Friday, November 19, 2010

"When Lenity and Cruelty Play for a Kingdom": The Hunger Games Trilogy

At first, I thought this was a series on teen anorexia. Turns out, it's not. I've found it difficult to tell people the premise of the book without making it sound like something no one would want to read. Here are some points about the premise:
  • It's set in the future, but it's not overly-futuristic. It's not trying to wow us with how cool technology is.
  • It is a dystopian novel, but it is the least preachy dystopian novel I have ever read. I really think it has zero political agenda.
  • A large portion of the books details a fight-to-the-death gladiatorial competition between children.
  • Naturally, then, these are violent books, but not overly so.
  • This is a romance, and a darn good one at that.
These books are a breeze to read. I typically read slowly and like to take long breaks and think about things as I read. I'm not kidding when I say I think it took me a month or two to read Life of Pi. I read Mockingjay in about three sittings over the course of 24 hours. After about the midway point in each book, the writing becomes all action. Not a paragraph goes by without some monumental moment erupting in the reader's mind. The momentum doesn't allow you to stop and think.
     Something else I typically do when I'm reading is guess ahead about plot points. That was so fun to do with this series because my expectations were continually dashed, but not in a bad way. Anyone picking up this book would assume that the main character would be a participant in the Hunger Games, but it doesn't happen the way we would expect. From the very beginning, Collins plays with our assumptions and makes every turn a thrill.
     She spent most of her career writing screenplays for children's TV shows, and you can tell. The books obsess over the TV coverage of the Games and later events. But there is also a cinematic quality to her writing. I think making a movie of these books would be superfluous. I've already seen it, and it's great. Why do a remake?
     I started this review off with a quote from Henry V, "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." I felt that that became the main theme of the books, much more than centralized vs. decentralized government, justice, punishment, etc. The books are about morals and forgiveness. I like that.
     On the back of Mockingjay, there's a quote from Stephenie Meyer. Unfortunately for Ms. Meyer, this led me to compare the two authors. Whenever I criticize Meyer (which is too often), I always bring up William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He says what the problem is with the modern author:
     "He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
     That's got Stephenie Meyer's name written all over it. But now consider what he says about great writing:
     "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
     "He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
     That, dear friend, is The Hunger Games
So that's my general critique. If you haven't read the books, here's where you should pull out. Beyond this point, spoilers abound.
     Roger Ebert had this to say about Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice:
     "I felt an almost unreasonable happiness [at the end of the film]. Why was that? I am impervious to romance in most films, seeing it as a manifestation of box office requirements. Here it is different, because Darcy and Elizabeth are good and decent people who would rather do the right thing than convenience themselves. Anyone who will sacrifice their own happiness for higher considerations deserves to be happy. When they realize that about each other their hearts leap, and, reader, so did mine."
     The same goes for Katniss and Peeta. I struggled with the love triangle setup for the longest because I thought that Peeta was great, but Katniss was so undeserving. So I thought it was an absolute masterstroke when Peeta is essentially reset by the "hijacking," and Katniss has to earn his love all over again—she can't just rely on his altruism and an old crush. But in the end, they are both so good and wise and worthy. And how could she not choose Peeta, who was, without a doubt and at all points, the "gentler gamester?"


  1. So I wrote a review of this series, too, but it's mostly a bunch of garbledy gook, "I liked this. It was good." In my defense, it was like a week after I had given birth and I hadn't gotten much sleep. Anyway, I super enjoyed reading your review because you put into words the exact way I felt about it. I'm glad you liked it - the whole story, including the romance.

    I didn't know she wrote screenplays. I guess that makes lots of sense! You should read her first series, "Gregor the Overlander." It's fun and it makes me less enraged when I find cockroaches in my house, which is about every week. And that's just Houston for you.

    Okay so everybody in my book group thought that she should be with Gale. I thought Gale was a heartless pile of stone from the moment he asked her why she even cared about her prep team. But I was "outvoted" so to speak. I'm guessing it's maybe because some of them married their high school sweethearts? How could they even think about rooting for Gale!??

    Danny thought she was always putting herself down, when the truth is that she actually made most of her choices for the right reasons. I really liked that view of it because I can relate. My book club pals pretty much unanimously thought she was selfish, though. Most of them were like, "this was a waste of time" when they got to the end. What!?!?!?

    Lots of them said they thought the books were not "well written." Pff. Whatever. I think they'd say the same about Harry Potter.

    And then when I insisted she had to be with Peeta, they said I was probably a Team Jacob person, to which I told them how I hadn't read those books, I had had to put the first Twilight book down because I had started it while I was engaged, and it was too much like my life at the time. I was met with blank stares. And then I said, "You know...really wanting something you can't have." And they were all like, "We don't even remember that, it was so long ago!" And then I felt really young.

    But if Edward from the book is like Edward from the first movie, which I did see, I think I'd be Team Jacob.

    There's only one super unrealistic thing about Peeta, that almost makes him a mary sue: wouldn't he have gone absolutely insane all those nights on the train??? Danny thought that part was too obviously written by a girl.

    I agree with you, having Peeta lose his mind was genius of Collins. That part pretty much broke my heart more than almost anything, even the ending, which was also genius.

  2. Oh, let's not kid ourselves. Katniss is a thoroughly good person from the beginning, but Peeta is inhumanly and unrealistically (as Danny pointed out) awesome. This gets manifested as the first Hunger Games are ending and Katniss assumes that as soon as the announcement's made that there can be only one victor he's already poised to kill her. The very thought is so vulgar of her.

    And when it comes to Gail, he represents all that would have continued Capitol cruelty under the new regime. You can't play from President Snow's rule book and expect to win, especially because by the end of the third book, it wasn't about overthrowing a government but an ideology.

    Also, I'm totally team Edward—Edward Elric.

  3. You should come try to say that to the Gail die hards in my book club. They would probably be super offended. But I totally agree. Gail would have voted "yes" to have the last Hunger Games, with the last living relatives of Snow etc.

    So, I think you probably would get along great with my brother and brother in law. You should hang out with them sometime.