I think Twitter was the main reason I chose to read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
No, it wasn’t because my followers on Twitter suggested I read the books, or that a person I follow recommended them at large. Instead, I was becoming completely unglued at every sight of the never-ending casting announcements for the upcoming film adaptation of the first book in the series, The Hunger Games, coming in the Spring. More than any other film in recent memory, it seemed as though every single role was a piece of news, and I became too curious to resist diving into the series.
A few weeks later, I emerged with an understanding for the books’ appeal and a large pile of critical thoughts that I’m itching to discuss with other folks who have read the books. Although I rarely dive into literature around these parts (although this will likely not be the first time this summer that I do so), I figured that this is as good a place as any to consider what makes the series distinct, what makes the series an ultimate disappointment, and why I’m extremely curious to see how they plan to adapt this story given some of its particular qualities.
Spoilers for the entire Hunger Games Trilogy follow.
A First-Person Page Turner
There are two narrative devices that are consistent throughout the trilogy.
The first is the first person narrative perspective of Katniss Everdeen, our heroine and our guide to this world. The second is Collins’ love of the chapter cliffhanger, in which a reveal or some type of exciting event happens in the very last line of each chapter so that turning the page over is impossible to resist. The former makes it easier to enter into this world, while the latter makes it more challenging to remove yourself from it.
And yet, while I completely understand why these two devices were chosen, both are damaging to the overall impact of the series. Now, within The Hunger Games itself as an individual book, I think both devices are smartly utilized. Early in the book, the cliffhangers are an ideal way to sell the way the Games immediately raise the stakes in Katniss’ world, while the first person narrative is useful both for exposition and for capturing the psychological toil that the very idea of the games can offer. Later in the book, the cliffhangers are the ideal way to capture the constant pressures of the arena, and the first person narrative helps parcel out both Katniss’ general psychological state (including her relationship with Peeta) and the sense of isolation she feels during the early days of the Games.
The problem is that what start out as intelligent becomes limiting by the time we reach Catching Fire. It’s a novel that promises an expansion of the story world, with visits to all twelve districts and eventually news of uprisings in some of the other districts as a result of their presence. There are dark and harrowing moments on that trip, and some of them are nicely viewed through Katniss’ eyes (or ears), but you always get the sense that they’re on the periphery. It reminds me of the later Harry Potter novels, to make a Young Adult connection, in that you couldn’t help but feel that the most interesting part of the story was happening in a space outside of the narrative focus.
The first person perspective also becomes a crutch for Collins, and she uses it to redefine the story world through exposition. As a result, it all feels a bit repetitive, and Katniss spends a lot of time conveniently recapping previous events and previous feelings so that new readers (and readers who had forgotten about those events) can catch up. It’s functional, but it risks making Katniss feel more like a narrator than a teenager, which really pulled me out of the early parts of the second novel. It also seemed strange for Collins to continue the same cliffhanger structure that punctuated the end of the first book early in the second. There’s a case to be made that part of Collins’ point is that life is an arena, an argument that fits particularly well with the central premise of Mockingjay, but it still feels like Collins is going through the motions when she could be establishing more abstract narrative structures that better reflected unique situations. Instead, it’s just the same pattern repeating, which is fine but fails to achieve the same heights as the opening story in the trilogy.
Of course, once she returns to the arena in the Quarter Quell, everything works again: the internal dialogue is crucial to our understanding of the neverending thoughts running through a tribute’s head during the Hunger Games, while the cliffhangers are only logical in a clicking clock of doom. And yet, it also means that the rhythms of the second book are identical to those in the first: the dynamics may change, especially given the larger alliance that Katniss and Peeta form, but Colins seems like she is just going through the motions. The early parts of the novel felt like a chance for a real departure, perhaps even expanding the narrative focus beyond Katniss’ isolated view, but the fact that the narrative structure doesn’t change is reflective of a larger aversion to real transformation in that second book.
