking.

“I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.”

– Katniss Everdeen

Er, sorry Katniss.

Did I have any problems with the series? Well, the final book kind of went against my own sense of who should live, who should die and how, and to be honest, it felt a little like it was rushed to hit the release date in the shops. However, in much the same way that a dedicated Harry Potter fan wouldn’t recommend that you skip the series just because they didn’t like the infamous epilogue and thought that JKR needed a better editor after book three (oh she really did), my problems with Mockingjay don’t stop me wanting to recommend The Hunger Games to every book-lover I know.

I’m feeling nervous about the upcoming movie. Considering the Hollywood treatment given to the last kid’s franchise I loved, I hope Katniss is cast with dark hair, with olive skin, the way she’s described – I hope Thresh and Rue aren’t white. On a more speculative note, I’d jump up and down in the cinema if we see Cinna flirting with men. I really hope the real message of the books comes across: that political complacency is the real enemy, that if we’re duped by ‘bread and circuses’ then we’re all culpable for what is done in our names.

But however the movie turns out, Hollywood adaptations always mean more book sales, and more kids reading a series that teaches them to question authority, to question the media, that teaches them that rebellious actions can lead to change… well, that can only be a good thing.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    March 25, 2011

    I read the first two chapters online and now I want to read the whole damn thing. The only problem is I don’t have any room for any more books. I wanted to buy a Kindle but I have no money. Woe is me, and my first world problems.

  2. Lizzie B permalink
    March 25, 2011

    The trilogy went in a conpletely dog direction than I thought and while I lived the first book, the sequels were just not as good or as satisfying. The amount of action that happens offpage in the second only to be dumped on you in two pages of exposition right at the end was pretty unforgivable as was what I dent to be stunted character development and disconnectness of the characters in the third.

    Could spend all day talking about them though but don’t want to spoil anyone!

  3. Lizzie B permalink
    March 25, 2011

    And wow, iPhone typos in my above comment. Ah well.

  4. March 25, 2011

    Unfortunately, Katniss is being played by Jennifer Lawrence – a great actress, don’t get me wrong, but also a very white one.

  5. Molly permalink
    February 11, 2012

    Wow. I was barely able to put “Hunger Games” down for a second after the first few pages got me completely hooked. Normally it takes a week to read a book, but now I read this in 24 hours. Suzanne Collins here has an immediacy to it that, when combined with the very dramatic life-or-death plot, is incredibly compelling. It’s entertaining, and incredibly disturbing all at once. They say great art leaves you changed after you experience it… and this book definitely did that. Suzanne Collins has, with one amazing work, propelled herself onto my top shelf.

    Have a nice day,

  6. bianca permalink
    October 4, 2012

    i personally think the book was a terffic way t end the series!and its very just amazingg luv it!<3

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