For my first book review post, I thought I’d do a retrospective of a series of books I’m sure most readers will be familiar with by now: Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy.
I first read ‘The Hunger Games’ back in 2012, in time for the first movie adaptation, but found myself so busy with other things that I didn’t get around to reading Books 2 and 3 until two years later. It’s hard to know whether this gap had any impact on my overall appreciation of the series, or if my verdict would have been different if I’d bulk-read all three together, but as it stands, I was left feeling that, while Book 1 is a near-masterpiece, its sequels are, at best, adequate follow-ups.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a sequel to recapture the magic of the original- it rarely happens. Most second-instalment success stories (think ‘The Empire Strikes Back’) tend to be hits because they go off in different, startling directions that build on and enrich the existing world, but certainly don’t rely on it for their power. This reviewer was left with the distinct feeling that ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ simply cling to the coat-tails of the original- understandable enough, and both books are far from disasters, but it’s interesting to wonder how the series might have looked if Collins had been braver in this respect.
To ‘The Hunger Games’ first, then. As suggested already, the book is, for this reviewer, close to perfect. A prime example of just enough world-building without sacrificing story, the novel throws us into the action straight away, its pacey, first-person writing style allowing us to really get to know our protagonist Katniss within a single page. Collins drip-feeds any information we need about the characters’ environment, keeping the plot ticking along so that by the end of the first chapter, we already have our high-stakes premise in place- the person Katniss cares about most, her sister, in deadly danger.
The pace never stalls from this point on, managing to keep the reader gripped throughout a first third which, when examined objectively, is really only setup. It’s not until Part 2 that the story truly gets going, yet it hasn’t felt that way at all through any of the preceding chapters- the buildup and sense of creeping tension is so masterfully done. By the time the characters are thrown into the arena of the titular games, we feel we’ve already been following a rich, engrossing story- when the action really starts, it merely kicks our enjoyment up an extra gear.
The tense nature of the novel is beautifully sustained, never truly allowing us to relax, always keeping us on edge and worried for the characters’ fates, with any pauses in the narrative merely serving as powerful interludes in their own right, such as Rue’s tragic end, and Katniss’ subsequent grief. Dread is never far away though, and the story continues relentlessly, building to a suitably dramatic climax as the final three contestants battle it out amidst a greater attack by mutual foes.
Katniss Everdeen herself is a strong, richly-drawn character, wilful and defiant, yet laced through with vulnerability and weak points, Collins’ decision to tell the story entirely through her eyes paying off wonderfully. Peeta Mellark is a refreshing male lead: thoughtful and a romantic at heart, in spite of the brutality of the world around him, yet not above shrewdness and trickery to protect the ones he loves. One of the best aspects of the book for this reviewer is the well-sketched, understated love story between the two protagonists, Collins ensuring the reader can see clearly Peeta’s true feelings whilst her narrator, Katniss, fails, almost literally, to see the wood for the trees. Of the secondary characters, Capitol spokeswoman Effie Trinket stands out the brightest, proving a welcome source of light comedy amidst the tension and horror, while the decision to keep President Snow a malevolent background figure for the time being is well-judged.
The book, for me, ends on just the right note, a happy ending in the traditional sense all but impossible within the tone of this world, leaving us just hopeful enough that Katniss and Peeta can perhaps find genuine love in the fullness of time, but ultimately concluding things on an appropriately sombre beat.
It’s a shame, then, that ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ don’t quite manage to maintain the suspense of THG. Certainly, CF takes things off in an interesting direction that doesn’t entirely rely on Book 1 for its cues, but ultimately, Katniss and Peeta being forced back into the arena, however aesthetically different this time around, feels inevitably like a retread. The dilemma inherent in fighting for survival against previous winners, people who have all come through the same struggles as Katniss in Book 1, is rich territory to explore, but it would have been interesting to see if Collins could have achieved this without the use of another arena tournament. The Plutarch and District 13 twists are genuinely good ones, but, for this reviewer, don’t altogether manage to offset the sense of repetition.