Darkness on the Edge of Panem
Although this is arguably young adult fiction, there is no question that this is “dark” young adult fiction. Now, as a recent (fairly suspect) Wall Street Journal article sees it, darkness is defined as the grotesque and horrifying, filled with rape and violence and everything in between. In the piece, Meghan Cox Gurden speaks out against darkness in young adult writing, and argues that “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”
While Gordon does not single out The Hunger Games trilogy outside of a brief mention, I think it’s important to note that there is a difference between being misery and being about misery. Relative to that definition of darkness, the Hunger Games is actually quite tame or, rather, quite justifiable. The violence we see is horrible, but the “darkness” is more often framed in terms of morality than through outright cruelty. The darkness isn’t in what happens, in other words, so much as in why and how it happens. The very idea of the Hunger Games is what is so dark about this world, and the murder that takes place within it is disturbing less in terms of the act itself and more that it is condoned and supported by a hungry public desperate for the sport of it all.
Now, there are obviously a bunch of fictional precedents for this kind of situation, but the spectacle of it all is perhaps my favorite part of the Hunger Games as a whole. The way in which the media and television are used as a source of control is fascinating to me as a media scholar, especially when we enter into Mockingjay where both sides are fighting for control of the airwaves. I also quite enjoyed the very notion of the propos, and the way in which the propaganda war was fought using our central characters as pawns for both sides. While the second novel frustrated me by putting the war effort purely in the shadows, Mockingjay made the war seem real, and yet also made Katniss’ relationship with that war more complex, especially as it related to her use as the public face for the campaign.
There is a lot of death in these novels, given the very nature of the Hunger Games and all, but I like the way in which certain deaths continue to resonate throughout the books. Although the exposition got a little bit much at times, it never felt like any particular death went unnoticed beyond some of the more random killings in the arena. It may seem weird to suggest that more emphasis on deaths is less dark, but allowing someone like Rue to resonate beyond her initial death is key to ensuring that death doesn’t seem random or pointless. From a plot point of view, a lot of people die: however, because those deaths are integral to central themes of the trilogy, it results in a meaningful bleakness as opposed to a suffocating one.
One issue I do have, though, is the question of villainy within the piece. As much as Collins does a nice job early on of making the culture of the Hunger Games the enemy, the shift towards President Snow as a “big bad” never quite sat right for me. The way she retroactively makes the Hunger Games out to be his own sadistic playground, and the way she reveals his treatment of the winners, just seems like a convenient way to give the piece a villain. There’s a poetry to Katniss’ final moments with Snow in Mockingjay, and their altercation at the beginning of Catching Fire is one of the few early parts of the book that really landed for me, but I sort of liked the idea of “The Capitol” being the enemy more than this single figure. It was a case of the story being narrowed for the sake of narrative simplicity, with any historical or bureaucratic structures of the Capitol squirreled away in favor of a singular vision of evil. I like the way the conclusion somewhat alters this structure, making it clear that Coin is as much a product of that culture as Snow was, but the desire for a more clear Katniss vs. Snow narrative somewhat took away from the larger societal corruption that the first book seemed to hint at.
Questions of Adaptation
Now, given these two broader topics of conversation relating to the novels, I have a fair number of questions in terms of how they’re intending on adapting these novels.
For example, related to both sections, do they intend on maintaining the tight first person narrative when Katniss is in the arena? I make this point because reading the books I kept wanting to see what the cameras were actually showing, to see if Katniss’ predictions about what the camera were and were not showing were true. Reading the books, I imagined those scenes in The Truman Show were we cut away to the various fans watching along around the world, and wondered if the movie could possibly resist cutting away to District 12 or even the Capitol during various key moments. There’s obviously a value to reflecting Katniss’ true isolation, but reading the books I kept wanting to know more about Haymitch’s efforts to get them sponsors, and to see how the gamemakers were responding to the threats against their system. The novels seem satisfied to refer to this depth without really exploring it, but I think the value of expanding that part of the novels is worth the loss of shared isolation, especially if we see more examples of how each day’s activities were framed for audiences.
I’m also curious what they’re going to do with the various cliffhangers: on some level, as Mo Ryan pointed out during a recent chat, the book chapters are structured more like episodes of a television series than scenes in a film. Now, I think they can just sort of gloss over the cliffhangers without much of a problem, but they could still reflect many of them by using those moments to cut away to the cameras, to show the Capitol’s excitement or Prim’s horror at what dangers Katniss is facing.
In terms of darkness, I think the way they’ve aged up the characters (at least visually) will make this more palpable: I would have been fine if they hadn’t aged them up, but it seems like it will give them some more room to explore the horrors of the arena without feeling as though they’re pushing kids too harshly (and thus might be able to get away with a PG-13 rating). Rue is very clearly pitched as the youngest participant, and her death will obviously play a huge role in the first film, so I don’t think the films will be able to abandon the bleakness of the novels (as some might fear, given many efforts to Hollywoodize literary properties).
