Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review - The Hunger Games Trilogy

Yes let it be said that I have finally caught with the rest of the world and read the three books of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. They are exhilarating, unsettling reads, and I felt the need to discuss them.

I know that everyone in the country, if not in the world, knows the plot of The Hunger Games. However, I will summarize it anyway, in order to frame the story so that my observations and comments will flow more logically in this review. In the near-future (no date specified), North America has been turned into a country called Panem, which consists of twelve Districts and a "Capitol." In order to appease the Districts and at the same time show its authority over them, the Capitol hosts each year a fighting tournament called the "Hunger Games," in which each District sends one boy and one girl to a designated arena. Once all twenty-four adolescent children are in the arena, they must kill each other - and they do, until one "victor" remains. The games are closely monitored by means of thousands of hidden cameras. Before the games actually commence, each tribute has a personal "stylist" who decorates the tribute to look as attractive as possible, so that people will pay to send special, helpful items to the tributes during the games themselves. The twenty-four tributes are paraded about, like painted ponies at a firing squad, for everyone knows perfectly well that twenty-three of them will die within the next few weeks.

In theory, the book sounds all but revolting. It is sort of a dystopian novel, but I don't know if that's quite the right term. This is not a novel about how things ought to be, but it is also not a novel about how things ought not to be. The Hunger Games is, more than anything else, a novel that shows how brutal and terrible people can be, and will be, in the worst of conditions. At the same time, we see an oppressive, totalitarian government using the Games to bring a few people from each District down to that level of sheer brutality. The message from the Capitol, as summarized by the narrator, is clear: "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do." 

This novel shows us a nightmarish world in which people are forced to forego all pretensions of civilized life in order to secure their own survival. As the Capitol plans it, nothing can survive the horrific violence of the Arena except a sort of virulent patriotism where one District triumphs over all the other Districts. Each District, as a whole unit, must buy into a Kill-Or-Be-Killed mentality. The people of all twelve districts are starving; but they do not dare to revolt, because there used to be thirteen districts, and when all thirteen of them revolted against the Capitol, they were all beaten back, and one district was completely obliterated. Thus each District has no choice but to embrace the annual Hunger Games, one chance to bring glory to their people in an attempt to attain significance in this post-apocalyptic world of mortality.

And yet, in spite of the twenty-four young teenagers trapped in a battle arena for weeks, this is not a novel about adventure, or romance. With many of the books popular with young adults, there is an overall theme. With Lord of the Rings, it was power, and man's tendency to want too much of it. With EarthSea, it was boundaries, the world's physical limitations that we must obey. In Harry Potter, it was love and its ability to counteract magic. Here, in The Hunger Games, the theme is violence - something that exists in the other books I just mentioned, but Collins concentrates it on a nearly fundamental level, practically isolating it from everything else, watching a series of people who are all but reduced to animals. This novel is about the forces that drive us to violence, and the dehumanizing effects it has on us. True, Collins emphasizes the word "hunger" in the title, but that really only proves my point. My English teacher once told us, as we were reading Shakespeare's Coriolanus, that you can take a lot of things from people, and they will remain civilized; but take away their food, and they will lose rationality. It is the hunger that takes away people's illusions of independence and intelligence and hope, and drives them to fight each other for sheer survival.

The Hunger Games is a stark, grim, gruesome novel. It brings out the primeval instincts within us, showing us that five thousand years of civilization has not made the human race immune to the baseness that can drive one friend against another. Perhaps it is intentional that Panem has no apparent religion or philosophy, and little in the way of literature. This absence seemed unrealistic to me at first, since every culture in history has had a religion; but perhaps Collins wished to show us a land that has been so squeezed and drained and starved that no one dares to imagine something so impalpable as a deity. Even love, which seems to exist between the novel's two main characters, comes off as contrived and scripted, an invention that pleases people but can barely stand up to a closer inspection. Will you really stop to help the person you think you love, when a pack of wolves is chasing you? Maybe you will, but it won't be easy.

This novel did not fill me with hope. It disturbed me, and made me wonder just how much torment and famine I might withstand before I turned into a creature capable of murder. While it hints at the political machinations that surround the Games, the first novel in the trilogy focuses just on the Games, the corrosive action of the fighting itself. It is a harrowing examination of just how much agony the human soul can tolerate while remembering that it is still human.

The second book in Collins's series is Catching Fire, which begins roughly six months after the end of the first book. It has a far wider scope than the first novel, and gives the impression that Katniss Everdeen, the hero and narrator, stepped in the wrong place and has fallen into a world that was never meant for her eyes.

Whereas the first book concentrated on the terrifying experience of the Games itself, Catching Fire dwells much more on the political and sociological structures that surround the Games. We see at once the dark rationale that the governing Capitol uses to justify the existence of the Games, and the weaknesses of that same rationale - because Catching Fire, though even more violent and tragic than its predecessor, contains a sense of hope that gives the oppressed people of Panem the courage to rebel.

Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, have both survived the 74th Annual Hunger Games, but their managing to survive together has violated the rule that only one tribute can win the competition. Thus President Snow, ruler of the Capitol, orders Katniss to make a show of her romantic attraction to Peeta so that people will see their victory as an act of love rather than an act of political rebellion. Katniss's heart kind-of-sort-of belongs to another boy named Gale, which results in an awkward love triangle that thankfully Collins does not stretch too far. Katniss wakes up screaming almost every night, from nightmares that are barely more than memories of what she actually suffered in the Games.

Katniss faces a paradox. She knows that the Capitol has already done unspeakable harm to her friends and family, and so she wants to start an uprising. But at the same time she is constantly reminded that the Capitol has infinite resources to do whatever they want, i.e. kill every person Katniss cares about. It is really a battle between two sides of her mind. There is the Kill-Or-Be-Killed mentality that wants blood retribution for the injuries done to her, and will obtain that retribution at any cost, because she has nothing to lose. This is the mentality that was awoken in her when she was in the Arena. And there is the compassionate side of her, which cannot risk the safety of a single person. This is the side of her that drove her to volunteer for the Games in the first place, in order to save her sister from going. She has lost so much, and yet she still has everything to lose.

And while Katniss's ability to fight and take care of herself was part of what got her through the Games, President Snow now depends upon Katniss's compassion for her friends and family. He meets her personally and tells her that, unless she works very hard to soothe the people of Panem and prevent them from rebelling, he will kill off her dear ones. As the novel progressed, I realized one thing is very obvious: President Snow is an astonishingly inept leader. He clearly has no idea how to stop a rebellion. At one point he actually orders Katniss to appear onstage, televised, wearing her wedding dress - thus reminding all of Panem that she was just about to be married to Peeta. But all of Panem also knows that Katniss must reappear in the next Hunger Games as well (and so she has a 23:1 chance of being killed), and it is perfectly obvious that President Snow deliberately arranged these games in order to eliminate Katniss. What is he trying to accomplish? Can he get people to obey him, by showing that he has the power to execute a young bride? He has ordered Katniss to charm the audience, but he expects the audience to remain charmed when she is singing her swan song which he taught her himself?

So the heartless despotism of President Snow is a bit heavy-handed. The very name "Snow" seemed like overkill to me, implying his heart is as cold as snow - although, ironically, Katniss's mother uses snow several times as a medical treatment, mixing frozen slush with herbs and applying it to wounded skin, so I'm not sure how to reconcile the dual use of the image. Catching Fire is more ambitious than The Hunger Games, and while it lacks the unity of the first novel, it is just as powerful and thought-provoking. Katniss returns to the Arena, in the 75th Annual Hunger Games, but even in the midst of battle, the mood is different. Whereas the theme of the first book was violence, the theme of Catching Fire is time. As Martin Luther King once observed, time is itself neutral, never giving rise to anything on its own. But in this novel, we see how ideas affect people, slowly but inevitably causing them to change their perspectives on life. We see how every action has consequences, like a pebble creating ripples in a pond. We are reminded that, ultimately, nothing lasts forever, that time will bring things around somehow. As Gollum describes it, in The Hobbit:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

And, as with the first book, Collin's emphasis on "fire" in the title only proves my point. Time can only move in one direction. Katniss has made a spark and cannot undo it. Things have caught fire, and while she is terrified of what might happen to her family, her compassion and her anger eventually unite in a sort of maternal resolve to defend those whom she loves. Katniss must fight, but this time, she also must understand when to fight and when to trust others. In short, she must know how to use the time given to her, know when to act and when to wait.

The third book in the series, Mockingjay, is an account of terrible destruction and a glimpse into what I can only describe as the pulsing heart of pure chaos. It is at once the least structured of the three books, and the most painful of the three.

Panem has erupted into civil war. Most of the Districts have turned against the Capitol, but many of them lack the resources to resist the "Peacekeepers" that maintain the Capitol's rule over them. Katniss joins forces with District 13, which the Capitol allegedly destroyed seventy-five years ago but has actually survived underground - and the Capitol knew it. The two had a mutual agreement to ignore each other, since each had the WMDs to wipe out all of Panem's population (Cold War politics, essentially). Katniss is torn between a desire for revenge against the Capitol, and a suspicion that District 13 is really no better. This conflict leads to many quandaries and anxieties on her part, few of which are ever resolved.

The first two-thirds of the novel are devoted to a series of skirmishes in which Katniss, the "Mockingjay" mascot of the Rebellion, leads the forces which combat the Capitol in various locations. Yet, every step of the way, we see both in the characters' actions and in Katniss's inner realizations, that she is not a soldier. She can't follow orders. These sections are mechanical and proceed with a makeshift epic structure, as if Collins knew she needed a big ending to her trilogy but at the same time wanted to preserve her characters' inherent reservations against such an ending. The result is an unhappy marriage between a full-scale civil war and its weary poster child.

