So here’s a lesson in life: Don’t swear that you’ll never do something. Because then if you do it, you’ll feel kind of stupid. I swore repeatedly that I would never read The Hunger Games or its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I had perfectly good reasons for not wanting to read them. They’re dystopian, and I’m not a fan of the genre. I’ve only read a few dystopians and I haven’t liked any of them. They’re written in first person present tense, a writing style that I find extremely annoying. And worst of all, they break my rule: don’t mess with kids. For those reasons and probably a few others, I shrugged them off and said I wouldn’t read them. And then I read them.
Why did I read them? Well, people kept talking about them, and the movies, and they’ve pretty much become a cultural icon, and I was tired of feeling out of the loop. I’d heard enough about them that I figured I pretty much knew how they went, but I was intrigued by this tough, arrow-shooting female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. And there’s the fact that they’ve quickly become one of those standard series that other Young Adult books are compared to and judged by, and since I write YA, I figured I ought to go ahead and see what all the fuss was about.
With such high expectations going in, I can say that although I didn’t like the trilogy, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. Many people that I’ve talked to devoured all three books in a week or less. I checked them out through Amazon’s Prime Owners Lending Library, which is limited to one book a month. Even at that, it took me four or five months to get through all three of them. They are emotionally draining, and sometimes I could guess (more or less accurately) what was going to happen next, and I just didn’t want to read it. But finally, with Mockingjay Part 1 out in theaters this week, there was enough buzz going around that I picked Mockingjay back up, after setting it aside about a third of the way through, and finished it.
My issues with the book are pretty much what I expected. The setting of Panem, a dismal, post-apocalyptic nation of oppressed Districts ruled by a pleasure-loving, totally corrupt Capitol, is not a place where you expect good things to happen. And for the most part, they don’t. The writing style is compelling, but I’m not comfortable reading in first person present tense, and I don’t know that the author was completely comfortable writing in it, either. It slips into past tense frequently as Katniss revisits memories or events that happened earlier in the day. It interrupts the flow of the story and can come across as jarring, and anytime the writing does that, for any reason, I find it annoying. And of course, the premise is awful. Obviously this is a screwed up society, and the more you read the more you realize just how screwed up it really is. But basically the Hunger Games are a form of child sacrifice, where the Capitol forces each of the twelve Districts to offer up two kids between the age of 12 and 17 to kill each other off in an arena rigged with various horrors until only one survives and is declared the victor. The games are televised with great pomp and ceremony, so that every resident of Panem is basically forced to watch this horrible event take place every year.
At the beginning of the story, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. We then get to experience the lead-up and the games themselves, plus all the aftermath, through her perspective. I wanted to like Katniss, I really did. She does have a very naturally humble, self-sacrificing aspect to her personality combined with a certain magnetism that somehow inspires people to adore her, despite the fact that she’s also an abrasive, anti-social, lost soul. So despite really wanting to like her, I never did. She has moments of extreme selfishness. She tends to act and think like the entire world revolves around her, and she’s surprisingly clueless about things that should be fairly obvious. The fact that she’s very human and pretty flawed makes her a sympathetic character, easy to relate to, but not quite a hero. She is young, and she experiences things that would probably destroy anyone, so it’s not surprising that as the story goes along she unravels. One of my friends pointed out that she clearly suffers from extreme PTSD. She’s also hopelessly naive. She allows people to use and manipulate her for their own ends until almost the end of the story, when she finally decides she’s had enough, and takes matters into her own hands in a way that anyone could have seen coming.
Ultimately, I reconciled myself to moderately liking these books because in the end, the author states the very thing that bothers me about the whole story: A society that sacrifices its children for power or entertainment or to end a war is fundamentally flawed, and certainly not a place where any sane person would want to live. No one comes through the story whole and healthy. So many people die. Many of them are children. At times it’s deeply disturbing to read. In fact, I find it slightly horrifying that it’s written for “young adults,” or in other words, teenagers. I know there is worse, more graphic stuff out there, and that kids these days are probably used to that sort of thing, but it bothered me. It really shows a lot of what’s bad about people, the horrible things we could be capable of if we allow our own culture to continue down the path we’re on. There’s a lot of the dark depth of human nature in these stories, without very much of the light of God’s glory and grace. I know they’re not Christian books so I didn’t expect to find much of that anyway, but in my opinion, the best stories still reveal the truth of God, and the image of God in the human beings He created. I’m not sure these books ever get there.
I haven’t seen the movies. Of course, I swore I wouldn’t. Now I’m not so sure, but at any rate I can’t comment on how the movies are the same or different or whatever. I’ve heard from several people who think the movies are better, that Katniss is more heroic, that some of the other characters aren’t quite as passive as they seem to be in the books. At this point, I’m not going to recommend seeing the movies or reading the books. I read them, I didn’t hate them, but I’m glad I’m done with them and I never have to read them again. That is all.