Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

As a librarian, I like to read books that readers are talking about. As the leader of the library’s Movie of the Book club, I also keep an eye on books being made into movies. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins falls into both of these categories.

The Hunger Games has a horrific premise. A future version of the United States, Panem, damaged by war and climate change, hosts a yearly event called the Hunger Games. To punish its twelve Districts for rising up against the Capitol (and losing) decades earlier, two young adults from each District are chosen by lottery every year and sent to the Capitol to fight to the death in an arena while the whole country watches on television. One victor emerges.

Because of the depressing plot, I dragged my feet on reading the series. However, once I started I found it hard to stop. The three books in the trilogy are difficult to take. They are grim, violent, and disturbing. However, they are also exciting, full of unexpected plot twists, and told by a flawed and compelling narrator.

The first book in the series is The Hunger Games. It is the strongest book in the series. It grips your imagination and won’t let go. It begins with an introduction to Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old who lives in District 12 with her mother, her little sister, and her sister’s pet Buttercup, “the world’s ugliest cat.” Katniss’s life is a hard one: never having enough to eat, hunting illegally to get food, scrambling to survive. Still, she has family and good friends.

But it’s reaping day, the day two youths in each District are chosen as “tributes” and sent to the Capitol to entertain its citizens by fighting to the death in punishment for rebellion. When her sister’s name is chosen, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Then the boy for District 12 is chosen. He is Peeta Mellark, a boy in her class at school, a boy she is not friends with but owes a debt to all the same. And from that point on, their fates are intertwined as they head to the Capitol and the Hunger Games.

The similarity to our own reality television shows is obvious and no doubt intentional. The 24 contestants are polished and prepped, then presented to the viewers to choose favorites. While the cameras roll there are breathless interviews, the revealing of secrets, and prurient interest in the lives of the contestants. And then the Games begin.

Most of the first book takes place during the Games. The author makes you feel the narrator’s desperate desire to live. She also makes you feel the moral dilemma Katniss faces in knowing that to survive, every other contestant, including her fellow tribute from District 12, must die. The book made my heart race and gave me nightmares, but it also made me desperate to know what happened next. Although it concludes in a satisfactory manner, it is clearly a Book One that urges you to continue on to Book Two, Catching Fire.

As so often happens with a series, Catching Fire is not as good as the first book in the series. The novelty of the plot has worn off, but the pain and horror of the situation in Panem for the citizens of the Districts has not. That’s not to say it’s not a good book. It is, and it continued to take plot turns I did not expect. There was no doubt I felt compelled at the end to forge on to Mockingjay, the final book in the series. Katniss continues to grow and change, as do the people and the situations around her, leading to a difficult but acceptable series conclusion that left me thinking about conditions in our own world. The themes of this series will stick with me for a long time.

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