Monday, 2 April 2012

Review: 'The Hunger Games' Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I'm going to start this entry with a little anecdote, so bear with me. About four years ago, I was at home for Christmas when me, my best friend, my sister and my sister's boyfriend decided to go to the cinema. Sister's Boyfriend was particularly enthusiastic about seeing a film that has just come out called Twilight, which he knew was about vampires, and so thought would be good. He's been known to sulk if he doesn't get his own way, and he's a champion sulker, so we three girls reluctantly agreed to go see what we thought was going to be two hours of vicious throat-ripping. What ensued was, in fact, two hours of us girls giggling a bit manically, and Sister's Boyfriend snorting disgustedly at the romance panning out on screen. After the film, I rushed home and promptly ordered all four books of the Twilight series off of Amazon, and spent the remainder of Christmas reading the books with ravenous energy, not realising for longer than I'd care to admit that the series was a worryingly glorified depiction of an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, when I realised that the hotly-anticipated big-screen adaptation of a popular teenage series called The Hunger Games was coming out soon, I thought it might be best to read the books first and form my own opinions, rather than allow Hollywood to cloud my judgement with pretty faces.

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic country called Panem in what used to be North America, where twelve districts each take a responsibility for an industry - for example, District 12, where our hero and heroine come from, mines for coal, whilst District 4 fishes, District 1 makes jewellery, and the Capitol, Panem's centre of decadence and consumption, reaps all the benefits. Another thing they reap is a boy and a girl, aged between 12 and 18, who are taken from each district to 'participate' in the Hunger Games, a brutal annual television show in which the competitors are forced to fight to the death. The point of these games is to remind the citizens of Panem of the Capitol's power, and to punish them for a revolt that lead to the destruction of the thirteenth district seventy-five years ago.

The plot is certainly original; the very idea of children and teenagers deliberately setting out to destroy one another is not one that sits easily with me, much less so when the story is aimed at the very age group of the contestants. As it happens, Collins handles it well - most of the death scenes (and there's a lot of those) are done without too much gore, but plenty of horror, so you feel the impact without being forced to read detailed accounts of children - and adults - dying. She's also a master story-spinner; throughout the trilogy there's twist, after twist, after twist, each one as unexpected as the last (though there is one in particular in the second book, Catching Fire, that, whilst initially shocking, seemed a bit desperate when given a second thought). I found it incredibly difficult to put any one of the books down, as every chapter seemed to end in such a cliffhanger that I had to know what happened next. I particularly enjoyed the references to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds - not only are there elements of the Theseus myth incorporated into the story, such as the tributes being donated to a bloodthirsty ruler, but many of the characters have Roman and Greek names - Plutarch, Caesar, Castor, Pollux, Cato and Octavia are just some of the many examples.

Characterisation was something I had a bit more of a problem with. Katniss is undeniably hardcore in the first book - she's brutal, ruthless, unsympathetic and only really shows genuine affection to her sister, Prim. This becomes a bit diluted in the second book, when she's unable to decide between Gale and Peeta, which is a shame, as she's such a strong character she doesn't need a love story to prop her up. She does get her mojo back in the third book, Mockingjay, though, so that's something. Peeta, however, doesn't seem to gain a backbone until Mockingjay, so there's a lot of mooning about which bothered me as much as it bothered Katniss. Yes, he's in love, yes, he wants to protect Katniss, but couldn't he do it all without being quite so... one-dimensional? Nearly all his character seems to be formed by Katniss, and whilst that could be put down to the fact that it is told from Katniss' point of view, and so we're seeing him as she sees him, I do feel that he's just a bit too... much, I suppose. When he does, however, find his backbone - through means that wouldn't be out of place in 1984 by George Orwell, unfortunately - he's such a strong character, that he becomes more likeable and his love story more believable. Other characters, such as Haymitch and President Snow, don't get as much page-time as I think they deserve, which is a shame, as Haymitch was my favourite character and thoroughly more interesting to me than Gale, the handsome hunter, and I would've liked to know more about President Snow, as I imagine his character would've given us an insight into why Panem is the way it is - a backstory that is severly lacking.

As I mentioned in my Holiday Collection, Part 2, I found it initially difficult to settle into the story, as I had forgotten amidst the hype that this is a series written primarily for teenagers, so the larger font and somewhat simpler writing style threw me slightly. Once I was back on track, however, the ride was thrilling, and whilst it did clunk along a bit at times, I can't deny that this is an excellent story not just for it's content, but it's message. In a world where Syria is being violently suppressed at the same time that Simon Cowell is trying desperately to prove that Britain has talent, it's a stark commentary on what atrocities you can ignore if you've got it lucky enough. It's also a refreshing antidote to Bella, Edward and their own star-crossed lover act in the Twilight series, and whilst I can't argue that the romances in The Hunger Games blossom under healthier circumstances, at least the story might inspire interest in politics, in the great outdoors and in history. If nothing else, it's a well-written, exciting, warning tale of what humans are capable of - both in acts of greatness and horror.

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