I can see how this conclusion is dramatically necessary for Collin's story, but it is theatrically uninteresting. The action becomes formulaic: the rebels attack, the Capitol attacks back, Katniss tries to rally the forces together but performs poorly because she really does not believe in them, she goes out and allows herself to be filmed while actually fighting in the real heat of combat, she is injured and the footage is aired while she is recuperating. This pattern repeats itself several times. In the course of the novel Katniss is shot, pierced by shrapnel, strangled, set on fire, and continually traumatized, often requiring sedation in order to sleep, although sleep only brings on horrific nightmares.

The last third of the novel is more imaginative but also horrifying, when Katniss throws off her Mockingjay suit and goes her own way, trying to hunt down President Snow. However unpleasant it was to read about Katniss acting without conviction, I found it far more painful to see what Katniss was able to do when she finally found her conviction. In a world where she cannot trust anyone, Katniss changes into a character who terrifies me. She is sanest when she is crying out in agony, unable to tolerate the despicable state of the world; she is most insane when she believes in what she is doing, and rises to the challenges set for her. Harold Bloom once commented that Othello "cannot quite fit" in his own drama, thus creating a play that is "necessarily unsteady," and I am forced to conclude the same of Katniss in this novel. She is, quite simply, the wrong heroine for the job - or else Collins has devised a job so horrendous that it requires its heroine to take measures that I just don't want to watch anyone take.

A "mockingjay" is a genetic aberration, a bird that combines the properties of a mockingbird and a tape recorder, able to sing back both the words and melody of a human song. In the first book, a friend gives Katniss a mockingjay pin to wear; here in the third book, this image becomes the symbol of the rebellion, and Katniss is asked to wear a uniform and call herself "The Mockingjay" in a series of promotional TV spots - not unlike Katniss's posturing in the Games in order to win over sponsors. Several times in this novel Katniss sings, and it always moves people emotionally. But when they call Katniss "The Mockingjay," they see it as a symbol of fighting, of bravery, of power. A mockingjay is none of these things; its unique quality is the ability to pour its heart out in song, to express its inner pains without aiming any hostility at others. Collins makes this point, but almost no one in the novel understands it. 

Judging by its title, I think the central theme of Mockingjay is identity. But this theme is explored negatively: most of the novel is about corruption and contamination, misinformation and play-acting. Katniss is forced to ally herself with Plutarch Heavensby, a former designer of Hunger Games arenas, who understands the machinations of the Capitol's weapons better than he understands the reasons for resisting the Capitol. Her friend Peeta has been brainwashed. Her friend Gale becomes increasingly violent and driven, not by a desire to help people but by a devotion to his cause - "and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty," James Baldwin once observed. Mockingjay is less devoted to its theme than its predecessors. Katniss ultimately fails to be "The Mockingjay" because the image that has been forced upon her is fundamentally flawed. She is unable to sing like a mockingjay, because she is constantly being manipulated by others. She cannot pour out her heart because it is covered with armor.
book cover of 

Hunger Games Trilogy  Box Set
In the end, what has Suzanne Collins done? As many have noted, the initial premise of the children fighting in the arena is anything but original, drawing its roots from the gladiator matches held thousands of years ago (the phrase "Panem et Circenses" is even spoken in Mockingjay). The way I see it, Collins has taken the image of people fighting needlessly and held it up to the light, examined it until we can see how ugly and wretched it is. We see this first with the Hunger Games tournaments, and then with the civil war. But Collins does not offer a solution. I do not know if she believes there is no solution, or if the idea of a solution simply never occurred to her. Perhaps this can be seen as an antidote to Harry Potter, since J.K. Rowling has said that her favorite author is Jane Austen, in whose writings everything works out in the end.

One of the most striking scenes in the series is in Mockingjay, toward the end. Katniss and her comrades are resting for a few miserable hours, beaten and battered by the turmoil of war. Katniss falls asleep and dreams of her old escort, Effie Trinket, a shallow though sympathetic woman who allows herself to be a pawn of the Capitol. Katniss narrates:

"I have only one dream I remember. A long and wearying thing in which I'm trying to get to District 12...Effie Trinket, conspicuous in a bright pink wig and tailored outfit, travels with me. I keep trying to ditch her in places, but she inexplicably reappears at my side, insisting that as my escort she's responsible for my staying on schedule. Only the schedule is constantly shifting, derailed by our lack of a stamp from an official or delayed when Effie breaks one of her high heels. We camp for days on a bench in a gray station in District 7, awaiting a train that never comes. When I wake, somehow I feel even more drained by this than my usual nighttime forays into blood and terror."

Why would this dream affect her so much, after she has just watched people be shot, mutilated, blown apart, even eaten alive by sewer lizards? It is the irrelevance of Effie's "schedule" to Katniss's life, the indifference that Effie has for any of Katniss's problems. It is the indifference of the world. All at once I suddenly see Katniss, not as an action hero (which she has obviously never been, and never will be), but as a scared girl in a world she does not understand, and that does not understand her. The hollow feeling where personal connection ought to be, the absence of communication. This negation of feeling, which no amount of violence and military campaigning can cover up, is itself the bedrock of the Hunger Games trilogy. It is the world in which Katniss lives, and she does not like it; can she imagine something better?

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