To be fair to CF’s arena setting, though, some of the new ideas and sequences within, such as the clock twist, the poisonous fog, and the jabberjay psychological attack, are fantastic, and again, if they had been part of some other scenario than a second contest, would have been all the more gripping.
In terms of characterisation, on the other hand, Book 2 fares far better. Right from the start, President Snow is brought into the action in a much greater way, and becomes a memorable, chilling villain in the process. The tensions, misunderstandings and constant dangers in Katniss and Peeta’s relationship are well-played, ensuring we all but scream at the page when either of them find themselves in mortal danger (in particular, Peeta’s electrocution by the force field), while one of the best aspects of CF sees love rival Gale finally become a proper character in his own right, after being absent for most of Book 1. Of the new players, Finnick and Johanna prove themselves to be enjoyable additions, Johanna’s caustic barbs, in a sense a more extreme form of Katniss’ own jadedness, a particularly refreshing element to be thrown into the mix. It’s a shame they’re only really given prominent roles in the second half of the novel, though.
‘Mockingjay’ is notoriously the instalment with which most people have issues, although my own problems with it are probably different to most. The most common complaint is that the story of Book 3 drags, with too many instances of Katniss falling ill or missing out on the main action. I never really found myself buying into that. The final third of the novel more than makes up for any sense of our heroine being forced to sit on the sidelines, and it’s interesting to get a bit more politics and intrigue this time around, after the straightforward action of the first two books. President Coin (nicely subtle name) proves a compelling, insidious new player, and Gale gets to truly shine as a character at last, driving the plot ahead more than Katniss, in fact, for much of the book. Peeta’s brainwashing is a wrenching twist for his and Katniss’ relationship, and contributes nicely to our yearning for President Snow to finally get his comeuppance.
This reviewer’s major complaint with Book 3, however, is the sense of a lack of proper resolution for the main characters. Although Gale comes into his own for much of the novel, his eventual fate feels underwhelming (though I’m glad Collins avoided the easy route of killing one side of the love triangle off), while Katniss and Peeta’s ‘happy’ ending feels strangely off. On the one hand, I can see the author trying to study the idea that war leaves people something of a shadow of their former selves, making the sort of happiness they might once have hoped for virtually impossible, but it still feels like a downbeat end to their story. On paper, all the right beats, words and declarations are there, but it all seems to lack an emotional heart by this point. It’s hard to know whether this was Collins’ intention. If it was, she succeeded- if not, it’s slightly frustrating execution. Prim’s fate, meanwhile, is the moment that left me with the most mixed feelings, and I’m still not sure how I feel about this outcome for the character whose earlier jeopardy kicked off the entire story. And elsewhere, on a more minor note, I feel that Effie’s almost complete absence from Book 3 is a misstep (something, interestingly, made very different by the movie adaptation).
‘Mockingjay’, however, is still full of great elements that more than salvage the story. The attack in the sewers is an incredible sequence, one of the scenes in the whole trilogy that translated best to film, while Katniss’ final decision during the public execution is a genuinely startling twist for anyone not aware of what’s coming. And the sense of slow claustrophobia and confinement within District 13 for the first part of the book is an interesting complement to the relentless tension and dread of Book 1.
‘The Hunger Games’ remains a brilliant trilogy of novels, the magnificence of Book 1 more than enough to prop up any shortcomings that the following two have, with the series as a whole standing as an intellectual, thought-provoking and richly-crafted alternative to the Twilights of Young Adult bookshelves. It still contains all the tropes of the YA genre, yet woven within a stronger, powerful message permeating the whole trilogy, one with a deep resonance for all readers, not just teenagers. This reviewer has no doubt that Book 1, at least, will come to be regarded as a classic.
The Hunger Games *****
Catching Fire ***
A thrilling, tension-seeped trilogy of novels with a strong message, driven primarily by the sheer brilliance of the first.