Reading the novels, I didn’t have any real concerns over casting: Lawrence seems perfect for Katniss, and while it took me a while I began to see what Hemsworth and Hutcherson were placed into the male leads in the way they were. At first it seemed like Hutcherson was more the trusted best friend type, and thus a better fit for Gale, but the romance arc (despite never becoming a central point of interest in the novels for me personally) evolved in such a way to make Hutcherson a strong choice for Peeta. The rest of the supporting cast seems similarly solid, and I’ll be curious to see (should the series continue) how they cast the remaining roles of some importance.
And yet, speaking of the series continuing, most of my adaptation thoughts went towards the possibility, raised last week as I was finishing Mockingjay, that they would be splitting the series into four films. Now, there’s obviously precedent for this: Harry Potter and Twilight both did it, and you can see Lionsgate is eager to follow in their footsteps with this franchise. However, Mockingjay is not quite as lengthy as those final volumes, and it also doesn’t feel as though it has a lot to resolve that would take a lot of time. Unless they plan on abandoning the first person narrative and expanding some of the others characters’ stories, I’d actually argue that Mockingjay has some filler that could be trimmed down in a cinematic adaptation.
If they were to split the series into four films, they would either have to stretch out Mockingjay or shift around the major cliffhangers. However, I would say that Catching Fire’s cliffhanger is among the strongest in the series, and does a great job of building suspense for the next film, which makes it more likely that they’d try to stretch out Mockingjay by adding more of the war and spending a bit more time in the arena-like streets of the Capitol. It’s a risky decision either way, and I imagine the box office results from Part 2 of the Deathly Hallows will be closely watched by Lionsgate this summer.
The Ranking Games
In terms of ranking the novels, I’m sticking with my first instinct: The Hunger Games is the strongest novel by a wide margin, while Mockingjay’s intriguing wartime politics are a more interesting contribution to the series than anything in Catching Fire (which just seems like a slight evolution from the first novel). I wanted more from Mockingjay, and I can see how some might be frustrated with its departure from the first two novels, but I really wanted it to depart even further, truly blowing open this narrative instead of just calling attention to the changes. Admittedly, I also have issues with transitional stories that feel like they’re marking time, existing purely to stretch the storylines from the first story into the last – it’s the same issue I had with the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, for example, and it definitely soured me on Catching Fire as well.
Overall, I’m glad that I read the series, both because I found parts of it extremely interesting and because I think there’s value in understanding cultural phenomena. Did I become wholly invested in this story? No – there were points, in Catching Fire in particular, where I became detached from Katniss’ plight, and the similar structures of the three novels became a bit of a wear on my patience. However, I thought Collins did a nice job of keeping the stakes high, and managed to keep the love triangle interesting even if it took a few personality changes here or there to ensure that things were complicated enough to make a rational decision impossible.
These are, at the end of the day, well-written and intelligent books that appeal to a wide range of readers, so I look forward to seeing how that is framed for movie audiences in comparison to other young adult success stories.
- I think my favorite bit of casting in terms of supporting characters is Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother – I have a feeling that the producers saw Caprica.
- As far as epilogues go, this one wasn’t quite as awful as Harry Potter’s, but it still felt a bit too straightforward given the complexity of the novels. It’s a happy ending where I don’t think “happy” is the proper word, so I would have liked something a bit more abstract than “little kids reading scrapbooks to learn about Mommy and Daddy murdering people.” Although, on second thought, that is kind of badass in its own way.
- I refer to this above, but seems to me that Cain and Finnick are the two main roles that will need to be filled should the franchise continue, so I’m curious what kind of speculation is floating around for these figures.
- I rag on Catching Fire a fair bit, and I really don’t like the first half of that book, but I sort of love the Clock Arena and the way it is slowly revealed. I wanted more from the book, but the Arena delivered, so I see how some remain positive on the book s a whole based on its presence. Still, the Arena actually seems a bit too rushed compared to the early parts of the book, so the balance is also an issue there.
- Any contenders for the most senseless character death? I’d argue that maybe Finnick could have managed to hang on, if only to save us from the “Annie is carrying his child” portion of the ending that seemed way too convenient, but no death stands out as particularly useless, which is key.