Sometimes you get caught up in a fandom, and other times they slip you by. Whilst I grew up with Harry Potter, “The Hunger Games” came in when I was in a middle ground to be missed by it; too old to be aimed at by YA, and too young to feel comfortable enough in my own choices to read it anyway. And so, I didn’t read the books or watch the films, until, over Christmas, my husband suggested we watch The Hunger Games. I fell in love with the characters, and knew that I would need to read the books. What’s been great about this is that my son is ten (and a bit, he’d want me to mention that), so I’ve been able to screen the books for anything that might throw him. He finished the second one this week, and was taking a break with some lighter reading whilst I finished the third one. Which he has now, of course, started.
Each book has its own story to tell as well as being the part of a trilogy. We learn more about Panem, in what was North America, in the final book for example. With “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” due out later this year, I was keen to finish the series in preparation for the prequel, even with the controversy surrounding the lead character that it will have, announced in January. No spoilers from me if you’re waiting to find out for yourself.
A strong female protagonist is probably one of my favourite things in a book, followed quickly by a sensitive male protagonist; flipping those nonsense gender stereotypes is GOOD. These books provide both, and whilst obviously all humans, fictional or non, are multi-faceted, it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing to see a teenage girl who simply does not care and who is hunting illegally to save her family. We just don’t see enough of that. Katniss is, summed up, a badass, and I love meeting a character that I think I’d quite like to high five. With it being YA, factors are naturally dialed up a bit more than they would otherwise be to relate to their aimed audience, and yet you can still see the wonder of a teenager who doesn’t care about fitting in at school, adores her younger sister, and took up the weight of feeding her family when her father is killed.
As for Peeta, his naturally contrasting traits to Katniss bring her into shape, in her own mind if in no one else’s. It’s through his eyes that she wants to see herself once she knows how he sees her, and even if it doesn’t come naturally, she finds that she wants to be the person he can rely on, no matter how awkward it is, and no matter how uncomfortable it is at first.
I found this series to be that perfect balance of easy to get lost reading, and emotionally heavy. It’s a fine line to keep, and with the matter it has at its center – The Hunger Games themselves – it is hardly a jolly topic to start with. Suzanne Collins has designed a whole universe, which is impressive in itself, to then be toeing the line between believable science fiction and the horrors of what mankind can do to itself without any technology even being involved, is a difficult thing.
Perhaps the most poignant and haunting factor is that as no timeline is given – all that we know is that the previous civilization in what was America are regarded old history – is the thought that it could all be plausible. A work of fiction it may be, but as we continue to destroy our planet in numerous ways, a complete overhaul of the world is not the most impossible thing, hundreds, if not thousands, of years down the line. Of course you relate to Katniss as a lead character especially with the way the story is told, but reading as an adult you also get the wave of horror from reading as a parent; the idea of having to watch your child being picked off in an elaborate TV show sends shivers down my spine.
On that note, I also found times during this series where I really did reflect on the reality TV aspect of it. The Hunger Games, it is no spoiler to say, is a competition, televised and with viewer input in the forms of things being sent to the competitors to help them, to various degrees. When we have TV shows already that allow control over as much as they do, it is only the science fiction that is so dramatically different.
Now, below this image of the talented Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the film versions of the wonderful series, there are going to be some spoilers mentioned. May the odds be in your favour as you read on.
As with many novels or series, there is a love triangle at play. When Katniss leaves for the games with Peeta, her hunting companion Gale assures her he will take care of her younger sister and mother, which is her biggest concern. Peeta, meanwhile, confesses he has been in love with Katniss both to her, and to the whole on Panem on the pre-Games interviews. Katniss takes great offense to this, mainly as she already owes him a debt from childhood and now feels it will be harder to kill him off in the Arena. As their stories progress, both separately and together, and they enter the Arena for the second time for the Quarter Quell, Katniss starts to finally feel sure that the feelings she has for Peeta are real, and not just the romance she has been forced into acting out by President Snow. They share a tender, beautiful moment on the beach together, one that speaks not just of a teenage romance, but of one that is hard won, and much fought for. Then, just as Katniss might finally feel comfortable with him once and for all, the background coupe that has been boiling away without the young couple’s knowledge takes control.
The series manages to tackle some serious issues with keeping a light air where possible. Even in the last book, in the midst of war, there are lighthearted exchanges and beautiful moments between Katniss and Prim, her younger sister. Sisterly love is a key focus throughout the books, perhaps more important than the love story that leaves through. The initial moment of volunteering for the Games comes from the need to protect her younger sister, and it is an emotional rollercoaster following their story. Katniss often reflects in both Arenas how it may be feeling for her family watching the broadcasts, and later as they nurse her back to health is left alone to think at times about the impact it has on them. Prim often has words of wisdom for Katniss, and it devastates her how much her darling younger sister of not yet fourteen has become so much of a young adult.
Children in Panem are expected to grow up and contribute quickly, and we are given the experience of viewing the whole of the country through input of the different District Tributes and Champions. We learn about a society that has broken down and only been able to build back up through strict rules that are having the cruellest of consequences on so many. As I reflected above, I can’t help but wonder how much of a reflection this is on society currently, as well as all our possible pasts and futures.
I think the final thing I wish to reflect on regarding the series is the attention paid to give accurate representation of mental health being impacted by trauma. You can see the spiral in Katniss’s health as the books continue, and by the argued book she mentions how the nightmares will never go away. She only feels safe in Peeta’s arms, so when his solid foundation is taken away from her and traumatised himself, they both find the adaption hard. After Prim’s death, Katniss doesn’t lose sight of her end objective, knowing what she needs to do, but is so damaged that it is almost painful reading her thoughts. When Peeta saves her from using “Cinna’s last gift” after the assassination of the President, all she focuses on is how she can kill herself. It sounds dark, and it is, but equally is so realistic. The traumatized mind doesn’t work on a traditional logic, but on a logic of its own, and her mind being focused solely on a way to mute her pain is an understandable reaction. As for Peeta, we see an almost entire change to his personality which he fights hard to come back from, and it makes the things he says and does that are “him” even more beautiful.
To finish, this series holds so many important messages for any reader, regardless of age or gender. As a woman under thirty (just) I have enjoyed tgen just as much as my ten year old son. I think this really shows the durability and extent of impact of a series, when it can reach many audiences and still leave its mark. There’s a coming of age, but through extreme pain and trauma, and well beyond enough drama. The series has been a great way for me to start my 2020 reading, separated with other books, and whilst I understand why the prequel naturally doesn’t center around Katniss, I wish we could see more of her and Peeta. That’s always the sign of characters you have connected to, and that, in turn, is the job of successful fiction.