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I was very late in reading The Hunger Games series – three books and a film late – but I’m glad I finally did. Although I didn’t love the books, I did enjoy them – they’re easy to read, generally fast-paced and they showcase a dystopia that has enough similarities to our own world to be disquieting. I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, turning page after page, wanting to read just another paragraph, a page, a chapter before I went to sleep.
The best thing about the books is Collins’ ability to keep the action rolling with shocks and twists aplenty. In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the arena serves as a great tool to hike up the tension and to keep us constantly guessing as to how Katiss will survive. She faces a wide range of deadly threats including tracker jackers, muttations, giant waves and burning fog that keep the momentum of the books high and the nerves of the reader fraught. Without the arena, the pace of Mockingjay is much slower but I found this a welcome change. It meant that when Snow’s men raged war against the rebel resistance on the streets of the Capitol I wasn’t half-exhausted by previous fighting.
Though I liked the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, I thought Catching Fire and Mockingjay were better. The main reason for this was the character of Katniss. After hearing all the hype surrounding the books that lauded Katniss as a shining example of a strong and determined female character, a foil to the Bella Swans of literature, I was excited to meet her. But honestly? I felt disappointed.
Katniss is both physically and mentally strong, she is a highly skilled hunter and archer and she is able to think logically and quickly in life-threatening situations. But there isn’t much more to her than this. Strip away her skills and her personality isn’t particularly interesting or engaging. Like the image of the mockingjay she adopts, what she stands for is far more interesting than who she is as a person. I found her quite likeable (at times more than others) but in a mostly bland way. To me, she never fully left the page to burst into life.
Because of this, Collins’ decision to have Katniss be her first-person narrator (and therefore her focus) of the books diminished my enjoyment of them. Whilst in Catching Fire and Mockingjay characters such as Haymitch, Finnick and Cinna were there to stop the books focusing exclusively on Katniss, The Hunger Games’ focus was squarely on introducing and establishing her as a character. This meant it is the book I least liked.
This underdevelopment of character is a recurrent trend throughout the books. Collins’ characters never feel fully realised. They were all likeable in their own ways but I felt there was something essential, something at their very core, missing from them. This is seen especially in the case of Prim. On realising her sister’s imminent death towards the end of Mockingjay, Katniss comments:
“I must go limp, because I find myself at the base of the flagpole, unable to account for the last few seconds. Then I am pushing through the crowd, just as I did before. Trying to shout her name above the roar. I’m almost there, almost to the barricade, when I think she hears me. Because just for a moment, she catches sight of me, her lips form my name. And that’s when the rest of the parachutes go off.”
This moment should pack an almighty punch. Prim is the sole reason Katniss first entered the arena, she is the light to her darkness, the promise to her pessimism. But it doesn’t. Prim, despite her slightly larger role in Mockingjay compared to the previous books, never becomes more than Katniss’ kind little sister who is talented at healing. She never truly crosses over from being an embodiment of innocence to being her own person. And that makes her death far less emotional than it should be.
But the thing I found most frustrating about the books was the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Now, I am a secret lover of romance. I like to pretend I’m not but the truth is I’m much more likely to read a book if it has a thread of romance running throughout it than if it doesn’t. But I’m not a big fan of love triangles. They seem to be ubiquitous, especially in young-adult fiction, and always seem to centre on a character totally oblivious to the effect they have on the two others infatuated by them. But a lot of the reason I didn’t like this particular love triangle was because it didn’t really seem like a love triangle at all. Collins seems to have always planned for Katniss to choose Peeta.
Considering the plot of the trilogy, it doesn’t make sense for Katniss to pick Gale. Gale is barely present in both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it is only in Mockingjay that he becomes more than Katniss’ best friend from home, by which point the relationship between Katniss and Peeta already has its foundations. In contrast to Gale, Peeta is a major character in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, his sheer continuous presence in the books meaning that the reader becomes invested in him as we learn more of his background and principles.
There is also the fact that Collins shows Katniss and Peeta’s relationship evolve as Katniss’ own feelings towards Peeta slowly begin to change. This means we journey with Katniss through her confused feelings, and are present for all her charged moments with Peeta so that it seems like a natural conclusion when she finally decides he is the one for her. It would be pointless and, frankly, bad writing for Collins to build up their relationship so much to then discard Peeta for Gale as Katniss’ love interest.
Finally, it is Peeta (and not Gale) who Collins knowingly bonds with Katniss for life by making him her fellow tribute. It is only Peeta who can truly share with Katniss the enormous horrors and atrocities of the arena. Gale would never be able to really understand what it was like it to be there. Such a traumatic event for Katniss and Peeta to have to go through (especially twice) binds them so strongly together that it would be unfair for Katniss to be with Gale when she wouldn’t be able to share with him her full self.
It is because of these reasons that I found it frustrating and, often, annoying that Collins felt the need to have Gale be a contender for Katniss’ affections. To me, it felt unnecessary and simply a way to include a popular trope into the books.
While I’m not sure if I’d re-read the books, I did find The Hunger Games trilogy a pleasurable read that I’m glad I finally picked up.
What did you think to them?